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Kevin “Bujo” Jones: Jazz as a Part of The Continuum

Kevin “Bujo” Jones: Jazz as a Part of The Continuum

Courtesy “Bujo” Kevin Jones


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I do not look at all these different genres as being separate: this is a jazz gig, and this is an r’n’b gig. I feel like all genres are a part of the continuum.
—Kevin "Bujo" Jones
Jazz musicians can be found working in any other music styles, probably because jazz gives great flexibility and freedom of expression that can be easily applied to any music. Kevin "Bujo" Jones, a percussionist born in Englewood, New Jersey, and residing in Grand Rapids, Michigan, feels equally comfortable playing jazz and non-jazz. Moreover, he does not separate jazz from soul, r'n'b and gospel, but views those styles as a part of the same continuum.

Throughout his career, Jones has had an opportunity to work and tour with world-class musicians, including The Isley Brothers, Whitney Houston, Winard Harper, Reggie Workman and Babatunde Lea. Despite those heights that he has reached, Jones stays approachable, humble and always generous with advice for emerging musicians.

When Jones was eight years old, he started taking piano lessons because his parents required all their six kids to play piano. Later, he tried playing alto saxophone but had to quit it. At about ten years old, he brought bongos to his brother's band rehearsal and played with them. The band members loved it and accepted Jones in the band, so he started practicing percussion seriously and passionately. His oldest brother brought him a ngoma (a hand drum) from Zambia. That was the first drum that Jones owned. He begged his parents to buy a conga drum, and they eventually did. He started taking percussion lessons and that helped him explore his identity.

"Back in 1969, 1970, 1971, society was changing. A lot of people were exploring the roots of their culture. You would see Black Americans, we wore dashikis and afros, and it was a social statement. It would be for me to explore the roots of my own culture and identity. I feel close to my identity as a Black American."

Jazz and Afro-Cuban Influences

Jones's father liked Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole and Lou Rawls, and he had a lot of jazz records. Essentially Jones was more into r'n'b and soul music, but many jazz artists lived in his neighborhood, Englewood, New Jersey, so around thirteen years old, he started getting into jazz. With his mentors, he played at a Monday-night gig at a small coffee house and bookstore, Focus II on 74th Street in New York, and brought his congas there. They would play jazz standards, which nurtured Jones's interest in jazz. He wanted to know what Charlie Parker sounded like playing "Now's The Time," so he would save money to buy a record. He wanted to hear the original version of "St. Thomas," so he bought Sonny Rollins' record with Max Roach. His sister also bought him some records of other jazz musicians, such as Thelonius Monk and Charles Mingus. From there, his interest in jazz grew as he would listen and read the liner notes on these albums.

"Part of the root of my upbringing was more on the soul and r'n'b side. Quite honestly, I do not look at all these different genres as being separate: this is a jazz gig, and this is an r'n'b gig. I feel like all genres are a part of the continuum. We put labels on the music to sell the music, not because they are so different. If you ask Chucho Valdes or Paquito D'Rivera, 'Who influenced you?,' they would say, Charlie Parker, Changuito [José Luis Quintana], Elvin Jones or Art Blakey. And vice versa, Dizzy Gillespie was influenced by the music of Cuba. We are putting these boxes, and there is no box. Boxes do not swing. There is no groove in a box."

Growing up, Jones fell in love with the music of Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaria. His album Afro Roots (Prestige, 1972) influenced Jones greatly. When he was sixteen, he played in the United States Congolese Dance and Drum Company, and he kept playing with their subsequent incarnations for years after that. He got to know a lot of Congolese music, culture and customs, which influenced him deeply as a musician. This became a part of his musical experience and the influence of Congo has shown up in Jones's music.

"All of the great Cuban master percussionists and musicians like Irakere, Chucho Valdes and Mongo Santamaria, have always influenced my music. They influenced a lot of people. They influenced music. Period. But Congolese music influenced Cuban music. That is the way it happened. It is a part of the continuum."

Mentors and Passing Knowledge from Person to Person

Karl Potter was Jones's first hand-drum teacher. From 1972 to 1974, he was the conga player with The Isley Brothers. He was also best friends with drummer Marvin Bugalu Smith. Eventually, Potter and Smith would take Jones to gigs with them. He continued playing gigs even after they both left for Italy at the same time.

After Potter, Jones studied with another great conga player, Babatunde Lea. Lea has played with Leon Thomas, Pharoah Sanders, Stan Getz, Joe Henderson, McCoy Tyner and other great musicians. Jones kept a relationship with Lea throughout his life.

