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All About Jazz reviews Rifftide: The Life and Opinions of Papa Jo Jones

By David A. Orthmann
All About Jazz

Jones_Rifftide coverRifftide is a slim volume subtitled The Life and Opinions of Papa Jo Jones. Best known for his long tenure with the Count Basie Orchestra, Papa Jo Jones is arguably the most influential drummer in the history of jazz. Throughout the book, Jones speaks with absolute certainty. His thoughts constantly plow forward, with little concern for coherence or a narrative flow. Although Jones often acknowledges life's difficulties—such as the toxic effects of racism and dealings with gangster club owners—he speaks as the master of his own fate, and that the world yields to his will, intelligence and curiosity.

A couple of passages from the book's early pages reveal Jones' formidable ego and the desire to state his case on rather one-sided terms. "I'll give you so much material, goddamit," he tells interviewer Albert Murray, "you'll have to lock yourself up and be all fucked up." Later, Jones insists, "You don't wanna get into my personal life," setting the tone for what often reads like a feverish monologue. "If you really want to do a book on Jo Jones—you couldn't sell it anyway. I'll close up the U.N.! I'd stop all wars if you get into my life. I'll pull all the dirt from under the rug. I'll give you what you supposed to write about me. My book."

Readers looking for insights into Jones' innovative style of drumming or his contributions to the Basie band will be hard pressed to find anything concrete. Instead he posits a vague, incomplete relationship between his nomadic ways and the music. "You play according to the way you live" is Jones' credo, yet apart from mentioning a background in shows and circuses, as a singer, dancer, dramatic artist, as well as playing the trumpet, saxophone and piano, he never really elucidates the connection between life on the road and the music. The closest he comes is stating, "You got a chance to be like a sponge, you absorbed the life that you saw. You played the incident."

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