The Life and Opinions of Papa Jo Jones


Papa Jo Jones
Afterword by Phil Schaap
As told to Albert Murray
Edited by Paul Devlin

The life and times of Papa Jo Jones, gifted raconteur and one of the greatest drummers in the history of jazz

An American original and jazz luminary, Papa Jo Jones intrigued many with his outrageous personality and innovative drumming. Drawn from fourteen tapes recorded over eight years beginning in 1977, Rifftide is an impressionistic series of riffs and tales by Jones, revealing a man at the forefront of a new form of music and a country amidst incredible turmoil and opportunity.

Jo Jones, an elegant, swinging dude, always had a style of his own. When he was with us, you could hear him, feel him—everything was right there.

Count Basie

The things that I have, I’ll give to you. This is my legacy with you, Albert. This is my last hoo-rah. So begins the autobiography of Jonathan David Samuel Jones—or as the world better knows him, Papa Jo Jones. Playing with Count Basie and his orchestra when they exploded out of Kansas City in 1936 and took the world by storm, Jones went on to inspire generations of jazz drummers, but until now few have had access to his own remarkable story.

Rifftide presents Jones’s inimitable life and opinions, as originally told by Jones to the prominent jazz historian and novelist Albert Murray and now transcribed, arranged, and introduced by Paul Devlin. Drawn from fourteen tapes recorded over eight years beginning in 1977, Rifftide is an impressionistic series of riffs and tales by Jones: his life as a musician on the road in segregated America, his outstanding solo career following his years with the Basie band, and his interactions with iconic artists and cultural figures of the time, including Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and Satchell Paige.

A true American original and jazz luminary, Papa Jo Jones bedazzled and intrigued many with his outrageous, volatile personality and his innovative drumming—and nowhere does his fierce intellect and humor shine more marvelously than in his life’s telling. With a fascinating introduction and annotations by Paul Devlin and an afterword by Phil Schaap, jazz historian and longtime friend of Jones, Rifftide reveals a man at the forefront of both a whole new form of music and a country in the midst of incredible turmoil and opportunity. As Jones himself puts it: Listen man, I’ve had a hell of a time . . .


Papa Jo Jones (1911–1985) was one of the most influential jazz drummers of all time. He played with Count Basie and his orchestra from 1936 until he entered the army in 1944, and again from 1946 to 1948. He also played on Billie Holiday’s early records. From the late forties on, Jones had a spectacular solo career, playing with Jazz at the Philharmonic and the Newport Jazz Festival, recording under his own name, and playing on albums by Duke Ellington, Teddy Wilson, Benny Carter, and many others.

Albert Murray was a cofounder of Jazz at Lincoln Center. His many books include Train Whistle Guitar and Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie.

Paul Devlin is a doctoral student in the English Department at Stony Brook University. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Slate, the Root, and the San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications.

Phil Schaap has broadcast jazz on New York City’s WKCR for more than forty years. He taught at Princeton University and currently teaches at Juilliard. He is the curator at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Jo Jones, an elegant, swinging dude, always had a style of his own. When he was with us, you could hear him, feel him—everything was right there.

Count Basie

I first met Jo Jones at the RKO Theater in Boston when I was a teenager in the early 1940s and we were friends until he passed away. He was my first influence and my major influence. He was ‘Papa’ Jo to me before they gave him that title. He was like a father to me. For drummers of my generation, Jo was the president of the drums just like Lester Young was president of the tenor saxophone. Jo loved to talk, and when he spoke it was almost as if he was playing the drums: you’d give him your undivided attention. Rifftide conveys a fine sense of his voice and the larger than life dimensions of his personality.

Roy Haynes

Albert Murray has helped keep the incomparable Jo Jones alive through the voice of Count Basie in Good Morning Blues and fictionally in The Magic Keys, but in Rifftide, thanks to the persistence of editor Paul Devlin, we get to hear Jo himself in all his dynamic, adrenalized, anecdotal, no-bull glory—riffing with words as heartily as he did on the hi-hat.

Gary Giddins, author of Warning Shadows and Jazz

Rifftide is a gem of a book about one of the forgotten founding fathers of Swing. Jo Jones was more than a jazz genius—he was also one of the great characters and chroniclers of American life during the Swing Era. Based on extensive oral interviews and years of painstaking research, Rifftide is a terrific source not only for students of jazz, but also American history, African-American studies, linguistics, and sociology.

