November 2001 By Nat Hentoff
The Man Who Played Like the Wind
Eddie Locke, a drummer who, on and off the stand, embodies the resilience of the jazz life, was an apprentice of Jo Jones. He carried Jones’ drums to record dates, set them up and watched Jo’s every move.
Locke spoke of Jo, and his own life in jazz, for the Hamilton College Jazz Archive, directed by Monk Rowe. The Archive’s hundreds of oral histories range from Doc Cheatham to Bill Charlap.
“He was the most creative drummer I ever saw,” Locke said of Jo. “He could create things I never saw anybody else do. And I’d never seen anybody play brushes the way he could…. The Basie rhythm section was just like the wind. It was so smooth.”
One night, at Storyville in Boston, I saw Jo leave the stand and his drums, and with his hands as his only instrument, he moved around the room, playing with his fingers or the palms of his hands or his knuckles, conjuring up melodies, rhythms, cross-rhythms, from tables, chairs, walls, from the air itself.
As Eddie Locke said, Jo was a magician; everybody in the room, me included, was mesmerized as Jo, grinning fiercely, kept expanding and deepening jazz time, drawing us into his vortex for almost an hour.
Off the stand, Jo was just as unremittingly intense. To him jazz was religion. It was, he said, a God-given privilege to be able to play what you feel and to reach people because music, being the medium it is, can affect you all your life—the musician and the listener.
Jo was always on the lookout for beginners who, he felt, had the calling and needed his encouragement, instruction and, when necessary, his critique not only of their playing but of how they were living their lives. “There must be no debauchery attached to this music,” he would say. It drained out the spirit of the music.
He occasionally included nonmusicians among his charges—his “kiddies,” he called them. When I was 19, with a jazz program on Boston radio and spending most of my off hours at the Savoy Café, Jo Jones sat me down at a back table, and until closing told me where the music had come from, its soul force, and how to listen totally to what was inside the musicians, because that’s what the music was all about. And, of course, I must avoid debauchery.
At Jo Jones’ funeral on Sept. 9, 1985, the front rows of St. Peter’s Church in New York City were full of drummers. Max Roach stood up and told of how Jo would suddenly show up in the audience at a club where Max was playing—in Kansas City or Chicago—to check up on this “kiddie.”
As I wrote in my report on that funeral in Listen to the Stories, Max recalled: “I played everything I could think of during that set. I hit everything I could hit. When the set was over, perspiring, I sat next to Jo and waited. He knew how much I wanted to know what he thought. Being Jo, he had to tell me what he had thought—straight. Finally, Jo said, ‘All I could hear was your watch.’” There was a wave of laughter from the rows of jazz drummers.
I was thinking of Jo—his enveloping generosity of spirit, his devotion to the music that was his very life and his focus on the individual—during the discussion at the SFJAZZ Spring Season: “Is jazz black music?” (Part of that exchange was transcribed in the Sept. 2001 issue of JazzTimes.) When I spoke, I made the obvious point that the roots of the music are black. But over time, though the primary originators—as contrasted with the originals, of whom there continue to be many—have been black, all the creators have become part of what Alan Lomax called “the rainbow of American music.”
Jo Jones knew that back then. He didn’t see the skin colors of his “kiddies.” He listened to who they were, who they had been and where they were going.
Chip Stern was responsible for the most revealing interview Jo Jones ever gave. Jo told him: “I was born no child. I was born a man. Not a baby. Not a boy. A man in capital letters. No questions, no semicolons, no parentheses, no commas. Period. A man!”
A man whose music was universal.
Originally published in November 2001