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Gaga, Bennett, The Count, Presidents: Harold Jones Drums Across History

Gaga, Bennett, The Count, Presidents: Harold Jones Drums Across History

Courtesy Lester Cohen/Wire Image


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The key to backing vocalists is to stay out of their way, and most importantly not step on any words.
—Harold Jones, drummer
When Tony Bennett stepped past the twilight of Alzheimer's onto the stage of Radio City Music Hall in New York City in August 2021, drummer Harold Jones was there ready for him, as he had been for Bennett over the past seventeen years, in a friendship going back to 1968. Lady Gaga, the popstar recreated as a jazz singer and Bennett's partner on two Columbia albums, Cheek to Cheek in 2014 and this year's Love for Sale, both also with Jones, would join them. Bennett summoned the music from the shadows, turned on as if by a light switch, and sang.

The Radio City concerts, Bennett's last, were broadcast on CBS in late November and streamed on Paramount Plus, poignant and heroic, as profiled on 60 Minutes by Anderson Cooper. MTV Unplugged: Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga, aired the evening of Thursday, December 16, from an intimate taping in the round at an MTV studio set up like a club with audience, also this past summer, with a sextet including Jones again. That had been a trial run, three run-throughs over two days, to test whether Bennett could venture on to Radio City. A documentary of Bennett and Gaga, The Lady and the Legend, will follow in 2022. In Unplugged, Gaga offers Cole Porter's "Love for Sale" to Jones for a quick drum roll with the call to him "Maestro!"" There was evident respect and fun all around.

Jones credits Lady Gaga for bringing Bennett out and through, in the studio sessions leading to the album, and the concerts. Jones said that in all those Bennett could not recognize musicians he had played with for years, although he believes Bennett was made comfortable among familiar faces he could not quite place. He and Bennett had once shared a Thanksgiving dinner together at Bennett's invitation when both were otherwise on the road and on their own for the holiday. When Bennett called to Gaga as she greeted him at Radio City, it was the first time he had acknowledged her by name in more than two years of working together.

Gaga treated Bennett with love and respect, leading him into and out of songs, Jones said. Danny Bennett, manager for his father, had selected a repertoire of familiar favorites to draw from, arrangements were simplified, and Bennett had been working with pianist Lee Musiker three days a week as if with a personal trainer to stay active. Jones says Bennett's wife Susan has been an "angel" as caretaker. Cautious for Bennett's health, once past the Radio City dates, there would be no more concerts.

Drumseat and Hotseat

Harold Jones sits astride more than a half-century of contemporary American music. In November 1962 he played the White House with the Paul Winter Sextet, then hard bop winners of an intercollegiate jazz contest. They were fresh from a State Department cultural tour of Latin America, invited by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy as young ambassadors of her husband's "New Frontier" before Winter or anyone else had ever heard of "New Age." Bossa nova was the discovery of the time. Read our coverage.

That night, three front row seats reserved for the President and two aides were empty. Only later was it revealed JFK was elsewhere in the building negotiating the removal of Russian bombers from Cuba to end the naval blockade imposed as part of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and simultaneously dealing with a Chinese invasion of India. Jones played the White House five more times, four with Sarah Vaughan, a favorite of Nancy Reagan, and again with Natalie Cole for Bill Clinton. There were numerous appearances with Bennett at rallies for Barack Obama.

Jones' musical studies began in good public school programs in Indiana, and, at the direction of his mother, a fourteen-week summer music camp. His first private instructor had played xylophone in vaudeville and contributed a sense of melody with rhythm. Teaching now, Jones instructs his students on using variations in speed and volume for interpretive effect, and to suggest a song's melody through the rhythm of the drumming. Rudiments became "not only my Bible but a kind of dictionary to refer to," he told Robert Girouard of Modern Drummer. In high school, another Indiana drummer, Joe Hunt, later with George Russell and Stan Getz, clued him to Max Roach and Charlie Parker. Jones went on to study percussion at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. Jones' ability to read music has been a lifelong benefit; that skill led to work in musicals at theaters, supplemented by nightclubs, blues joints, anyplace else that he could sit in.

Chicago in the 1960s was buzzing with jazz clubs, in what he said was a fraternal and cooperative musical environment. Jones played with many musicians associated with small groups: Johnny Griffin, Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons, and went to see everyone he could who was playing live. He and Herbie Hancock, contemporaries both born in 1940, were running mates. Jones was in groups that opened for "the real bands" like those of Art Blakey and Miles Davis at the Sutherland Lounge, then a prime venue. He recalls asking Blakey and Jimmy Cobb whether he could use their drumkits rather than set up his own. Expecting to be rejected, or cursed out by the volatile Blakey, he was surprised and gratified that Blakey and Cobb each welcomed him to share.

In 1967, Jones was house drummer at another cultural bastion, Hugh Hefner's Chicago Playboy Club. There he learned the differences in drumming for men and women singers, behind comedians, and for a constant rotation of talent. Jones said a call to join Count Basie in New York came when the Count's temporary drummer thought the band was off for Christmas week, forgetting there was an engagement on New Year's Eve. A call went out to all the drummers in New York; anyone who could read charts was already employed, and Jones was brought in from Chicago because he could drum, and read.

Two weeks became the next five years as he succeeded drum masters Jo Jones and Sonny Payne with Basie. These two predecessors had transformed the style of big band drumming with a lighter touch emphasizing the flash of snare and cymbals over a pounding bass, and Jones patterned himself after them. His signature Regal Tip brand drumsticks copy the thinness of those used by Jo Jones, for quick action, even at the risk of breakage under such as thundering repeated choruses of Basie's "April in Paris."

