Count Basie’s drummers presided over an engine room that fuelled the greatest swing machine ever assembled. Tall, handsome, and photogenic, Papa Jo Jones swung the band lightly, suggesting poetry in motion as he finessed his sticks. Centring an even, supple pulse on the hi-hat, he anchored an unrivalled rhythm section – with Basie, Walter Page and Freddie Green – that defined the original Basie sound in the late 30s and made him a legend in his own time.
Later, Sonny Payne became the ultimate swinging showman, twirling his sticks, or tossing one skyward behind his back, then dropping a bomb as he caught it. He always looked good and drew great applause in his solo features. George Ballard, Eddie Jones, Duffy Jackson, Rufus Jones and later Butch Miles all contributed their skills to various iterations of the exclusive Basie swing club.
Then there was hard-working, multi-skilled Harold Jones. With the Count from 1967 to 1972, the unassuming Jones is proud of having been named the great man’s preferred traps master. In a sense, he was everyone’s favourite. Basie appreciated how he swung the band with his solid groove in the pocket, the arrangers liked him for his reading skills, his fellow sidemen respected his professional attitude, and everyone enjoyed his easygoing manner and cheerful disposition. Mr. Jones retains these qualities to this day, now that he is lauded as a living legend himself.
Recently I phoned the affable drummer at the home he shares with his wife Denise in Marin County, CA., across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. In his early 80s, he enjoys robust physical and mental health, and if not for the pandemic, would still be working regularly.
Born 27 February 1940 in Richmond, Indiana, Harold Jones settled on the drums at the behest of his mother, who insisted he learn to play a musical instrument. The only instruction he received early on came from what he remembers as “really good public school teachers who wanted their students to learn some music”. He must have applied himself as he was occupying the drum chair with the likes of Wes Montgomery in Indianapolis, a 90-minute drive from Richmond, by the time he was 15.
He recalls: “I was too young to drive. It was at this little club called the Hubbub, and they used to sneak me in backstage. [The back of the club] went right out into the alley, and I’d sit in the car that my mom drove me over [in] and do my homework. When it came time for me to play, they’d call me in and I’d sit right up on the stage and start playing.” He also found himself in demand for jobs that featured such homegrown talents as Freddie Hubbard, Larry Ridley and James Spaulding, all two or three years older than Jones and just beginning to make names for themselves.
‘I found out the patrons of the symphony had voted no minorities could play in the symphony . . . it made me think: “Well, I don’t want to play this symphonic music anyway.” You sit there and count 150 bars, then you hit the triangle’
At 18, he won a scholarship to the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. However, any thoughts he might have had about a career on the concert stage were erased by the plague of racism that persisted in the late 50s. As he explains it: “I was in the conservatory and I needed a part-time job, so I got hired as an usher at Orchestra Hall . . . but when I found out the patrons of the symphony had voted no minorities could play in the symphony . . . it made me think: ‘Well, I don’t want to play this [symphonic music] anyway.’ You sit there and count 150 bars, then you hit the triangle [laughs].”
Jones took refuge on the Chicago jazz scene. “So I went out to nightclubs, man, every night. Back then Chicago was wall-to-wall nightclubs downtown. It was almost like New Orleans when you walked down the street.” Soon recognised for his reading skills, his reliability and his no-nonsense, straight-ahead swing, Jones had many chances to hone his jazz chops with such stalwarts as Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt, Von Freeman, Eddie Harris, Johnny Griffin, Billy Wallace, Willie Pickens, Jodie Christian, Frank Strozier and many others.
Even before he had left the conservatory, Jones became aware of the benefits of exposure at jam sessions. Recalling blues pianist and singer, Roosevelt Sykes, he says: “He heard me at some jam session. He told me we’d be leaving after the session and to pack my drums up into my Chevy station wagon. And he said: ‘Man, you’re pretty good. We can use you.’ I’d get out of school at about five or six in the evening, and I’d go around and pick up him and everybody else in the band, and we’d drive over to Indiana, to Calumet City, where the strippers were, and we’d play for them. When we finished and came back home, I’d take everybody back to where they lived, and it was daylight then. And then, I’d go to school.”
Other established musicians – recognising Harold’s talent and work ethic – helped him along. Among them was the remarkable multi-instrumentalist Ira Sullivan. Ira, explains Jones, was an early mentor: “I’d go to the jam session at Joe Segal’s, and I’d have some trouble getting in because of my age. Ira would say: ‘Let the kid sit back there in the corner; let the kid do this, let the kid do that.’ Ira was a big supporter of us young cats, man.”
Harold’s account of how the association with Sullivan led to paying gigs highlights the effects of the drug scourge among some jazz musicians in those post-Bird years: “Ira’s regular drummer was Wilbur Campbell, and he had trouble standing up straight all the time. I’d get calls at two, three, four o’clock in the afternoon to do the gig that night – because they couldn’t wake him . . . Wilbur was just one of those that was on that wrong road.”
Harold showed what being on the right road looked like.