Tuesday, August 5, 2008

"The Wonder" of Philly Joe Jones - Part 1

Steven Cerra [C] Copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Have you ever wondered how, in a world without today’s variety of Jazz drumming instructional aides, a drummer of the splendor and magnitude of “Philly” Joe Jones came into existence? How did this force of nature manifest itself and become one of the most dynamic drummers in the history of Jazz?

Obviously there are a host of different answers to this question and many of them can be found in the following chapter on Philly Joe from Burt Korall’s Drummin’ Men - The Heartbeat of Jazz: The Bebop Years [New York: Oxford University Press, 2002, pp. 219-233].

In Baganda, one of the five Bantu kingships from which the modern state of Uganda takes its name, fathers pass down the complex poly-rhythms used to communicate messages sent by “jungle” drums by placing their hands over the hands of their young sons using “feel” to convey and transfer these rhythmic codes. This is done over a period of years until at some point in the process, the fathers’ top hands come off and the youngsters are on their own.

While not nearly as picturesque, aspiring young drummers in the 1940s and 50s who wanted to play modern Jazz were forced to learn by observing, by asking questions and by any other anecdotal means possible. There were very few formalized [let alone, ritualized] patterns of instruction, not surprisingly perhaps because their were also very few Jazz drummers who taught, or even had the ability to teach [to their credit, Cozy Cole and Gene Krupa did operate a drum school in New York for many years where modern Jazz drummers could go to “work on things,” but the instruction was mostly informal].

For those wanting to play the style of modern Jazz drumming coming into existence in the 1940s and 50s, learning how to do so became something of a enormous quest for knowledge and technique.

Jazz drumming in the preceding Traditional Jazz [Dixieland] and Swing eras was largely an outgrowth of marching band drumming so anyone schooled in snare drum rudiments could do a pedestrian job of playing drums in these styles [assuming that they also had an over-riding sense of time].

But modern Jazz drumming of the form then evolving in the hands [and feet] of Kenny Clarke, Max Roach and Art Blakey required an entirely different orientation to the instrument and a totally singular application of the drum rudiments.

Judging from the 500-600 modern Jazz albums he would play on during his career, it would appear that Philly Joe Jones’ quest to find the Holy Grail of Jazz drumming was successful.

To push the metaphor a bit more, Philly Joe Jones didn’t just find the grail of modern Jazz drumming, he also changed the shape or, in this case, the “sound of it.”

For it is inconceivable that the sound of modern Jazz drumming, particularly in the 1950s, would have been the same without the style of drumming that Philly Joe Jones so painstakingly developed.

He established himself as "Philly Joe" Jones, from the name of the city of his birth, to distinguish himself from the drumming mainstay of Count Basie’s band - Jo Jones.

But just as Jo Jones established the rhythm section standard in the 30’s and 40’s, Philly Joe would do the same in the 50’s.

“Into the 1950s - PHILLY JOE JONES (1923-1985) [C] Copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"Philly Joe was the most talented, the funniest, the most versatile person I ever met." - DONALD BYRD

“Undoubtedly, Joseph Rudolph "Philly Joe" Jones was the most talented drummer to emerge in the 195os. But there was much more to him than that. During my research process, it became increasingly clear that he had rare, surprising capacities that went far beyond the instrument he played.

Jones was an appealingly facile tap dancer, a pianist, a composer, an arranger, and a songwriter. He sang ballads and scatted, improvising on standards and jazz originals. He could handle the bass violin – left handed - and skillfully deal with the tenor saxophone. Jones read and interpreted - with little apparent difficulty- transcribed solos by his friend fellow Philadelphian John Coltrane.

If that weren't enough, he was, in addition, an entertainer with unusual presence and great ability as a mimic and comedian. I commend to your attention his now famous Bela Lugosi/Count Dracula imitation (Blues for Dracula - Philly Joe Jones Riverside, OJCCD-230-2). He did it so accurately and with flair that he might well have intimidated comedian-commentator Lenny Bruce, whose Lugosi impressions inspired the multifaceted drummer to this a part of his act.
Philly Joe Jones could have been an actor - or just about anything in the area of entertainment. But drums made his heart beat faster than anything else. As is generally the case with attraction, to music or anything else, you little choice in the matter.

