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Willie Jones III: From the World Stage to the World’s Stages

The drummer and record label head reflects on the lessons he’s learned over three decades

Willie Jones III
Willie Jones III (photo: Gulnara Khamatova)

For drummer Willie Jones III, Fallen Heroes is more than just the name of his most recent album. The title also relates deeply to his life as a jazz musician. After all, the impact of many a lost mentor echoes through his now nearly 30-year career as an in-demand sideman, dynamic bandleader, and determined record label owner. Jones’ current recording, released on his own WJ3 label, specifically pays tribute to the recently passed Roy Hargrove, Larry Willis, Jimmy Heath, Ndugu Chancler, and Jeff Clayton, but the long list of elders who’ve lifted Jones up also includes Los Angeles-based musicians such as Billy Higgins, Henry Franklin, George Bohannon, Larance Marable … and a pianist named Willie Jones, Jr.

Indeed, growing up in various neighborhoods in Los Angeles, Jones III couldn’t help but follow in the footsteps of his pianist father, a journeyman musician who had moved to the area from Jacksonville and worked as music director for the Platters and other groups, as well as a vocal coach to Hollywood actors. There was plenty of jazz in the Jones household, thanks to an extensive record collection packed with Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, and many more giants of classic jazz. More importantly, Jones’ father would take him to see shows, or bring him along to his own gigs leading a piano trio at small clubs around town. “Those were my beginnings,” the younger Jones recalls. “So I knew that’s what I was going to do from when I was six or seven. And it never changed.”

As Willie III got older, his father even put him on the bandstand. “When I was 17 or 18, I couldn’t really play but he’d let me sit in with him,” he explains. “He was the one who introduced me to the music.”

Leimert Park Central
Jones was also fortunate to fall in with the vibrant scene around the World Stage, a performing-arts center in the Crenshaw neighborhood of Los Angeles founded in the ’80s by Billy Higgins, who soon became an important influence on the young drummer. “I got hip to it in the ’90s,” Jones says. “That’s where I met [bassist] Marcus Shelby, and we formed [the ’90s ensemble] Black Note out of the World Stage. It started out with everybody going to Billy’s place on Thursday night to jam. But even on the other nights we’d go there to hang out. Marcus even got a key to it. Billy became more like a mentor to me.”

This wasn’t an uncommon occurrence. For the next three decades, multiple generations of young jazz musicians were drawn to the action near Leimert Park—from Billy Childs to Kamasi Washington. But it was the advice Higgins offered Jones that would resonate, then and now: “He was the first person to put the bug in my ear about owning my own music. He’d talk about Strata-East in New York. And Black Jazz in Los Angeles. ‘You can do it yourself,’ he’d say.”

That notion was put on hold because, shortly after Black Note’s debut album was released on Higgins’ World Stage label in 1991, Columbia came along with an offer to sign the fledgling group featuring Jones, Shelby, trumpeter Richard Grant, and saxophonist James Mahone. At the same time, Jones was a student at the renowned CalArts jazz program, studying with Tootie Heath, and he had also entered the prestigious Monk Competition, which in 1992 featured drums. There were clearly irons in the fire.

“Even though I didn’t get out of the [Monk] semifinals, that experience of being there in New York put the stamp on it,” Jones recalls. “I went to gigs, saw Betty Carter, and met all the other contestants. Even though we had just signed with Columbia, I knew I would end up here [NYC].” It would take five years to make that move, though, a period during which Black Note released one album on Columbia and another on Impulse! Both attracted some critical acclaim but not much in the way of sales; the group disbanded in 1996. In the meantime, Jones was picking up work as a sideman, including his first serious road gig with Arturo Sandoval—an association that lasted several years.

Once again, it was advice from Higgins that guided Jones to his future. “Billy always said to me, ‘You should go to New York.’ I had never thought about it. At that point, when I was 19 or 20, if I could make a living doing gigs around L.A., that was the ceiling for me. That’s what I wanted to do. But Billy told me, ‘No, this [L.A.] is not it.’” When he got booked to play with Sandoval at the Blue Note in New York, Jones asked for a one-way ticket, and the L.A. native made his move east in a relatively smooth transition.

“I often wondered what it would be like to play with Clifford Brown or Lee Morgan. For me, Roy Hargrove was the closest thing to that.”

Joining Roy
Later leaving Sandoval to work in Horace Silver’s band, Jones still had his eyes on a particular prize: backing up one of the music’s greatest innovators. “Three months before I moved to New York, I played in L.A. with Roy Hargrove for a week at Catalina’s. That was my favorite band, and whenever they came to L.A., me and [multi-instrumentalist/megastar producer-to-be] Greg Kurstin would go to see them.” After Karriem Riggins left Hargrove’s band to go with Ray Brown, the drum chair went to Jones, and he would go on to play with the gifted trumpeter for the next eight years.

Already planning to be a future bandleader himself, Jones picked up plenty of lessons during his time with Hargrove. “One thing I learned and observed even before I joined his band, when I used to see his group on stage, was that energy coming from every instrument,” he says. “I often wondered what it would be like to play with Clifford Brown or Lee Morgan. For me, Roy Hargrove was the closest thing to that.”

Jones experienced firsthand how Hargrove would “bring it” every night. “He always played like it was the last time he did a gig. You never know who’s listening, whether you’re playing a 2 a.m. set at Smalls or a Friday night at the Vanguard. 110%, bringing it every night. That’s what he brought to the bandstand every time. It was almost too much. We’d be out for six weeks in Europe or wherever and we’d come back and he’s at Smalls that night at a jam session. That’s how he lived. That’s the most important thing I got from him—what to bring to the bandstand musically and energy-wise.”

During the first decade of the 21st century, Jones would also work with Cedar Walton, Hank Jones, Kurt Elling, Ernestine Anderson, and Bobby Hutcherson, among others. He had become a first-call sideman, but he hadn’t given up the idea of not only leading his own groups but also recording albums as a leader—on his own label, no less. “I wasn’t sure I was ready to record an album, but when are you ready? I felt like, well, everyone else is making records. I thought I could make a record just as good, because I have something creative to say. At first, I thought I’ll just make one and if it sells two copies, well …” That first album on his WJ3 label was Straight Swingin’, an apt description of Jones’ hard-bop style.  

“But I didn’t have any gigs,” Jones notes. “I had distribution because Billy hooked me up with his distributor, City Hall Records. Eventually I was making records every other year, but I had to get some gigs to make this work because otherwise it’s just an expensive habit or hobby.” That helped push him both to lead his own bands live and to record other artists for his label, including Eric Reed, Cyrus Chestnut, and Justin Robinson. “When I started recording other people, that’s when I realized that I was functioning like a real independent label,” he says. “But I like the process of making records. Even sitting at the soundboard and listening to the playback.”