Born Robert Elliott Jones on December 31, 1909, in Louisville, KY; died on April 30, 2000, in New York, NY.
It was a rare collection of recorded instrumental music in the 1950s and 1960s that did not include one or more samples of trumpeter Jonah Jones' musical artistry. Using a variety of trumpet mutes to create quiet, subtle treatments of popular tunes and swing classics, Jones did much to establish a niche for jazz as a relaxed, low-key music that could hold wide appeal for listeners from all over the musical spectrum, and he achieved commercial success rivaled by only a few of his contemporaries. Yet Jones' career encompassed more than the "muted jazz" he offered as a middle-aged musician. As a younger man he had played jazz that was decidedly on the wild side.
Robert Elliott Jones was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on December 31, 1909. He started out playing music in Sunday school, getting the nickname of "Jonah" from a teacher who stuttered when saying Jones' last name. He played the saxophone at first, but soon switched to trumpet, and he often said that his life changed the day he first heard the music of the famous New Orleans trumpeter Louis Armstrong. In high school Jones made extra money by playing in bands that entertained riverboat riders on the Ohio River near Louisville, and in 1928 he signed on with bandleader Horace Henderson.
Influenced by Louis Armstrong
For several years, as the big-band music known as swing developed and grew in popularity, Jones played as a journeyman musician, and was heavily influenced by Armstrong. "Louis could do no wrong," he said in an interview quoted in the London Times. "That guy was like a God to me. He had everything, tone, technique, feeling." Bouncing from band to band and honing his skills in the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra for a time, Jones learned to play in a variety of styles. But his first great success came when he joined a band whose music was as manic and adventuresome as that of the early New Orleans ensembles---that of violinist Hezekiah "Stuff" Smith.
Jones met Smith in Buffalo, New York, in 1932, and stayed with him off and on until 1940, taking part in Smith's famous sessions at New York City's Onyx Club. The atmosphere in Smith's band was raucous, and its creativity was fueld by drugs and alcohol; at one point Jones was warned by a doctor that he had less than a year to live unless he slowed down. But the music was daring, with the group often embarking on hour-long improvisations in which Jones matched the originality of Smith's wild solos. "I'd be there blowing, and Stuff would be playing riffs in my ear, muttering 'One more, Jonah, one more!'" Jones said in an article in the London Times. From time to time Jones took a break and appeared with other bands; pianist Lil Armstrong presented him as "Louis Armstrong II," and offered him a showcase for his ability to play in the pure Armstrong tradition.
Gillespie Blamed for Jones Spitball
Jones also recorded widely in the late 1930s and appeared with such top bandleaders as Benny Carter and Fletcher Henderson. He joined the band of Cab Calloway in 1941, remaining there for nearly a decade, as it downsized from big band to small combo. That placed Jones on the conservative side of the jazz divide that opened up in the 1940s between the new bebop style, pioneered by one-time Calloway trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and the more traditional idioms. Calloway disliked bebop, and he threw Gillespie out of his group after being hit one day by a spitball that Jones had actually thrown in jest. Conservative or not, Jones continued to be respected as one of the top trumpeters in the jazz world.
By the early 1950s jazz had come under pressure from new musical styles such as rhythm and blues, and from the mixture of styles that would coalesce into rock and roll. Jones cast about for new moorings, performing with pianist Earl Hines in a "Dixieland" band that revived traditional New Orleans styles, and playing in the pit orchestra of a production of George Gershwin's black-influenced opera Porgy and Bess. He traveled to Europe in 1954, where he recorded with New Orleans soprano saxman Sidney Bechet. Gigs became fewer and farther between, however, and Jones considered giving up music for a day job as a messenger or taxi driver.
In 1955, Jones assembled a quartet for one last shot in the music business, an engagement at New York's Embers Club. That restaurant-like establishment wanted quiet music and demanded that Jones use a mute in his trumpet---an idea that at first annoyed the disciple of Louis Armstrong's fiery style. But soon it became clear that there was a wide-open space in the jazz market for music that avoided the aggressive mood of bebop and its even more innovation-minded successors. Jones carved out a new style, marked by the use of as many as seven different mutes, in which he offered compact, elegant versions of standards and Broadway show tunes.
Notched Strong Album Sales
The enthusiastic response of the general public to Jones' new style went far beyond the boundaries of jazz fandom. Between 1957 and 1963 Jones and his quartet recorded a series of top-selling LPs for the Capitol label. The 1958 album I Dig Chicks brought Jones a Grammy award, and Jones' hit single "On the Street Where You Live" was a million-seller. In demand everywhere, Jones toured Europe, Asia and the Far East, and continued his engagement at the Embers for 20 weeks each year. Some progressive jazz critics felt that Jones' style fell too easily into a formula, but Jones believed that his success helped bring new listeners to the music of jazz. In the 1960s, new LPs by Jones appeared at the rate of one or more a year.
Jones remained active well into old age, holding down a residency at New York's Rainbow Room in 1975, and touring and performing through the 1980s. In his final years he was a repository of jazz lore, sought out for his many memories of the music's golden age. He appeared in television documentaries about Calloway and Gillespie, and was a familiar sight on the streets and in used record stores near his Lower Manhattan apartment, always willing to talk to interested fans about his music and experiences. In 1999, he took some turns on vocals at New York's Blue Note jazz club, as part of a benefit for the Jazz Foundation of America. Jones died at age 91 on April 30, 2000.
by James M. Manheim
Jonah Jones's Career
Performed in riverboat bands near Louisville, 1920s; traveled widely in Midwest and played with various bands; joined Horace Henderson Orchestra, 1928; played in band of violinist "Stuff" Smith, 1932-34, 1936-40; Cab Calloway Orchestra, featured soloist, 1941-52; toured Europe, 1954; led quartet at Embers club, New York, 1955; created "muted jazz" style; toured Europe and Far East, late 1950s; recorded series of albums for Capitol, 1950s and 1960s; recorded million-selling single, "On the Street Where You Live;" continued to perform throughout 1980s.
Jonah Jones's Awards
Grammy Award, Best Jazz Performance for I Dig Chicks, 1958.
- Selected discography
- Jazz Legacy: Jonah's Wail Inner City, 1954.
- Jonah Jones at the Embers Groove, 1956.
- Muted Jazz Capitol, 1957.
- I Dig Chicks Capitol, 1958.
- The Unsinkable Jonah Jones Capitol, 1962.
- Hello, Broadway Decca, 1965.
- (With Earl Hines) Back on the Street Chiaroscuro, 1972.
- 1936-1945 Classics, 1998.
- Good Time Medleys Decca, 2002.
- I Dig Jonah (collection of Capitol label music), Collectors' Choice.
- Recorded extensively in bands of violinist "Stuff" Smith and with other jazz bandleaders, late 1930s and early 1940s.
- Feather, Leonard, and Ira Gitler, The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz, Oxford, 1999.
- Guardian (London, England), May 10, 2000, p. 22.
- Independent (London, England), May 3, 2000, p. 6.
- Irish Times, May 13, 2000, p. 16.
- New York Times, May 3, 2000, p. B10.
- Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), May 4, 2000, p. B9.
- Times (London, England), May 10, 2000, Features section.
- Washington Post, May 4, 2000, p. B7.
- "Jonah Jones," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (March 21, 2003).