JONES: One day in the kindergarten room, I saw and heard a snare drum and knew drums were for me. Because my mother had to go out and work hard to take care of the family, my sister took me to school with her. Mrs. Young, the principal and my mother's friend, allowed me to spend the day in kindergarten with the older kids. I was about two years old. It was day care, long before it became a factor 'round the country.’

I started drumming when I was about nine. On May Day, another little fellow and I played snare drum around the May Pole, to help celebrate that day in Philadelphia. Most kids love any kind of drum. I was into the snare drum. [Ed. note - This became increasingly apparent as his style took form later on.]

Because it was family tradition, Jones learned about the piano. It was such a familiar, recurrent sound around the house. If he had had the patience to sit down and study and practice early on, his level of competence would have been significantly enhanced. His mother or one of his aunts or cousins - they all played the instrument - could have taught him.

JONES: My grandmother, a concert pianist, brought all of her seven daughters into music. Most of them, including my mother, focused on the piano. My Aunt Vi played the violin. Aunt Helen Scott was a tenor saxophonist. She was the tenor soloist in Vi Burnside's All-Girl Band.

"I wish I had really studied the piano," Jones said, his voice expressing regret. Continuing exposure to the instrument, however, made it possible for him to more readily understand music and what he would later have to deal with as a drummer, composer-arranger, and songwriter.

Like a number of other major drummers - Buddy Rich, Jo Jones, Louie Bellson - Jones first expressed his inner rhythm as a tap dancer. He regularly appeared on The Kiddie Show over radio station WIP in Philadelphia. There was no doubt in anyone's mind that he was drawn to show business. Jones, in fact, had a built-in spotlight, centered on himself. Clearly, Jones had "a talent to amuse," to paraphrase a Noel Coward lyric.

JONES: When I was very young, I played drums the way I felt like playing them. Didn't study, really. James "Coatsville" Harris, a great drummer in Philadelphia, got me started. After he found I had some kind of talent and a feel for the instrument, he showed me a whole bunch of things, set me up, got me going. That was the first formal instruction I had. Harris concentrated mostly on rudiments. I didn't develop any real reading ability until I studied with Cozy Cole in the 1940s.

The pattern was set during the years in Philadelphia. Too young to get into clubs, Jones would sneak out and listen to the music and drummers he admired. He asked the older musicians questions and sat in when he could. Long before Jones was tabbed "Philly Joe" by group leader-clarinetist Tony Scott during an engagement at Minton's in 1953, he did all he could to informally learn about music and the drums.

After high school, Jones went into the service. He wasn't assigned to Special Services or a band, though he spent a lot of time with musicians and often sat in with bands wherever he was stationed. When Jones returned home to Philadelphia, he became "serious." He bought his first set of drums and went into the "woodshed," practicing constantly until he felt he was ready to face the music around town.
CHARLIE RICE: I met Joe when he was a teenager, at a place called the Roseland in West Philly, at Arch and Udell streets. It was a breeding ground for musicians. We both weren't old enough to be there. That's where I learned to play drums. Jimmy Preston and a couple of other musicians worked at the place. Playing in different clubs, testing ourselves, seeing who could play the best-that was the thing at the time.

Joe always came around. He later played at the Downbeat when I was in the house band there. The guys used to talk about how talented he was. When the big guns came in from New York, he frequently was the drummer they wanted. I always seemed to be running into Joe. I could talk to him. We were straight with one another. Even though he got strung out and sick and did some really "bad" things, I couldn't get mad at him.

Joe kept things to himself, even when his life was rough. One time I saw him on South Street in front of Gertz, the department store. He had been through some tough times. He started telling me about all the big deals he had. I knew he wasn't doing well. He finally realized who he was talking to and said: "Oh, Charlie, man, you and I-we've been out here for so many years." That's the way he was. Coltrane was the same way. Neither one of them would complain or open up.

Joe was a guy with such a great personality. The things people said about him rolled off his back. When you'd see him, he'd always have something funny to do or something funny to say. Any way you look at it, he was a super player. He and Shadow [Wilson] were the most talented drummers to come out of Philadelphia.