The Singer's Drummer

In 1972 Jones won Downbeat's International Jazz Critics poll for Best New Artist for drums, the only time a big band drummer has won the award. Through the Basie band, Jones met the singers: Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, Vaughan, and Bennett, and became favored by them for his dependability, again because of his reading ability. He toured with Vaughan for ten years, and remembers her as "The Divine One" onstage and more earthy as "Sassy" offstage. He reunited in studio with Basie and Vaughan in 1981 together for Send in the Clowns (Pablo); Vaughan owned that title song, Jones said, beyond anyone else's rendition. He has backed Oscar Peterson, Marian McPartland, and singers from Amy Grant to Amy Winehouse: Nancy Wilson, Sammy Davis Jr., Carmen McRae, and six albums over ten years with Natalie Cole, including her tribute to her father's standards, Unforgettable...With Love (Elektra, 1991).

He is proud of the twelve Grammy-winning recordings on which he played; his wife Denise reminds that whenever Jones was on a Grammy-nominated record, it won the final award. Love for Sale by Bennett and Gaga is now nominated for six. Drummers worldwide voted Jones into the international Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame in 2013. Jones's style is tight. He "wastes no element of motion, has near-perfect time, sets up figures beautifully, is a driving accompanist, and plays wonderful fills only when necessary," described music historian Bruce Klauber. Jo Jones had counselled him to remember his proper role: supporting the band and the singers. "Jo told me that it was never about 'me,' it was always about the band." Jones says he continues to hold true to that today.

With some singers, like Fitzgerald and Natalie Cole, there was an easier pattern because their timing was consistent. Others, like Vaughan, McRae, and Bennett, might stretch a word for particular meaning over several measures. He had to listen for "when the breath was coming." Vaughan in particular could phrase one word, like "love," all the way through a measure and across the next bar line and into a third measure. "So you really have to pay attention. You can't end your phrase until the singer has ended his or her phrase." The key to backing vocalists is to stay out of their way, and most importantly not step on any words. A drummer had it easier than an instrumental accompanist, who could be caught within the notes of a chord as the singer explored the moment.

Enter Lady Gaga

Harold Jones Interpretation of Big Band Swing Drumming is a 400-page workbook he co-authored with Danny Gottlieb, longtime associate of Pat Metheny and drummer for many other performers. It features 76 transcriptions in the style of drumming for Basie, with charts, notes, and analysis of drum parts and integration with the tunes, and guidelines for feel, tempo, dynamics, interpretation, and sight reading. Jones told Michael Vosbein of Drummer Nation that he emphasizes to students the importance of learning to read, and not to shut any styles out. Jones' work with Bennett and Gaga required him to be lighter, pianissimo, in the studio sessions, then stronger with the big band setting at Radio City. Assignments at Radio City swapped between Bennett's backing quartet and Gaga's combo. When Gaga's band led by trumpeter Brian Newman took over, Jones said he was content to sit back and watch the miracle of the interplay between Bennett and Gaga.

Lady Gaga's earlier career was performance art: theatrical, confrontational, electropop glam-rock dance; sensationally costumed in avant-garde high style, trashy fantastic, Blade Runner futurism, leather and latex, plastics and glitter; and sometimes mostly half-undressed. She was wild, inventive, bizarre, and with a voice. Bennett and Gaga first met in 2011 at a charity benefit in New York for the poverty-fighting Robin Hood Foundation. Inside her heavily-costumed pop act, she inserted two George Gershwin and Nat King Cole standards. Bennett asked to meet her after the show, waited as she changed into a dress she felt was more presentable, and told her "Lady, you are a jazz singer."

That led to their 2014 Grammy-winning Cheek to Cheek. Bennett told CBS Sunday Morning that year that he had been worried that her pop fame would last only until she was dropped by an insatiable public in pursuit of the next new thing. She wasn't worried, but he was, because he liked her a lot, and had seen it happen many times before in his long career. He had experienced it himself, when rock music in the 1960s pushed his suave stylings aside. Already, Gaga said she had felt abandoned by former managers when her follow-up releases did not sell into the millions like her first album The Fame (Interscope, 2008.) Instead, Bennett said, their album of standards would prove her a performer who could be sustainable over the years.

Bennett's neurologist told Anderson Cooper that the singer very much remembers that he is Tony Bennett. Music, she said, is housed in different parts of the brain, including parts of the brain that deal with emotion, and music when it's heard can connect through those emotionally-based circuits. As Bennett has been a performer his entire life, she said, that part of him is innately hard-wired into his brain and gives meaning and purpose in his life. "This is where he has lived his whole life and where he is most happy—on the stage, making music," Danny Bennett told A.D. Amorosi for Variety after the Radio City shows. "His first words upon leaving the stage, were 'I love being a singer.'" Backstage, Bennett humbly recognized the response of the sold-out audience: "The public loved it."

Originally named Stefani Germanotta, Italian and a native New Yorker like Bennett, Gaga sang jazz for fun as a child, but put it away for other pursuits. Now she has a tattoo on the inside of her right arm of a sketch of Miles Davis' trumpet by Bennett, with "Benedetto," his signature of his birth surname, inscribed underneath. Just as Bennett wished longevity for her career, Gaga told 60 Minutes that Bennett's last concerts "really pushed through something to give the world the gift of knowing that things can change, and you can still be magnificent."

Gaga seems to have rediscovered a happiness in jazz: "It's a joy that's missing in a lot of music today," she said in a Love for Sale video trailer. "I really want young kids to listen to jazz music because it's so important. It's not something that should be left behind. It's something that should be coveted so sacredly forever." Jones has been steadfast with that message for decades.

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