Rifftide: The Life and Opinions of Papa Jo Jones

Jul 10, 2012

“Rifftide: The Life and Opinions of Papa Jo Jones”

As Told to Albert Murray

Editor: Paul Devlin

Afterword: Phil Schaap

Publisher: University of Minnesota Press

Pages: 172

Price: $18.95 (Paper)

The Alabama writer Albert Murray may be best known for his novels, a tetralogy called the Scooter novels, the most famous of which is “Train Whistle Guitar.” Murray has also written a memoir, “South to a Very Old Place,” and a number of volumes of nonfiction, essay collections mostly, beginning with “The Omni-Americans” and then others such as “Stomping the Blues” and “The Blue Devils of Nada.” He has been honored for both genres in Alabama, having won the Harper Lee Award for literature and the Clarence Cason Award for distinguished nonfiction.

Whether writing fiction or nonfiction, Murray’s underlying subject is always music. He is a lifetime student and an acknowledged expert. As he puts it: “The blues is my metaphor.” In fact, Murray’s most successful book may be “Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie as Told to Albert Murray.”

While researching the Basie book, Murray conducted hundreds of interviews, many with Basie’s long-time drummer, Jo Jones, a fellow Alabamian. Jones and Murray had decided that there was to be a book about Jones next, but this never quite happened. Jones passed away and Murray turned over the tapes to Paul Devlin, a New York writer, who has accomplished the formidable task of transcribing, editing and arranging Jo Jones’s long, eccentric, solipsistic, practically stream-of-consciousness monologues on his life, personal philosophy and musical career.

I have no musical expertise and have no opinions on which jazz musicians are better than others, but music writer Phil Schaap says he agrees with the legendary talent scout and record producer John Hammond and many others that Jo Jones was “the greatest jazz drummer who ever lived.”

Born in Chicago in 1911, Jones had much of his childhood in Alabama, attending high school and then, briefly, Alabama A& M Institute in Huntsville, but he was playing the drums by age 12.

During the Depression Jones would sometimes ride the rails from place to place with his drum kit, looking for work. When he hit a town he would hide the drums in the bushes by the tracks and walk into town seeking a gig.

He played anywhere he could and was with Basie in 1934 and then from 1936 to 1944. Jones served in the U.S. Army during World War II and rejoined Basie in 1946.The Basie band, Jones insists, was the best ever: every man a soloist.

Jones was some kind of genius, and not just on the drums. Watching a bricklayer at work, he picked up a trowel and did it perfectly. He was a master at checkers.

Jones, it seemed, knew everybody—entertainers, athletes and writers—and read prodigiously. He was a kind of intellectual autodidact and like many self-taught people had formed some odd opinions. One of these was that the novels of Sinclair Lewis were written by his wife, Dorothy Parker. Not so.

Jones was also an obsessive collector. For a while it was filling two-ounce bottles with samples of water from wherever he happened to be. He also collected matchbooks and menus.

At the age of 66, Jones said, “I often wondered why I was such a strange fella.”

As one might expect, he was a flamboyant character and partied hard. His only firm rule seems to have been “never go to bed with the boss’s daughter.” This was a useful metaphor.

He once punched out a policeman and did a little time in a mental institution.

Jones was famously generous with his talent and time, teaching and mentoring countless younger musicians along the way.

He was not, however, easy to get along with. Schaap tells stories of fellow band members who were sick to death of his arrogance. The trumpet player “Doc” Cheatham, it appears, actually bought a car so he would not have to ride with Jones.

Reading Devlin’s book, one can hear Jones’s voice and be sure they didn’t make two of those.