TOM FERGUSON: The back of our place faced the house where Joe lived. It was on Blakemore Street. We were on Matthews Street in Germantown. My father was friendly with the Jones family. Joe and I got to know one another I used to run into him when I started playing the guitar.

I didn't get to know Joe as a player until I got a gig at the Downbeat which was on 11th Street, near the Earle Theater. The guys in the traveling bands that played the theater used to come by the Downbeat to sit in. Jimmy Golden, a piano player, had the band. Ziggy Vines and Al Steele were on tenor. Shrimpy Anderson played bass. Charlie Rice was our regular drummer.

Joe had a job driving a trolley car - the 21 line that extended from Chestnut Hill, at the very top of Philadelphia at the North End, all the way through the city down to South Philadelphia. That was the longest trolley ride in the city.

It ran on 11th Street, right past the Downbeat, which was on the second floor.

Joe often stopped the trolley in front of the club. He'd grab the controls, jump out, and sit in for a number or two. The people hung out the window. of the trolley, growing more and more impatient. They wanted to get home, or wherever they were going. When Joe got back to the trolley, everybody would cheer, and off they'd go to South Philly.

Joe was a gregarious guy. I always was very fond of him.

Later on, I'd see him when he played at Pep's or the Blue Note. I'd bump into him around our neighborhood or riding on the subway. It always was very pleasant.
The years in Philadelphia were important. Jones began to find his way stylistically. He loved Max Roach, Art Blakey, and Kenny Clarke. He had listened to and studied the work of Baby Dodds, Jo Jones, Chick Webb, Denzil Best, Dave Tough, Tiny Kahn, and certainly Sidney Catlett - one of his mentors. He was very fond of the playing of O'Neil Spencer, whom many of us remember warmly for his excellent performances with the John Kirby little band in the 1930s and 1940s

JONES: The exposure to the great people had a lot to do with how I came along-how I thought about music. I didn't want to sound like anyone. I wanted to have my own sound and way of doing things.

I really dug O'Neil. He came to a club in Philadelphia where I was working in 1943, I think it was, and talked to me about the hi-hat. I was using a foot cymbal, the low-hat. O'Neil was the one who invented the hi-hat. I believe that, man. [Ed. note - So many people claimed to have created hi-hat: Kaiser Marshall, Jo Jones, and others.] He suggested I close the hat on "2' and "4" when playing in 4/4 time. The idea seemed so right hadn't heard anyone do that before.

Sid Catlett took the time to show me what to do about many things including brushes. Sid had developed so many brush techniques. He helped a lot of young drummers. He was that kind of a guy. Max and Art Blakey, who were my idols, were encouraging and told me to come to New York.

I used to visit Max regularly in Brooklyn at his Monroe Street apartment. Sometimes Kenny Dennis, another drummer, came along. Max was great to me. Whenever he was in Philadelphia, he'd look me up. I remember one time, when I was driving a grocery truck, he rode around with me for an entire afternoon. We talked about just everything. He kept insisting I come to New York. I left home and went to New York in 1947, intending to stay on permanently.

Jones's need to learn and play made for some stability in what was becoming an increasingly unstable life. Like many others at that time, he went along with the philosophy "If it feels good, do it!" Drugs became central to his day-to-day life. He often behaved in a totally impossible manner - doing people out of money, taking what wasn't his, pawning whatever he could get his hands on, particularly drums - in order to keep up with the increasing demands of his habit. A lot of musicians were afraid to associate with him. This was the "Crazy Joe" side of this increasingly brilliant musician. It took a number of years before he began turning away from such behavior.

But there was his other side. The need to study, to know about music, to play better than everyone else, often kept him on a sensible level. His ability as an entertainer worked for him, giving him immediate entry into a discerning circle of musicians, comedians, actors. They appreciated his quickness, his humor and talent. The Jones charm was devastatingly effective and often deluding - a way of getting what he wanted. It could have strong elements of con.

In the late 1940s, Jones began studying with Cozy Cole, the popular Swing Era drummer. It was a very important experience for Jones.

