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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)

Paying Respect
The latest album in the WJ3 catalog initially came out of the passing of Jones’ longtime friend and colleague Hargrove in November 2018. Jones wanted the album not to be a tribute per se, but rather music inspired by the trumpeter and performed by his former bandmates, including pianist Larry Willis. The group that Jones assembled for the task played a concert at Caramoor in Katonah, N.Y., during the summer of 2019, with Giveton Gelin in the trumpet chair. “I thought that we could do a record with that group,” Jones says. “But that was the last time I saw Larry.” The 76-year-old veteran pianist died in September 2019. Four months later Jimmy Heath, with whom both Jones and Hargrove sideman Justin Robinson had played, also passed. Sadly, it was one of Willis’ tunes that became both the title and theme of the album.

“All these fallen heroes,” Jones says with dismay. “I already had wanted to record Larry’s tune ‘Fallen Hero’ because these are my personal fallen heroes.” Making matters worse, saxophonist Jeff Clayton died in December 2020. Jeff and his brother John had also been mentors to a young Jones, hiring him for gigs with the Clayton Brothers band around Southern California. “Some of my first professional gigs were with the Clayton Brothers at the Vine Street Bar & Grill,” Jones explains. “That hit me close to home.”

Recorded both before and during the pandemic, Fallen Heroes features many Hargrove alumni, including Robinson and Sherman Irby on saxophones, Gerald Cannon on bass, George Cables and Isaiah Thompson on piano, and Steve Davis on trombone, with Jeremy Pelt handling trumpet duties. A humble and consummate bandmate not prone to bombastic solo turns, Jones nonetheless kicks off the album with a drum solo, named “Something for Ndugu” and dedicated to Ndugu Chancler, the influential jazz, funk, and pop drummer who died in 2018. “I was doing a West Coast gig at the Jazz Bakery,” Jones remembers. “Ndugu had just passed. I had nothing planned. I was just going to play something dedicated to Ndugu before the other musicians came out. I just started doing a riff on this figure he played on the beginning of Michael Jackson’s record ‘Baby Be Mine.’ When I was 15 and heard it, I thought, ‘That’s a jazz lick.’ So that’s the intro. I knew Ndugu when I was just a kid [see sidebar]. When we were making the record, I thought it would be nice to turn it into a solo piece, like what Max Roach did on his Drums Unlimited album. It was organic how it came out. Normally I wouldn’t do a solo piece on my own record.”

“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.”

The album also features Hargrove’s haunting tune “Trust,” for which the trumpeter wrote both the music and the words. Renee Neufville, the talented and versatile singer who had performed with Hargrove’s RH Factor, did the vocal honors, singing the melody straight and beautifully, with no flourishes. Jones says that touring with Hargrove gave him an appreciation for his friend’s creative process as a composer: “Roy would sit at the piano with an idea during the soundcheck and then that idea becomes a tune. We’d play it that night and then we’d keep playing it until it’s all part of the song.”

All of Fallen Heroes was recorded at the storied Van Gelder Studios in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., where Jones had recorded albums with both Cedar Walton and Houston Person when Rudy Van Gelder was still alive. “The history in that room is there. You look over at the wall and think, ‘That’s where Trane sat.’ You can feel it.” Room vibe aside, Jones also recognizes the gifts of recording engineer Maureen Sickler, who took over for Van Gelder after his death and had worked with him for years prior to his passing. “Maureen really studied under Rudy,” Jones explains. “When I was recording there with Cedar, Rudy pretty much stayed at the board in the control room and it was Maureen who was setting the mics. They were both so fast. I like the sound she gets on everything, but particularly with the rhythm section. I love recording there.”

Performing and recording aren’t Jones’ only activities. For the last 10 years, he’s been teaching in the jazz department run by Victor Goines at Northwestern University near Chicago. But not many music professors work with a who’s-who of modern jazz; fewer still also run successful record labels. “It’s not for everybody,” Jones acknowledges of his role at WJ3. “In a general sense, my father taught me that it’s always important to own your own music or your own house or to be your own boss.” Albeit a boss with a conscience and appreciation for the heroes in whose footsteps he follows so carefully.