Rifftide: The Life and Opinions of Papa Jo Jones
As told to Albert Murray. Edited by Paul Devlin.
University of Minnesota Press
Rifftide is a slim volume subtitled The Life and Opinions of Papa Jo Jones. Best known for his long tenure with the Count Basie Orchestra, Papa Jo Jones is arguably the most influential drummer in the history of jazz. Throughout the book, Jones speaks with absolute certainty. His thoughts constantly plow forward, with little concern for coherence or a narrative flow. Although Jones often acknowledges life's difficultiessuch as the toxic effects of racism and dealings with gangster club ownershe speaks as the master of his own fate, and that the world yields to his will, intelligence and curiosity.
A couple of passages from the book's early pages reveal Jones' formidable ego and the desire to state his case on rather one-sided terms. "I'll give you so much material, goddamit," he tells interviewer Albert Murray, "you'll have to lock yourself up and be all fucked up." Later, Jones insists, "You don't wanna get into my personal life," setting the tone for what often reads like a feverish monologue. "If you really want to do a book on Jo Jonesyou couldn't sell it anyway. I'll close up the U.N.! I'd stop all wars if you get into my life. I'll pull all the dirt from under the rug. I'll give you what you supposed to write about me. My book."
Readers looking for insights into Jones' innovative style of drumming or his contributions to the Basie band will be hard pressed to find anything concrete. Instead he posits a vague, incomplete relationship between his nomadic ways and the music. "You play according to the way you live" is Jones' credo, yet apart from mentioning a background in shows and circuses, as a singer, dancer, dramatic artist, as well as playing the trumpet, saxophone and piano, he never really elucidates the connection between life on the road and the music. The closest he comes is stating, "You got a chance to be like a sponge, you absorbed the life that you saw. You played the incident."
Decades after his years with Basie, Jones offers hyperbolic opinions about the band, as well as a few insights into its success. "The Count Basie Orchestra was an institution," he crows. "It was like Notre Dame, it was like Vassar, it was like Oxford. It was like Eton!" The key was a flexibility engendered by a number of gifted soloists, and the creative give and take between individuals which produced results different from bands that relied solely on written, highly structured arrangements. "And the spirit was so strong there, you interchanged feelings, you interchanged ideas," Jones says. "And the guys used to make up tunes and put different titles on them and make different licks, different riffs....."
At times Jones lets his guard down and implies that the glory years are over, and that things are vastly different than in his heyday. "We understand that they took the dance floor away. We understand they took the big bands away. We understand they took everything away. Where's a kid going to serve his apprenticeship?" During the period when he spoke these words, a vast network of jazz academies in colleges and universities across America were offering a different kind of apprenticeship, and jazz as high art had long replaced jazz as a popular form of entertainment.
The old saw about a picture being worth a thousand words comes to mind while watching a video of Jones playing a drum solo (see clip below). In both visual and musical terms, it is a stunning performance. A handsome man with an upright posture, Jones cuts a rakish figure, smiling all the while and offering facial expressions that imply that he can't believe what he just played. Using fingers, hands and sticks, and often playing so softly that close attention must be paid, he fashions the kind of solo that will never sound dated. Although in Rifftide Jones sometimes may strain the boundaries of credibility, the solo renders one of his claims spot on: "I just have to play to keep alive, that's all."