Monday, July 18, 2016

Rifftide: The Life and Opinions of Papa Jo Jones - The JazzProfiles Review

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Context is everything so, for the record, Paul Devlin, editor, Rifftide: The Life and Opinions of Papa Jo Jones (As Told To Albert Murray) [Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 2011] is best understood if you read Paul Devlin’s Introduction and then Phil Schaap’s Afterword before delving into Papa Jo Jones’ recollections.

Doing so will help you understand why Rifftide: The Life and Opinions of Papa Jo Jones (As Told To Albert Murray) is not an autobiography in the traditional sense of the word.

For example, this opening paragraph from editor’s Devlin's Introduction basically explains why we have the book:


Jonathan David Samuel Jones—save your breath, "JO"—has more often than not been called the greatest drummer in the history of jazz. Most great jazz drummers have given testimonials to Jones's virtuosity and innovation. This book is his story, derived from interviews with Albert Murray and transcribed, edited, and arranged by me. Jones stood out as larger than life in a world of large personalities. He was a raconteur and tall-tale spinner. His unusual style of narration, combined with his involvement in important moments in musical and cultural history, and along with his observations about other intriguing figures, have resulted in this autobiography. It is not the autobiography but it is an autobiography of Jo Jones.”

And if you then jump to this opening paragraph on page 111 of Phil Schaap’s Afterword, it explains why we almost didn’t have this book:

“Jo Jones wanted his story told in his own words and handled his way. Papa Jo was arrogant enough to think and assert that his memoirs could always be assembled — even after his death and in the absence of any manuscript. "It's in The Archives!" Jo would often exclaim, a parallel to Casey Stengel's frequent summary that "you could look it up." This book has proven Papa Jo right.

That it was in the archives, or his belief that it was, comforted Jo Jones during his later years.”

The key phrase here is that “... Papa Jo jones was arrogant to think that his memoirs could always be assembled ….”

Good luck with that!

When it comes to Jazz, there are very few “archives,” at least not in the formal sense of that word and fewer still that deal with the early years of the music.

Lots of recollections, but very few archives that are “a collection of historical documents or records providing information about a place, institution, or group of people.”

If it had not been for the fortuitous persistence of Albert Murray, who recorded these interviews with Papa Jo from 1977-1985, and Murray having the presence of mind to give them to the book’s editor Paul Devlin, one of Murray’s trusted and capable “guys,” much about Papa Jo’s career from a primary source perspective might have been lost forever.

Papa Jo’s rise to prominence as a big band drummer occurred from around 1938 to 1948 which coincides with the height and fall of that era.

Along with Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich [and possibly Davy Tough], Papa Jo was widely regarded as one of the best ever at booting a big band along.  

However, by the time of these interview - 1977-1985 - the “best” years of Papa Jo’s career were far behind him. Without intending to be derisive in implying that Papa Jo was a legend in his own mind, the tone and tenor of his interviews with Albert Murray reflect that attitude.

In developing this book from a series of what more properly might be labeled conversations and monologues rather than interviews, Paul Devlin was charged with complying with Murray’s admonition to cleanup the tapes so that they could be read “but not so much that we lose the rawness of Jo’s style.”

But Paul Devlin also had to be mindful of more of Murray’s authoritative counsel and that was “If it is done properly, the ‘as told to’ autobiography represents how the subject wants his story told. To achieve this end, he enlists a competent and empathetic craftsman to make him sound like he thinks his voice should.”

Here, Papa Jo is in luck as Paul Devlin does an excellent job of taking what in many cases are little more than Papa Jo’s ramblings and making them sound coherent and cogent.

It has been said that if you don’t see a contradiction, then it doesn’t exist. Papa Jo was a definite adherent of this precept because the book contains examples of many of his contradictory statements and behaviors.

Papa Jo was a man of many moods and manifestations of impulsive and compulsive behaviors and what this book uncovers and reveals as his greatest contradiction was the man himself.

For many of Papa Jo’s nearest and dearest friends, his consistenatly contradictory, volatile and irrational behavior drove them to distraction.

