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WICN Artist of the Month, July ’24: Philly Joe Jones

Written by on July 1, 2024

The circle of jazz drummers that emerged in the 1950s set a new high for talent. Certain names repeat themselves as they joined seminal jazz trios, quartets, and quintets led by legendary bandleaders. Philly Joe Jones (aka Joseph Rudolph Jones) would establish his own fiery, volatile style – often referred to as “like a machine gunner” – but who also managed precise arrangements. Most notably, he was the central percussion force for Miles Davis’s First Great Quintet (1955-58), which included a now-famous selection of players that included tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, pianist Red Garland, and bassist Paul Chambers. Commanding attention during the bebop to hard-bop transitional period as an in-demand sessions drummer, Jones would intersect with the very highest standards of musicianship. His associations as a percussion sideman would include recording, performing, and in some cases touring with bandleaders like Ben Webster and Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie, Chet Baker, Dexter Gordon, and Freddie Hubbard, to name a few.

Born in Philadelphia and later establishing himself under the nom de jazz  “Philly Joe Jones,” Jones would revolutionize and develop a new rhythmic standard. In the early 1950s, after a stint in the army, he moved to New York City and became the house drummer and a historic member of the rich variety of jazz talent that frequented the iconic nightclub Café Society. Coincidentally, Jones would form his earliest and most personal mentorship with bandleader, arranger, and jazz pianist Tadd Dameron. Dameron was an accomplished bebop arranger well respected by other musicians of his era. Dexter Gordon referred to his style as “romanticist” and many of his compositions live on as jazz standards. As stated by Drummerworld magazine, Jones was a dedicated mentee, “Working with Dameron taught him to play as a ‘big band’ drummer as well as behind a soloist.” Jones would record on A Study in Dameronia (1953) and Mating Call (1957) and later in his career would form Dameronia to honor the music, close friendship, and professional mentorship provided by Dameron.

Jones’ second-most important professional connection and personal association was with Miles Davis. The formation of the First Great Quintet (1955-58) developed out of a musician’s search conducted by both Jones and Davis, who were seeking a special alchemy of jazz talent. As relayed in Davis’s autobiography, “Philly Joe Jones and I would go from city to city playing with local musicians. Philly would go ahead of me and get some guys together and then I would show, and we’d play a gig. But most of the time this sh*t was getting on my nerves because the musicians didn’t know the arrangements and sometimes didn’t even know the tunes.”

This period of tryouts and gigs extended from 1952 through ’55. The jazz folklore follows that in 1955, Jones, booked a set at a Baltimore night club, followed by Davis then hiring pianist Red Garland from Texas, extending an invitation to audition saxophonist John Coltrane, and finding bassist virtuoso Paul Chambers (then 20 years of age). Accordingly, per Jones’ recollection in Drummerworld magazine, after the gig Miles said to Jones, “I think this is it.” Jones agreed, having said of the group, “The first time we played together…we just looked around at each other and said, ‘hum here it is right here’. We’ve got musical telepathy here. We have five people who always know what’s going to happen next.” These recordings, which occurred during a very compressed and intensive production schedule, showed off Jones’ signature technique and innovative style. “Jones’ aggressive style, characteristic fourth-beat rim taps, and unique coordination with bassist Paul Chambers—Jones played on or slightly ahead of the beat, Chambers played slightly behind the beat—created a current of tension that distinguished the Davis quintet, one of the era’s most popular jazz units.” Four albums resulted from two monolithic recording sessions on May 11, 1956, which include Steamin’ with The Miles Davis Quintet, Workin’ with The Miles Davis Quintet and Cookin’ with The Miles Davis Quintet.

In the early ‘60s, after leaving Davis’s historic band — which he had directly influenced in formation collaboration — Jones began a career of bandleading. He also was a regular featured drummer for many Blue Note recordings during this period and became referred to as the “house drummer” for the iconic imprint. Additionally, recording for the Riverside label, he included talented discoveries and early career recordings with sidemen such as Nat Adderley, Julian Priester, Johnny Griffin, and Tommy Flanagan. Additionally, Jones’ unconventional percussion is often specifically cited on Coltrane’s 1958 release Blue Train, and in particular the composition Lazy Bird. As stated by Ethan Iverson, contemporary jazz pianist, bandleader and composer, Jones’ was inventing technique. “Philly Joe drove the band, but his fills could be quite behind the beat. A few moments in Lazy Bird are dangerously and delightfully late.”

At the height of this period of recognition, Jones received significant praise from critics and musicians alike for his unique style and revolutionary technique. He won both Downbeat’s ‘New Star’ category for drumming in ‘57 and its ‘Best Drummer’ category for ’62. At this time, Jones remained in high demand for recording, performing, and touring while also fronting his own bands.

In the 1960s, Jones would experience, as so many jazz musicians did, the effects of a significant downturn in jazz’s popularity on both personal and professional levels. He chose to leave for Europe, becoming an educator and instructor in London and Paris from 1967 to 1972, while also maintaining a performing and recording schedule, including associations with Archie Shepp, Mal Waldron, and Hank Mobley. Additionally, Jones would record an album in London in ’68, Mo’ Joe, drawing upon local talent for his sidemen.

Returning to the U.S., he joined Bill Evans’ touring band in 1976 and 1978, mixing with a superlative quintet lineup that included tenor saxophonist Harold Land, guitarist Kenny Barron, and bassist Ray Brown, with a highlight recording Quintessence (1976, Fantasy). Affecting a perfect chemistry with a notoriously particular bandleader, Evans would later declare Jones as his favorite jazz drummer.

In the ‘70s, he recorded a few albums, including Philly Mignon (1977), Drum Songs (1978), and Advance! (1979). Most notably, during the last period of his career in the 1980s, Jones led Dameronia, a band whose repertoire consisted of compositions by his early mentor Tad Dameron. Jones died in 1985.

Jones’ instrumental toolkit was invention and innovation, “a nervous interplay, with artful rhythms, that lent an inflammable atmosphere to other groups as well, from swing to free-jazz bands.” His influence is still contemporary, having broken drumming traditions from the onset of his career. From a drummer or percussionist’s perspective, either as a student, instructor, or established professional, Jones’ style and technique are still examined in class today and complimented on stage.

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