Papa Jo

Papa Jo: the drummer and tap dancer

Jonathan David Samuel Jones, known to the world as Papa Jo Jones, was an American jazz drummer whose impact on the world of jazz percussion is still felt today. Born in Chicago, Illinois, Jones moved to Alabama in his youth, where he immersed himself in music. His early years were marked by versatility as he learned to play several instruments including the saxophone, piano, and drums. These formative experiences set the stage for his future as a pioneering drummer.

Papa Jo’s Beginning: Carnival Shows and Early Career

Jones began his professional career performing as both a drummer and a tap-dancer at carnival shows, showcasing his rhythmic talent and showmanship. In the late 1920s, he joined Walter Page’s band, the Blue Devils, in Oklahoma City. This period was crucial for Jones, as it exposed him to the burgeoning jazz scene and allowed him to refine his drumming style.

The Count Basie Orchestra Years

In 1934, Jones joined the Count Basie Orchestra, where he would make his most significant contributions. Alongside Basie, guitarist Freddie Green, and bassist Walter Page, Jones formed the “All-American Rhythm Section.” This ensemble was celebrated for its seamless integration and groundbreaking rhythmic foundation. Jones’s innovative drumming techniques, such as the use of brushes on drums and shifting timekeeping from the bass drum to the hi-hat cymbal, revolutionized jazz percussion.

A Break for Military Service

Jones’s tenure with the Basie Orchestra was briefly interrupted when he served in the military during World War II. Despite this hiatus, he returned to the band and continued to play a pivotal role until 1948. His influence during this period helped shape the sound and direction of the orchestra.

Influence and Legacy

Jones was a trailblazer in jazz drumming. He was one of the first drummers to use brushes on drums, creating a softer, more nuanced sound. He also pioneered the technique of playing timekeeping rhythms on a cymbal, known today as the ride cymbal. His innovative approach influenced generations of drummers, including legends like Buddy Rich, Kenny Clarke, Roy Haynes, Max Roach, and Louie Bellson.

Jazz at the Philharmonic and Film Appearances

Jones’s contributions extended beyond the Basie Orchestra. He participated in the Jazz at the Philharmonic concert series and starred in several films, most notably the musical short “Jammin’ the Blues” (1944). His performances were not only a testament to his skill but also to his ability to captivate audiences through multiple mediums.

Later Years and Recognition

In his later years, Jones performed regularly at the West End jazz club in New York City, attracting other prominent drummers to his shows. His irascible temperament was well-known, and one famous incident involved a young Charlie Parker during a jam session in 1936. Jones’s autobiography, “Rifftide: The Life and Opinions of Papa Jo Jones,” provides an in-depth look into his life and was published posthumously in 2011.

Awards and Honors

Jones’s contributions to swing were widely recognized. In 1979, he was inducted into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, and in 1985, he received an American Jazz Masters fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. These honors underscored his influence and lasting impact on the world of jazz.

The Legacy of Papa Jo Jones

Papa Jo Jones changed the landscape of jazz drumming. His innovative use of the hi-hat and ride cymbal set new standards for drummers and helped define modern jazz percussion. His work with the Count Basie Orchestra, coupled with his solo performances and recordings, solidified his place as a pioneering figure in jazz history. Jones’s legacy lives on through the drummers he influenced and the timeless music he helped create.

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