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A Belated Celebration of 100 Years of "Philly" Joe Jones
Taking a look at two of the countless recordings featuring one of jazz's most exciting drummers
Welcome music lovers to a new edition of ‘Listening Sessions’!
This time, my essay spotlights jazz drummer “Philly” Joe Jones, one of the finest musicians from the golden era of fifties and sixties jazz and whose centenary was celebrated on July 15. While I’m a little late to the party, I did want to write some thoughts on Jones as well as spotlight just two of the many records that he elevated through the brilliance of his playing: Kenny Dorham’s Whistle Stop and Hank Mobley’s No Room for Squares. I hope you enjoy the essay and will let me know your thoughts on “Philly” Joe Jones as well.
Coming soon will be a look at Wilson Pickett, focusing on his first recordings in Alabama with the Muscle Shoals crew, as well as an exciting collaboration withof the fantastic Substack, . Stay tuned!
Until next time, may good listening be with you all!
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One of the great joys of jazz collecting and listening, especially from the heyday of the fifties and sixties, is that it can take only a few records to be introduced to a wide cross-section of the players on the scene. And it undoubtedly won’t be long until there’s a session in which “Philly” Joe Jones is behind the drumkit. He was among an elite corps of timekeepers who powered a substantial part of the jazz canon and who each brought a deeply singular concept to the kit. Art Blakey was thunder. Max Roach was lyrical. Roy Haynes was precision. Connie Kay was elegance. “Philly” Joe Jones? He was excitement.
To hear him play even today is to be the sidekick on an adventure—the lightness of his touch and the seeming lack of deliberation as he executed fills and accents are often thrilling, emblematic of the derring-doo of an escape artist gleefully getting out of yet another sticky jam. For example, there’s an outtake from the sessions for Miles Davis’ Someday My Prince Will Come in which Jones sat in on an impromptu blues. Even as pianist Wynton Kelly and bassist Paul Chambers play with Jones, Davis is primarily dialoguing with the drummer. Jones keeps up a steady, unpredictable series of snare bombs, adding to the looseness of the performance. Trumpeter and drummer engage in a series of trading fours. Jones shows off his range, offering eight-note sizzles on the hi-hat, soft shoes around the snare and the toms, and a press roll that is both delicate and forceful. When the exchanges are halved to two bars, Jones gets tripped up around the 3:10 mark. There's a cymbal hit followed by a second a little off the beat and then silence. Jones rights himself by playing a quick pattern on the snare to get back on track so that Davis can play his next exchange. When tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley takes a brief solo, Jones takes his measure—Mobley’s improvisation is full of soulful, elemental blues phrases—and he moves into an infectious shuffle. The track, called simply ‘Blues No. 2,’ sat unreleased for 18 years, is as good a starting point as any to appreciate the rarefied genius of “Philly” joe Jones, something that is, quite frankly, always a good idea but was more resonant recently with the centenary of his birth on July 15.
As of the publication date of this essay (August 18), that’s almost five weeks ago. Several of the esteemed music writers here on Substack: Nate Chinen, Ethan Iverson and Vinnie Sperrazza have all penned tributes. Taken together, they reveal a multi-dimensional portrait of the drummer. I have always had a deep affinity for “Philly” Joe Jones as a jazz listener especially as someone who, to this day, harbours an unrealized dream to be a drummer.
Jones, to a greater degree perhaps than other jazz musicians as the 12-inch long-player became the dominant medium on which the music was documented, exemplified the modern-jazz ethos of excellence: he was brash and emphatic, loose and unapologetically hip. According to the Tom Lord Jazz Discography and catalogued on Twitter in 2021 by jazz and classical critic Mark Stryker, Jones’ touch was featured on a total of 261 sessions. His legend is arguably centered on the seminal dates he played as part of Miles Davis’ First Great Quintet.
Individual moments with Davis stand out: the declarative snare hits followed by the churning press roll underlining the iconic fanfare of Davis’ interpretation of ‘’Round Midnight,’ the skipping, effervescent fills punctuating the thematic statement of ‘Ah-Leu-Cha,’ the tension and release of his accompaniment of Davis’ and John Coltrane’s solos on ‘Airegin’ and the deep simpatico he had with pianist Red Garland, to name just one example, on the solo choruses of ‘Dear Old Stockholm.’ After Jones returned to the Davis fold at the start of 1958 (he had been fired a year earlier by the trumpeter due to a drug addiction that took years to finally kick), Davis’ newly expanded sextet with altoist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley recorded Milestones. It burns primarily because of Jones whose dexterity on, for example, the stops and starts of the theme to ‘Two Bass Hit’ lights a raging fire under his bandmates.
It’s that quality—an enlivening sense of impish fun—that also distinguishes many of his contributions outside of the Davis fold. His presence on pianist Bill Evans’ sophomore release, Everybody Digs Bill Evans, remains the most compelling argument to wield against anyone who continues to claim that Evans could not swing. He also drove Wayne Shorter’s string and brass arrangements—‘Manha de Carnival’ especially—on Freddie Hubbard’s The Body & the Soul. Those are just two examples. There are others.
