November 2002 By Gary Giddins
Duke Ellington called his 1956 television revue “A Drum Is a Woman”—a title that gives uneasy pause to the dyslexic who fear he is saying the reverse. In fact, he was attempting to subvert the most ubiquitous of clichés, where “drum” is the object and “beat” the verb. In Ellington’s trope, a drum is a living receptacle of magic and romance, to be adored, respected, nurtured, cajoled, goaded, feared—anything but beaten. If jazz takes one cue from Africa it is the idea that drums possess an expressive, almost vocal individuality.
Only in the West do drums evoke a tribal dread of the primitive. They are invariably ominous and aboriginal in Hollywood’s mythology: When you hear them in the veldt, expect to be eaten; in the Old West, scalped. In real life, the drums are less likely to portend death than Eros, which is far more frightening to the Puritans. Drums equal rhythm, and when rhythm leaves the marching field and takes on the swaying momentum of dance, it becomes a threat to social order. In 19th-century Europe, the triple-meter repetitions of popular waltzes were considered salacious. By the late 1920s, swing rhythms—or rather a stilted version of them—were employed in early sound movies (the kind in which Joan Crawford embodies Jazz Age excess) to suggest a rhythmic dishevelment bordering on insanity.
Less amusing was the contempt expressed by the imperious British Wagnerian, Ernest Newman, who said, “I am always willing to learn, so one of these days when I have a minute and a half to spare I am going to take one of these great jazz composers and get him to teach me all he knows about rhythm.” Too bad he didn’t pick up the phone to call Jo Jones.
The magnificent Count Basie drummer, who turned the hi-hat into a red alert for dancers round the world, was not a composer in any way Newman understood. But we know better: Jones configured the notes, sounds and techniques of his instrument to suggest the obverse of primitivism. In his music, all is dignity and grace, a controlled euphoria and a cosmopolitan elegance that nonetheless—here comes the jazz paradox—stimulates a divine fever. Or as Jo used to say, he could “swing you into bad health.”
Jo never used words like “irony” or “modernism,” but he and his generation of drummers—and here we might pause to marvel at the incredible virtuosity they achieved on the trap set, which did not exist when they were born—perfected a music that idealized those ideas. Modernism involved an insurgent reinterpretation of 19th-century conventions, and its key weapon was an aesthetic detachment. Nowhere is that more evident than in swing rhythms, which distanced music from the sentimentality of the past while providing a new basis for empathy. Intricate rhythms existed long before jazz—in other cultures and in our own (cf., Beethoven’s late quartets). But the jazz drummer, with his multiple skins and cymbals operated by hands and feet, created the audio and visual foundation for a new way to platform music.
The visual component is easily overlooked in the age of recorded perfection, but the joy of hearing music has always been wedded to the spectacle of watching musicians in the process of mastering their instruments. Gene Krupa became the first matinee idol drummer as much for the way he looked (the flying pompadour, the gum-chewing, the flailing arms and facial histrionics) as for the way he played. Jo Jones was another musician who mesmerized with his physicality. In 1976, he had a residency at the West End Cafe; every set was a stream-of-consciousness montage of music, humor, dancing, reminiscing, acerbic asides. Once during “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” saxophonist George Kelly quoted an Ellington phrase, at which point Jo stopped the music to note that Ellington never stayed at the Woodside (“Duke was born rich!”); he then played an Ellington medley, including a drum solo partly on the shingles behind the bandstand. Closing the set, towel around his neck, he introduced the musicians in charades. Present that evening was Albert Murray, who remarked, “They should put his face on coins.”
Around then, Jo recorded an invaluable two-volume lecture-demonstration called The Drums by Jo Jones, for the French label Jazz Odyssey; it has never been released in the United States, an oversight that needs to be corrected. Working from an outline by Madeleine Gautier and Margaret Kelk, Jones is serious, respectful, funny and enlightening as he traces jazz drumming from Baby Dodds to himself, modestly suggesting that his only contribution was the sock cymbal rhythm that galvanized Basie’s band—for example, “Taxi War Dance” or the opening unison piano-drums boogie woogie figure on “One O’Clock Jump.”
Max Roach offered a more accurate assessment when he said, “Of every three beats a drummer plays, two came from Jo Jones.”
Originally published in November 2002