Jones recalls that the music programs in the schools in Englewood were top-notch. John Purcell, a notable saxophonist, was Jones's band director in high school. Hubert Ashley was his music theory teacher in middle school and high school. During the lunch hour, Ashley would take Jones across the street from the school to Charles Earland's house to jam with him.

"Those are my early mentors. But we grow and as we grow, we start learning from different situations. After that, it was Archie Shepp. And after that, it was Reggie Workman. There were different people in different stages of my life, and I still regard them all as my mentors. And of course, there are a lot of African drummers who are so numerous to name."

Among his other mentors, Jones mentions Charlie Persip, Richard "Pablo" Landrum, and his professor at the University of Massachusetts, Max Roach. He says that there are many more mentors that he looks up to. He tends to learn from everybody, and his learning process never ends.

A lot of times in his life, Jones has been learning music not necessarily through school or college but in the way that knowledge is passed down in African cultures, from person to person. He finds it appropriate for the music that comes from the African diaspora, such as jazz, gospel, blues and soul, as these styles are much based on the oral tradition. In his teaching, he tries to bring the same approach by passing from generation to generation more than just how to play certain notes or rhythms, but also how to connect with the inner spirit through music.

"Nowadays, you can go online and find just about anything you want to learn about music. Somebody has figured out how to play this thing, and they will do a tutorial online. But the essence of that rhythm and understanding the meaning of that rhythm—you cannot learn from the tutorial. What I try to instill in my curriculum is an understanding of the rhythm culturally, and how you tap that 'inner thing' inside of yourself. I say, 'inner thing,' I do not have a word for it. You have to be able to play with a certain spirit. You could play all the right notes, but it could sound mechanical or uninspired. So, I am hoping to translate that into a curriculum, in some way."

Recording and Touring

One of the earliest recordings that Jones did was an album Free Bop! (Xanadu, 1979) with hard-bop saxophonist Charles McPherson. Jones went to the same high school with McPherson's son, drummer and vocalist Chuck McPherson They have become best friends.

"He [McPherson Jr.] would come to my house every single day. He is a drummer also, and he could not play in his apartment. But I lived in a house and had a set of drums. He would come to the house, and we would practice drums together. Then I would play congas, and he played drums and vice versa. We were like two jazz fanatics in high school."

At some point, McPherson Jr. moved into Jones's house. They played together every day in the basement. In the summer of 1977, Charles McPherson had a gig in New York and came out to visit his son. He wanted to see McPherson Jr. and Jones practicing, so they played for him.

The first tune McPherson Sr. asked for was a medium-tempo blues. His son and Jones were playing loudly. McPherson Sr. stopped them and asked to play it softer. Next up, McPherson Sr. counted off "Cherokee" in a fast tempo. The young musicians held it for about two choruses, but then they just crumbled. McPherson Sr. said, "You guys have to play lighter."

"A month later, he [McPherson Sr.] sent for us to come and record an album out in California called Free-bop! He hired us. We were young and fresh. There were three other guys that were older than us, Monty Budwig, Lou Levy and Peter Sprague, on that recording, too. There were six tracks, and I recorded half of them. Chuck McPherson was the drummer on all six tunes. That is how it happened, it is more like a family friend. I would not say it was a collaboration, but it was a great experience for me. That was the first time I was recording an album."

The next big recording was with Archie Shepp, Jones's professor at the University of Massachusetts and his independent study advisor. Shepp had a project called the Attica Blues Big Band. Randy Weston's son, Azzedin Weston, was supposed to go to Europe on a tour with them in the fall of 1979, but he could not make it. Shepp took Jones on tour with Attica Blues Big Band.

"That was a significant learning experience for me. I think I just turned twenty at that particular time. I went on tour with him for a number of weeks and recorded that album. It was a heavy band, diverse in musical styles. Steve Turre was in that band. John Purcell, who was my high school teacher, was on the tour, so I felt comfortable there. I think we traveled with 27 people. It was huge because they had strings as well as a full big band."

After touring with Shepp, Jones transferred to a city college in New York. He was living at home in New Jersey, and soon after he came back from touring with Shepp, he got the call from the Isley Brothers. The Isley Brothers lived in Jones's hometown, Englewood, Teaneck, or the surrounding area. He had known them much longer before that particular call. Once as a teenager, Jones had an opportunity to open up a concert for The Isley Brothers.