JONES: Cozy had a studio in a building on West 48th Street across from Manny's, the popular all-around music store. Max was studying vibes with Cozy. Jo Jones was working out some stuff with him, too. I went there regularly for lessons and followed him to West 54th Street and Eighth Avenue, where he and Gene Krupa had their drum school.

Cozy was a great teacher. My reading ability, whatever I do, he's responsible for it. When I came to him, I couldn't. When I left him, I could. It's as simple as that. Cozy was very stern. He'd say: "Play that!" If you didn't play it perfectly - from top to bottom - he wouldn't let you go on. He asked a lot of his students. You had to give him what he wanted. I worked very hard on rudiments. Cozy put heavy emphasis on them. Until then, I played the best I could with a number of bands - in Philadelphia and New York - relying on my instincts

Jones would practice all the time, sometimes with other drummers in town. He worked on variations of the rudiments, using paradiddle, flams, triplets, all sorts of rolls, ratamacues, single strokes, and rudimental combinations in new, exciting ways, changing their sound and feeling, making them more musically meaningful. The hard work soon began to pay off. His experiments with rudiments added to his musicality. [Emphasis, mine].

Jones would carry around Modern Rudimental Swing Solos, the classic instruction book by Charles Wilcoxin, notable for difficult yet ultimately fulfilling exercises that promoted facility. He kept at them. Mastering the book became an obsessive matter. His goal was to diversify how rudiments were used and make them more jazz-effective [Emphasis, mine].

Philadelphia colleagues remember with unusual pleasure what he could do even before he went to New York and studied. Jones played with leading New York musicians but spent much of his time working with local players who were deeply into finding singular ways to treat the new music. One was Jimmy Heath, who came to be known as "Little Bird" around Philadelphia.
JIMMY HEATH: Joe was very natural. He understood music better than most drummers because he could play the piano. His drumming was meaningful and well structured. He could swing at any tempo and make you feel it - anything from a slow groove to real, real fast, the Max Roach tempo. Joe's pulse was terrific. Whatever he played had great feeling, no matter who the musicians were.

I worked with Joe a good deal back home. On one particular gig, we had Clifford Brown. You know he could play. Sugey Rhodes was on bass, and I think Dolo Coker was at the piano. It was wonderful. Joe had his problems, no doubt about that. But he always could play and, basically, was a very generous person.

BENNY GOLSON: Philly Joe was a little older than the rest of us - John Coltrane, Jimmy Heath, and the others. He had gotten started earlier than we did. As far as development, he was down the road a bit. I kind of worshipped him from afar.
A lot of us in Philadelphia came along at about the same time. We were trying to deal with bebop. Certainly Philly Joe was latching onto it. So was bassist Nelson Boyd and Red Garland, the pianist who later was so impressive with Miles [Davis]. I watched the whole thing start to change in town. Bebop created a whole new environment.

I got a gig for the summer in 1951 with Bull Moose Jackson and his Bearcats. I was just getting my feet wet. Joe came into the band. He sang. played the piano and bass, did some tap dance routines. The guy was phenomenal. He wrote music and arranged stuff. And he was a truly terrific drummer.

He was so sensitive to what was going on that things fell into the right places. He didn't use a paradiddle, a flam tap, or a ruff without an underlying reason. When he played something, it added to the moment and what was going on emotionally. That's what I liked about him.

Tadd Dameron, the great arranger, was the pianist in the Jackson band Both Bull Moose and Tadd were from Cleveland. Bull Moose convinced Tadd to come out on the road with him. When he was thinking about changing the drummer, he asked me if I knew a good one. I suggested Joe, though I wondered just how well he would fit in the band. But he worked out fine. We all sang in unison. Bull Moose, a singer, had a lot of hits. The ladies wanted to hear those love ballads.

Two years later, we worked together again. Tadd had the band at a place called the Paradise in Atlantic City. He hired great players -Clifford Brown, Gigi Gryce, Cecil Payne. I was lucky to be in the band. Tadd wrote all the music. We didn't play any jazz, just show and dance music.
Joe handled everything so well because he was such a good musician. He cut the shows easily. By that time he was a good reader. Singer Betty Carter, "Bebop Betty," was one of the principals in the show. I remember she did "Lady Be Good," at an impossibly fast tempo. Joe and our bassist Jymie Merritt were right with her. No difficulty whatsoever. Joe could play in any tempo.

