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Rifftide: The Life and Opinions of Papa Jo Jones

Review of autobiography of legendary drummer, with assist by Allbert Murray, Paul Devlin and Phil Schaap

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Arguably Papa Jo Jones is the most influential of all jazz drummers; he set the stylistic and virtuosic template for all drummers after him. The drum set was developed in 1909 with the invention of the bass drum pedal but effectively Jo Jones was the first to fully understand how to play that mechanism as well as the hi-hat. He was the first real artist on the modern drum set. His personality was larger than life and a performer to the upmost level. Is there more to the man than the many remaining recordings of Jo Jones?

Rifftide: The Life and Opinions of Papa Jo Jones (U. of Minnesota Press) centers around the actual conversations and tapes the great writer and novelist Albert Murray recorded with Papa Jo Jones from 1977 to just before Jones’ passing in 1985. Writer Paul Devlin transcribed the tapes and edited them and provides a well written introduction on Jo Jones. Devlin has apprenticed with Murray and did painstaking work to capture Jones “voice” as it is meant to be read. Devlin also includes embedded end notes that help explain many things Jones said throughout the interviews. The jazz critic and writer Phil Schaap gives a lengthy and valuable afterword. Schaap had served as friend and close associate to Jones for 30 years. These writers are bookends on either side of the Jo Jones narrative to help place the reader in the right context.

Albert Murray makes an apt analogy to James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake when describing the taped conversations of Papa Jo Jones. The Joycian stream of consciousness of Jo Jones is not off-putting but Murray’s alternate title of “Finnegans Wake in Jive” seems more appropriate. Jones always includes a bit of Uncle Remus story telling into the mix. He bobs and weaves and extemporaneously talks about anyone from Count Basie to Jackie Robinson to music producer John Hammond. His spontaneity and shoot-from-the-hip accounts cover problems with racism but also go over the etiquette of pimping during the heyday of prohibition era 1930’s Kansas City. Jones is a strong character but in many cases elusive; some subjects are forcefully presented but many times are not fully covered (not incoherently though). At the end of certain innings he has left a few guys on base, to use a baseball metaphor.

Many of his encounters with people, places, and things are concluded with a brandishing of a pistol (literal or metaphoric); he is a self-described “nut.” Tales of hopping depression era trains with hobos are among some of the more entertaining anecdotes. The wayward travelers help load Jones’ drums while the train cars are moving. There is insightful commentary Jones gives on important subjects to include the best description of Duke Ellington, his music, and Ellington’s impact I have read in years (“…because the man wrote for El Mundo, the whole world. He wrote life…”). This is an invaluable painting of historic figures in the American 20th century which the Jones frame wraps itself around.

It is also clear Jones is beloved but not always liked by his peers. As Phil Schaap puts it, “…I believe Jo Jones’ massive self-righteousness is the root cause of rubbing so many the wrong way.” Schaap includes his own eyewitness account of Basie tenor man Buddy Tate cutting off his interaction with the drummer quite abruptly, “…because I can’t stand him anymore.”

Devlin’s assertion this is an “autobiography” might be a small stretch knowing the interviews recorded with Albert Murray were done so loosely as per Jones (among other mitigating circumstances Devlin explains). Murray was well aware you play by the rules of Jo Jones when recording his “monologues.” One might say this is “autobiographical,” leaving the reader to better understand the book through Devlin’s title “Life and Opinions of…”

It is a very entertaining, thought provoking, and insightful read (though fragmented) in better understanding such a burning talent and innovator. This is Papa Jo Jones, an American original through his riffing and unvarnished commentary on life and music.

Originally Published