"They call Englewood, New Jersey, a 'Soul City.' Englewood, New Jersey is located about two and a half miles from Manhattan. When I was growing up, Englewood was somewhat segregated. But they had a lot of musical things going on. The Isley Brothers, Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie and Wilson Pickett lived in Englewood. There were two record labels that had studios in Englewood. We had all of this music going on."

Jones's teacher, Karl Potter, had played with Isley Brothers. Some of the brothers went to school with Jones's sister, so they knew each other. Back in 1977 when Jones first went to college, they asked him to go on tour with them, but he wanted to go to college, and they tried not to interfere with that. When he stopped going to the University of Massachusetts, they asked him to go on tour again, and Jones decided to take the opportunity this time. He says that he was not just hired—he became a part of the family and of the soundscape of that time.

"I started rehearsing with them back in February of 1980. We went on the road later in Spring. We were on the road with them till October, for months and months, and months. Relationships are so important in music. The gig with Isley Brothers sort of fizzled because there were internal things going on. They were still going back on the road, they were still doing recordings but they were on the road. The production team was on the road with Isley Brothers, and Luther Vandross also did Whitney Huston. And so Whitney Huston got my name. One thing led to another. I took the gig and ended up with her for about four years."

Jones recalls the time with Whitney Houston's band as an unbelievable experience. It took him all over the world. Unlike the Isley Brothers, this tour was more corporate in nature. Houston was easy to work with: "I believed I was one of her favorites. Her smile was infectious the way she would look at me and say, 'Go on and play, boy!' whenever I would take a solo." During his time playing with Houston, Jones got an opportunity to perform at some of the greatest shows, such as the American Music Awards, The Grammys and MTV Music Awards. He has been sharing the stage with notable people, including B.B. King, CeCe Winans, Jermaine Jackson and many others.

In 1999, Jones got a call from jazz drummer Winard Harper to join him on tour. Harper played many great musicians, such as Betty Carter, Dexter Gordon, Carmen McRae, Dr. Billy Taylor and others. He wanted Jones to play djembe, bongos and miscellaneous percussion, as they did not use congas in the group. It was Harper who spurred Jones's interest in playing djembe, which has become a part of his percussion vocabulary. Slowly but surely Jones began to study djembe and the music of the Mande/Malinke people, and that became an eye-opener for him. Playing with Harper from 2000—2005 was full of highlights.

"There was one gig in Los Angeles. Jeb Patton was playing piano, Ameen Saleem playing bass, Brian Horton on saxophone and Patrick Rickman on trumpet. We played 'Work Song' for like 25 minutes. It was flying. The swing was so intense that you just wanted to get up and scream. People were screaming in the audience. That is how intense the music became, even on a standard song that everybody knows. I will never forget those moments."

Another highlight of Jones's recording and touring life was working with bassist Reggie Workman. Jones met him while Workman was playing with Max Roach. Workman set up a school called The Muse in Brooklyn. In the late 1990s, Workman with his wife, Maya Milenovic Workman, had started a school similar to The Muse, Montclair Academy of Dance and Laboratory of Music (MADLOM) in New Jersey. In 2001, Jones joined Workman and his wife at that school in Montclair and taught hand drumming. They became close, and Workman eventually asked Jones to do a series of concerts and some touring in Europe with him. Workman has become a great mentor to Jones.

Jones recalls that touring back in the 1970s and '80s was very different to nowadays. There were no cell phones, no social media and no way to keep in contact with family other than using a pay phone or running an exorbitant hotel phone bill. But life on the road allowed him to see the world, meet new friends and share time with other musicians from around the world. He wishes that all young musicians who come out of the jazz educational system can get some touring experience before they cut their first record. He says that being on the road with a band teaches things that musicians cannot get in college, like catching flights, being on time, using the spare time while on the road and meeting people. It also develops professionalism.

Tenth World

The group Tenth World grew out of the collaboration between Jones and pianist, composer and producer Kelvin Sholar. When Jones was about 40 years old, one of his friends suggested that he should start his band and record an album. Another friend offered to pay for a small album production. This album, Land of Eternal Tranquil Light (CD Baby, 1999), included a few of Sholar's tunes. Jones wrote a tune and an arrangement. His original concept was to show that the hand drum belonged to all types of Black American music. The album ended up being extremely eclectic and not centered toward a group sound. A few years later, Jones and Sholar decided to put together a band, Tenth World. This time, Jones wanted to create a more cohesive album.