Kenny Dorham’s Whistle Stop, recorded on January 15, 1961 for Blue Note Records, derives a substantial part of its pleasures from Jones. Each of the album’s seven compositions, all from the pen of Dorham, a trumpeter and composer who today is a little too unheralded despite his considerable gifts, is, in part, a showcase for Jones. The opening track, titled ‘“Philly” Twist,’ is explicitly so. Dorham’s theme is built around Jones’ rhythmic punctuations. At every moment he is actively accenting its contours. For the solos—everyone: Dorham, Hank Mobley, pianist Kenny Drew, Paul Chambers and Jones, gets a chance to do so—he is an attentive cheerleader. His cymbal work leaves room during Dorham’s improvisation for his distinctive timbre: slightly pinched, woolly and appealingly gauzy, to take centre stage. For Mobley’s direct, clean-sounding tenor, his snare accents are sharper than they were for Dorham. When Drew solos, he lightens up which deepens the groove that the pianist could generate. When it’s Chambers’ turn, Jones starts with just his hi hat before moving to the ride cymbal and snare unobtrusively. A short chorus as well as the repeat of the theme offer more opportunities for Jones to shine.
His approach to the shuffle—lighter, more contained than Blakey’s—underpins ‘Buffalo.’ Dorham’s theme, a sly, trickster of a blues, drives the solos. The trumpeter is especially inspired, methodically and melodically plotting a statement, each phrase digging into the next, hooking in the listener to be eager to hear what he will play next, exemplifying his exalted place among his trumpet-playing peers as the master of command and control, an approach centered as much on what he didn’t say as what he did.
That same quality shades the shadowy and modal ‘Sunset.’ Dorham is muted. There’s a fragile, brittle touch to his playing and a deliberative quality to his solo—again, the listener is glued to the speaker to hear how his improvisation will develop. Jones, after the deft polyrhythms used during the theme, plays lightly in straight time as Dorham solos and goes a little harder once Mobley takes over.
The title track, a straight-ahead swinger, illustrates how the drummer could create a rambunctious kind of propulsion, egging his fellow musicians on, permitting them to let loose. While Mobley and Dorham solo, Drew lays out on the A sections. The lack of a pianist is of no real consequence except for a chance to better appreciate how Jones often dialogued directly with the soloist. While keeping time, Jones could throw bombs, syncopate two cymbal crashes and occasionally slip into a cross-stick pattern, each beat of the snare rim with the end of the drumstick powerful yet fluid. He made it all seem effortless, just like the opening of ‘Sunset in Mexico,’ an indelible piece of exotica. Jones uses all of the drumkit during the theme statement. Each of its twists and turns elicits something fresh from the drummer—despite the strong sense of time, the playing here is very free. Jones uses the kit to play melodically, always playing something new and never repeating a figure.
‘Windmill’ is another example of the motoring Jones, providing the fuel for Dorham, Mobley and Drew to catch fire. The short, concluding ‘Dorham’s Epitaph,’ part of a large-scale orchestral work that Dorham sadly never fully realized, is Jones as a big-band drummer, using hard crashes on the cymbal to help approximate how the melancholic piece could have sounded.
If the period of which Jones was the most prolific can be pinpointed, it would be from the start of his association with Davis in the middle of 1955 until the end of 1963. During those years, Jones was heard frequently on Blue Note, Riverside and Contemporary as a sideman and on Riverside and Atlantic as a leader.
A recording that marks the sunsetting of the “Philly” Joe Jones era (though, to be clear, he would continue to record and perform up until his death in 1985 at the age of 62), was Hank Mobley’s No Room for Squares. Atypical for a Blue Note recording, it comprised parts of two sessions with two separate bands. The first, from March 17, 1963, paired Mobley and Jones with trumpeter Donald Byrd, pianist Herbie Hancock and bassist Butch Warren. The second, from October 2, 1963, paired Mobley and Jones with trumpeter Lee Morgan, pianist Andrew Hill—at the time Hill was the latest discovery by Blue Note co-founder Alfred Lion and whose knotty playing and knottier compositions were documented by Lion a remarkable five times in the studio in the span of just seven months—and bassist John Ore.
The album, distinguished by the high quality of Mobley’s four compositions as well as two by Morgan, is another where Jones’ contributions are absolutely integral. Consider how on the Morgan ballad ‘Carolyn’ he chooses to play only the cymbals, the ride and hi-hat, with brushes. It brings a floating quality to Morgan’s line, which is haunting and tinged with regret, as well as to the solos. On Morgan’s ‘Me ’n You,’ a kind of proto boogaloo, something that would become a bit of a cottage industry for the label after the trumpeter’s ‘The Sidewinder’ became a hit in 1964, Jones plays polyrhythms throughout, never resolving into tempo as was often the case with compositions that employed a danceable rhythm (think of how drummer Louis Hayes goes into regular time on two big Cannonball Adderley dance hits: ‘This Here’ and ‘The Jive Samba’).
Jones also adds flavour to the intricacies of the title track and drives the modal-based solos of Mobley, Morgan and Hill. ‘Up a Step,’ from the March session and also oriented around modes, is a tour de force for Jones (truth be told, everyone hits it out of the park). The introduction shows off Jones’ dramatic sound on the toms, the theme statement is a pristine example of Jones’ precision at keeping time and during Hancock’s solo (one of this very best), he switches to a looser pulse, favouring the cymbals and toms for the pianist’s advanced permutations on the bridge of his final improvisation chorus.
If there’s a moment that captures the excitement and the exhilaration of listening to “Philly” Joe Jones, it may be found on the opener ‘Three Way Split.’ At the end of Jones’ solo in which he plays endless variations in the contours of Mobley’s line, he fires off a fusillade on the snare and then moves right back into the dance of the theme. It may have been spontaneous. It may have been premeditated. It doesn’t really matter which it is. It thrills. It flows. It is flashy. It provides part of the emphatic answer to why “Philly” Joe Jones was one of the very best to get behind a drumkit.