Debby Applegate, author of The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher

Papa Jo Jones is Brer Rabbit with a drum kit and opposable thumbs. In his own spellbinding voice, musical history and philosophy come alive on the page.

Mat Johnson, author of Pym

Devlin does the rare work of presenting the intersection of musicianship and folklore in a volume that belongs in any serious jazz or African American culture collection.

Library Journal

It is a very entertaining, thought provoking, and insightful read in better understanding such a burning talent and innovator. This is Papa Jo Jones, an American original through his riffing and unvarnished commentary on life and music.

JazzTimes Magazine

Jones 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. . . . We are lucky to have Rifftide.

Michael Steinman, Jazz Lives

Rifftide: The Life and Opinions of Papa Jo Jones is rife with stories of musical ingenuity amid the racial strife of the swing era and beyond.

The Root

With a pronounced irascible streak to match his heterodox approach to drumming, Papa Jo Jones (1911-85) was an ideal candidate to star in the kind of book that delights jazz fans: the straight-talking, defiantly espousing firsthand record. Anyone interested in authenticity of voice is going to be on the verge of fist-pumping the air throughout, or else exclaiming, ‘You tell it like it is, baby,’ as if partaking in a call-and-response with the book.

The New York Times

Rifftide: The Life and Opinions of Papa Jo Jones is a modest work, as charming, quirky, and enigmatic as its subject. . . . An invaluable and lengthy afterword by jazz historian and broadcaster Phil Schaap, who knew Jones for thirty years, makes the man and the musician come alive.

Modern Drummer

Rifftide is an easy, fun read that I'll keep returning to.

Ethan Iverson

Reading Devlin’s book, one can hear Jones’s voice and be sure they didn’t make two of those.

Alabama Writers’ Forum

In Rifftide, Murray, Devlin and Schaap have taken Papa Jo’s digressions on music, show business, and people beyond biography or cultural history and have produced a reflection on the American experience in the tradition of Alexis de Tocqueville.

Alabama Writers’ Forum

Jones is one of the great raconteurs of jazz, reminding me of Jelly Roll Morton in his effusiveness and convictions. There is a wealth of information in Jones’ meandering monologue through several eras of jazz history. He has seen it all and, as Ray Haynes says, loves to talk — about himself and all that he has seen.



Editor’s Preface

Introduction: The Musical Life of Papa Jo Jones Paul Devlin


I Have Had a Varied Life
Can’t Nobody Tell Me One Inch about Show Business
The Count Basie Institution
They Said the Negro Would Never Be Free
My Thirst after Knowledge Will Never Cease
People I’ve Rubbed Elbows With
I Often Wondered Why I Was Such a Strange Fella

Afterword: The Persistence of Papa Jo Jones Phil Schaap

Editor’s Notes

UMP blog - Papa Jo Jones, jazz luminary and ... actor?

Papa Jo Jones (1911-1985) was one of the greatest drummers of all time. He is perhaps best known for the innovations he made with the Count Basie Orchestra in the 1930s and 40s. Still, most people do not know that he also had a brief and wonderfully entertaining acting career. He starred alongside Ethel Waters in an episode of the thoughtful weekly drama Route 66, which gives a glimpse of an acting career that might have been. Jones had no dramatic roles on film before or after, though it is not easy to understand why.

Read the full article.




UMP blog - 100 Years: The life and "times" of jazz luminary Papa Jo Jones

October 7th, 2011, marks the one-hundredth birthday of Jonathan David Samuel Jones (1911-1985), better known to the world as revolutionary jazz drummer Papa Jo, “the man who played like the wind.” One hundred years after his birth in Chicago, Papa Jo is not forgotten—and never was—but he is also not as well-known as his music and his unique personality warrant. The music he made with Count Basie (for which he is best known), as well as with Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Teddy Wilson, Coleman Hawkins, Ida Cox, Tyree Glenn, Benny Carter, Charles Mingus, Milt Buckner, Bob Brookmeyer, Milt Hinton, and Duke Ellington (not to mention his work as a solo artist) is the epitome of taste, skill, and elegance, and can never be dated, as it rests on a deep historical foundation.

Read the full article.