"Kelvin Sholar produced a CD called Between Worlds [CD Baby, 2011] with saxophonist Brian Horton, drummer Jaimeo Brown, bassist Damon Warmack and others, that was completely improvised, just concepts and motifs. The core of the group, Brian Horton, Jaimeo Brown, Damon Warmack, Kelvin and myself continued to play together on each other's gigs as well as with Winard Harper at certain points. Brian Horton suggested we get Kevin Louis involved, and I added George Makinto, a phenomenal flutist, pianist and percussionist, to the mix. We ended up with a seven-piece band to do our CD which became entitled Tenth World [Motema Music, 2005]. Everyone contributed their compositions to the group. The sound turned out to be simply amazing. Consequently, we were one of the first jazz groups signed to the Motema Music label."

The name of the band comes from a Buddhist concept of the "ten worlds," where the Tenth World is the highest life state being Buddhahood or enlightenment. The purpose of the band has been to play the music that would uplift people.

"We played all over the United States and, eventually, the world. We recorded a live CD called Tenth World—Live which got rave reviews. We had the confidence of youth with the wisdom of veterans. We played on different stages and were never intimidated by any group on the bill."

Jones has plans to do another album with the band Tenth World to commemorate twenty years since their first album. He also wants to do an album that reflects his soul and r'n'b roots, a couple of duo projects and an organ quartet or quintet.

Education and Mentorship

As Jones has grown older, teaching has become more and more important to him. He feels it is his responsibility to pass on what he knows to the next generation of musicians.

"I regard my students almost as my kids. I need to teach them the knowledge that I have been able to gain because that is how music is gifted to the world. Sometimes I do it for free. I don't teach at the college for free. But all of the extra work, I give of myself. I do not volunteer unsolicited advice, but when somebody wants my advice, I do not have a problem giving, because it does not belong to me. I gained that knowledge because somebody else gave it to me."

Michigan State University where Jones teaches percussion is one of few schools in the United States that understands the importance of learning hand drums and African Diaspora percussion within jazz studies. He considers that the role of percussionist in American music has become somewhat ancillary, which is quite different from the Afro-Caribbean countries where the hand drum is an important part of the music.

"Unlike the cultures of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Haiti and other countries in the Neo-African Diaspora, the hand drum tradition was cut off due to the type of slavery we endured in the United States. Playing hand drums was outlawed after the Stono Rebellion of 1739 in which rebels used a drum to signal each other. Slave owners feared the communicative power of drums."

Jones says that percussion has been a significant part of jazz throughout history. For example, Miles Davis had Jimmy Heath and James Mtume playing hand drums in his electric band. Don Alias and other percussionists of his era invented different ways to fit the hand drum inside the music. While in the late 1960s a lot of r&b and soul groups used percussion as an important part of their sound, in the late 1970s, the use of percussion started to fade. In the 1980s, with the advent of technology, digital percussion started replacing live percussion. Jones hopes that this trend will change soon and percussionists will become a part of the conversation again.

"I think it is important that people understand how to play the hand drum, inside of a jazz setting. Being able to swing on a conga drum is significant. You just cannot play anything. You have to understand the music, the realm of what you are doing. You have to play underneath people. You cannot be too loud, you cannot fill up every space. We have to understand the language that the drummer is playing, and what the rest of the rhythm section is playing. And it is important for other musicians, especially in the rhythm section, to understand what a percussionist should be playing."

When Jones was younger, he was all about music, all the time. He spent every waking hour doing music and did not care about a lot of other things. To be good on his instrument was his number one goal. As he has grown, he has understood that everything in life needs to have balance.

"If you divide your time appropriately and not waste your time, you can find a balance. Sometimes, as a musician, you might have to work a regular job. I have worked in hospitals and doctor's offices. I have worked as a cook. I have done all sorts of things to be able to pay my bills. Everybody is not going to be like a Roy Hargrove or Herbie Hancock where you just get into the music and you are so good, meet the right people and automatically have your non-stop career. Sometimes it takes time for people to grow into those roles, but in the meantime, you have to pay your bills."

Jones cherishes personal relationships and encourages emerging musicians not to forget about self-care. He urges young artists to seek advice from older generations of jazz musicians and to be professional in every possible way.

"When you show up to a gig, do you show up with the sneakers that you just cut the grass with? To me, that's not professional. Just because you can play 'Giant Steps' or 'Airegin' does not mean you can wear whatever you want to a gig. Show pride in what you do by making an appropriate appearance."

Jones says that artists have to be personable, positive, punctual, professional and polite. Those are the personality traits that helped him to build a career, alongside his hard work, passion and dedication. He passes on these values to the next generations of musicians that he nurtures.


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