Jazz Lives: Rifftide
Like its subject, RIFFTIDE is simultaneously enthralling, elusive, irritating, and unsettling. Jones (1910-85) was a great innovator and an equally great synthesizer of percussion technique, someone who understood that the drummer could liberate both himself and the band by rethinking jazz rhythm, by creating a flow rather than a series of demarcations. Although Henderson drummer Walter Johnson was working towards similar goals, Jones’ great sound was that of the floating, whispering hi-hat cymbal, carrying any band forward and upwards — but most especially the Count Basie band in its most glorious years. Behind the drums, at his best, he was both Loki and Dionysus — unpredictable, boyish, shape-changing, his sound always right. Away from the drums he was someone else, a monologist who rarely let his listeners know the plot of his play.
Jo Jones would have been furious if described as “normal.” That condescending description was for the “nine-to-fivers.” A self-described “nut,” he was a cosmos unto himself: elliptical, often enraged in conversation, given to diatribes that served to push most listeners away, the result seeming at best irritating, at worst irrational. (On that score, many have theorized that Jones’ behavior was the result of syphilis contracted early and not entirely cured.)
In the Seventies and early Eighties, Jones was eager to get his stories on paper, and he spoke to (rarely “with”) the African-American scholar Albert Murray, while Murray was working on another “as told to” book, the unsuccessful autobiography of Count Basie, GOOD MORNING BLUES. (Either Basie was too modest or he didn’t entirely trust Murray; the real stories went with Basie to the grave.) The tapes of Jones’s “autobiography” came to Devlin when Murray was too ill to edit and transcribe them, although the two men discussed what Devlin had come up with.