These ambivalent feeling toward Papa Jo are on display in these excerpts from the concluding portion of Phil Schaap’s Afterword which he labels “The Difficult Sides to Jo:”

“Tenor saxophonist George Holmes “Buddy” Tate [1912-2001], Jo’s colleague in the Count Basie Orchestra, had been amenable to my piggybacking to his gigs since the early 1960s. Often Jo was on these gigs and the three of us — or more — would ride together in Tate's car. Tate was a very congenial, mellow person, but Jo's insistence on being the only teller of their shared stories, the way Jo gave directions, Jo's rules for the gig, and even the general patter of his chatter in the shotgun seat — I admit it was overbearing—came to bother Tate more and more.

One night, at a party for the musicians at my family home, Tate signaled me that he wished to talk privately. I took him to my room. "Do you have your driver's license yet?" asked Buddy. I replied no, but I would be getting it soon. Without waiting for Tate to mention Jo and driving, I added that I would be driving Jo from then on. "Good!" Buddy said, "because I can't stand him anymore."

Later, when Adolphus Anthony "Doc" Cheatham (1905-1997) returned to jazz gigging and soon thereafter took the trumpet chair from Buck Clayton in the Countsmen, Doc would hitch a ride with me and Jo to the gig. Doc Cheatham, who was as mellow as Buddy Tate and, at that time, was in addition quiet and introverted, told me that Jo Jones was the reason he bought a Volkswagen bug, Doc no longer needed my ride, which included Jo's company, and he had no fear that the drummer would ask him for a ride in the small Volkswagen.

I have used the good natures and warm hearts of the highly talented Buddy Tate and Doc Cheatham to bring up the troubling concerns that Jo could be disliked, was definitely feared, and was avoided, sometimes at great cost, by people who actually loved him.

How could this be? Jo Jones was a great man, a musical genius, who did good works for the many he knew and many more for people he never met. As an accompanist, Jo Jones selflessly brought out the best in his fellow musicians. The audience would presume that the soloist and not the drummer was why the music was swinging so wonderfully. The audience would not notice the drummer listening keenly to the soloist that he was driving, nor the percussive responses to the featured player that elevated the soloist's inventions. Jo Jones was thrilled just to have helped the music and didn't mind who got the acclaim. Jo also ran an informal social services program that any musician he came across could partake of. Those activities went beyond musicians and even jazz. Jo Jones was politically and socially involved in the making of many improvements to our society from the Great Depression forward, and he did this all on his own dime. How could he be shunned and even disliked?

I believe Jo Jones's massive righteousness is the root cause to his rubbing so many the wrong way. He was a great believer in the U.S. Constitution, but in his own dispensing of its doctrines, he was quick to take charge of all three of its branches.

Unilaterally, Jones would make the laws, enforce them, and mete out the punishment. One set of codes was for the bandstand — Jo Jones would police the gig to his rules even though he was rarely the leader. Papa Jo was almost always right, but his system was wrong.

There is so much more to this.”

There is indeed and you can learn more about Jo’s self-centered thoughts and actions in each of the following chapters that make up the core content of Rifftide: The Life and Opinions of Papa Jo Jones (As Told To Albert Murray):

I Have Had a Varied Life   27
Can't Nobody Tell Me One Inch about Show Business   31
The Count Basie Institution   47
They Said the Negro Would Never Be Free   65
My Thirst after Knowledge Will Never Cease   71
People I’ve Rubbed Elbows With    81
I Often Wondered Why I Was Such a Strange Fella   99

The discerning reader can readily identify the egocentric quality in each of these headings. To a certain extent, it is one element that gives the book its charm but they are also an indication of how Papa Jo could be overbearing to the point of being shunned by people who loved him.

If you are looking for a technical explanation of what made Papa Jo Jones such a special drummer, then you can’t do better than the chapter on him in Burt Korall’s definitive Drummin’ Men - The Heartbeat of Jazz: The Swing Years.

But if you are trying to gain an understanding of the human being behind those drums, then Rifftide: The Life and Opinions of Papa Jo Jones (As Told To Albert Murray) is the book for you.

With this book, Paul Devlin [and Albert Murray and Phil Schaap] has done a masterful job of ensuring the veracity and validity of Papa Jo’s prophetic statement - “It’s in the archives.”

Order information for both the cloth bound and paperback edition can be found at The University of Minnesota Press.

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