Rifftide – The Life And Opinions Of Papa Jo Jones 

Book of nominal 'interviews' tries to contain the Joyceian stream of consciousness that was the drummer's method of discourse


This book was published 12 years ago but didn’t reach JJ for review at the time. It’s of particular interest to me because I interviewed Jo Jones in 1971 for publication in JJ and again in 1973 for publication in the short-lived Into Jazz magazine.

The word “interviewed” should here be understood loosely, as was implied by the title – “The James Joyce Of Jazz” – above the 1973 “interview”. The title was a reference to the fact that Jones had little patience with questions and preferred to deliver a stream-of-consciousness monologue which hopped from one fact or topic to another as the fancy took him. It’s unsurprising therefore that the people responsible for this book also thought of James Joyce and considered calling it The Jazz Dimension Of Finnegan’s Wake.

Who were the people responsible? When writer Albert Murray was helping Count Basie with his autobiography he interviewed Jo Jones. This initiated a long series of tape recordings for which Murray was prompter, but primarily listener, and in which Jones soon moved away from Basie to reminiscences and comments related to the whole of his own life.

Some 20 years after Jones’s death a young protégé of Murray’s called Paul Devlin undertook the task of editing the Jones tapes and, just as I had done three decades earlier, struggled to produce results suitable for publication. His difficulties are made clear in his preface and introduction which take up around a quarter of the book.

The assertive words of Jones then fill about half the book and are followed by an afterword from Phil Schaap and lengthy notes provided by Devlin. These are helpful in assisting the reader to follow the non-sequiturs and mysterious references which abound as Jones delivers his unpredictable verbal twists and turns. Phil Schaap, who delivered the eulogy at Jones’s memorial service, was virtually an adopted son of Jones and his revealing contribution helps the reader to understand the nature of this highly unusual and highly talented man.

Jo Jones’s drumming can be admired on many records. This book offers the opportunity to read some of what you might have heard if you’d sat near him as he talked passionately about what was on his mind.

Rifftide – The Life And Opinions Of Papa Jo Jones by Jo Jones, Albert Murray, Paul Devlin and Phil Schaap. University Of Minnesota Press, pb, 172pp. ISBN 978-0-8166-7301-8