When Joe finally left Philadelphia permanently, and no longer was a local, he didn't sing or dance or play bass and only occasionally sat down at the piano. He was strictly a jazz drummer.

STAN LEVEY: I knew him in Philadelphia, in New York, and out here in Los Angeles. Joe had extraordinary talent-everything a great drummer needs. Good ears. Good hands. Good ideas. And the ability to execute and use what he knew and felt, in the right way.

But he was stoned out of his mind all the time. I'm not pointing a finger; I had more than a little difficulty with that sort of thing myself. I know it doesn't really do anyone any good. You can end up in prison or dead if you don't turn it around.

Philly Joe Jones had his own stylistic recipe. However, some of the first things he recorded with Joe Morris's band on Atlantic were essentially in an R&B groove. They didn't allow him to show what he could do. Johnny Griffin, Elmo Hope, and Percy Heath, who later would become widely known in jazz, were in the Morris band.
Jones moved through a developmental process. He took what he liked in Max Roach, Art Blakey, and Kenny Clarke; what attracted him to the work of Sidney Catlett, Chick Webb, Cozy Cole, Jo Jones, Shadow Wilson, Dave Tough, Denzil Best, O'Neil Spencer, and, later, Buddy Rich. He mixed and blended ideas and techniques and came up with something very much his own. His style and manner of performance were well applied in any context. [Emphasis, mine]

MEL LEWIS: Philly was a combination of so many good things. A swing drummer, he updated that style, giving it a very contemporary feeling. He swung and had a very distinctive sound. Philly brought back depth to drums. He used what essentially is big band drum tuning-deep bass drum, usually a little larger than the so-called hipper people generally play. His bass drum pedal had a heavy beater ball.

Philly was a fantastic brush player. He was the culmination of certain trends. There's Max in his playing, Buddy Rich, others, but all with his mark and feel. Yeah, he played strong and loud. But he deserves a special place in drumming.

To go back to the beginning, he's a combination of a lot of things ... and still much emulated.... Young drummers can learn a lot from him.

Slim Gaillard, the many-faceted entertainer, musician, group leader, and humorous jive talker, claims to have presented Philly Joe Jones for the first time in New York. Like all who aspire to come here and make it, Jones was intimidated by the enormous competition and the possibility of failure in jazz's capital city.

SLIM GAILLARD: I have a bunch of fellows that I brought out into the jazz world. Like Philly Joe Jones-I brought him from Philadelphia to New York. He was afraid to go there, because they had all the heavies in Birdland. He said: "Oh Slim, I don't think I can make it." I said: "You're going to." He said: "You think I can?" I said: "Let's go." When I brought him into Birdland, he was shaking. But when we made our appearance there, the house came down .... In interviews he always says: "Slim Gaillard brought me out of Philadelphia and got me started in the big leagues."

... to be continued in Part 2


  1. Can't wait for part 2 - thanks for the rich detailed history!

    Jones' fellow drummer Charlie Rice is currently facing some difficulties, but a fund has been set up to help him out - read more here:


  3. Fairly new to jazz but I love hard Bop.1st time I heard Dexter Calling... I wanted to know who the drummer was

  4. Thanks. I saw Philly once, live, at LUSH LIFE in the Village, and he mesmerized me. He was sword fighting with his cymbals; he beat some fiber off of one stick, and began chewing on it like a piece of taffy ("I eat these things."). I was sitting directly in front of his kit, and I guess he could gauge by enthusiasm, and how I was reacting to everything he did, and I got the sense that he was giving me a private clinic. I said hello, and he gave me a number, presumably a hotel he was staying at in New York. He was very gracious, but I was a little intimidated. Wish I had followed up. Papa Jo Jones LOVED HIM. Philly was his favorite drummer. They were always being conflated. Confused in life and on into death. When I told someone that Jo Jones had died, they asked, "Philly Joe?" No, Philly died last Thursday, Papa Jo died this Tuesday. How spiritual is THAT?


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