Wednesday, August 26, 2020

The case of Rufus 'Speedy' Jones

I'm kind of narrow in my listening habits— I never listened to a whole lot of big band, so I never knew about the drummer Rufus Jones until I saw this video on the internet. He was a big band drummer mainly active in the 60s, in the spectacular, chops-intensive mode of Sonny Payne, Louis Bellson, Buddy Rich, et al, though Jones is clearly a sideman, a road guy, rather than a marquis name.

I saw this and I needed to figure out what the hell is going on:

Now, to me it's extremely weird to play a full-on drum corps style drum feature in the middle of very intimate piano trio music. My entire playing life, what you do on the drums is play to fit the situation, and make some kind of musical statement. Treating the drums like it's a musical instrument in an ensemble.

In a similar vein, here's the drum feature tune from Jones's one record as leader:

For serious snare drum guys this has got to be really exciting stuff; it's hard for me to process it as a piece of music— the soloing at least. It reads like a sonic triathalon; it doesn't compute as a musical statement, to my ears. 

On Jones's actual supportive playing with a band, he generally plays with a lot of taste. He sounds great playing with Maynard Ferguson's band, on the Roulette recordings. Here he is playing an arrangement called The Fox Hunt— the owner has disabled embedding, so you'll have to click this link to listen on YouTube. He sounds great.

But it depends. This track, and this record generally, really wears out my ears. I frankly do not like the cymbal sound here:

I'm not unsympathetic; there are times when you're really playing for the band and the situation, where you end up playing in a way that might not record well. And there are other considerations besides making a pretty-sounding drumming performance. 

Interestingly, he doesn't seem to have insane chops for playing actual fast tempos in the usual bebop way: the way he handles Cherokee on that same record— playing quarter notes on the cymbal, accenting the 1 and 3, lots of bass drum on 1, lots of left hand and bass drum activity, and not much happening with the hihat— it's really a different kind of groove. 

I think possibly we're in more of a show musician rather than a purist jazz musician mentality here. He plays the arrangements impeccably, and lays on the spectacle when he's featured— maybe all that was required of a road guy. His 1983 interview in Modern Drummer*, much of which is about soloing, and getting a response from an audience, seems to support that. I'm curious to hear people's comments about him.

* - Thanks for the tip, Ed!


Ed Pierce said...

I am loath to criticize any drummer who has such a high level of skill AND who was hired by such luminaries as Duke Ellington and Count Basie; but I agree with much of your assessment here. His playing has never really grabbed me compared to other big band drummers of his era (Sonny Payne, Mel Lewis, Buddy Rich, Harold Jones, etc.). But man, did he have impressive skills (double stroke rolls at FFF!), and he obviously got the job done in a big way. For an additional perspective, Peter Erskine recently posted this clip on Facebook, and said that it had "THE single most amazing fill and big band set-up I have ever heard (starting at around :43)":

Justin said...

I don't know if comedy is a musical goal, but that solo in context was hilarious. Such chops, that guy should be on youtube!

Todd Bishop said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Todd Bishop said...

Ed: I studied with a drummer who was with one of those two bands in the 70s, and-- it was not happening. Duke and Basie are gods, but I'm not sure everyone who ever played with them is too. In a way, that was the lesson-- for that guy the whole idea was to get gigs and perform and get recorded. The drums seemed almost incidental to him.

That is a nice fill on the Duke thing-- like I said I do like Jones's playing on those Maynard records. It's not like he's a bad drummer, I just don't get what he's doing with that soloing thing.

Justin: Sort of like the "THIS GUY'S ON THE WRONG GIG LOL" of jazz. Not that much of an exaggeration.

Ed Pierce said...

I hear you, Todd. Although I would point out that Jones's tenure with Duke's band was for a decent period of time--I think he was with the band from the mid-60's (he's on the Far East Suite album) through the early 70's (I think his tenure with Basie was much shorter, probably for around a year, or maybe even less). I'm guessing that Duke really liked having a strong, driving drummer in the band, and that subtlety (from the drum chair, at least) was not as important to him (I think that Jones's playing was kind of similar to Sam Woodyard's in this regard, and Woodyard was with Ellington for around 10 years, I think). Although Duke DID try to get Elvin in the band, although apparently that only lasted a few weeks (my hunch is that it didn't work out not because of Ellington's dissatisfaction, but rather the dissatisfaction of the the other members of the band, who couldn't hang with what Elvin was laying down).

A few other random comments on Jones:

1. I found out recently that he authored a drum book in 1972 called "Professional Drum Exercises:

2. I have the Modern Drummer Digital Archive of all their issues from 1977 to 2001, and there is an interview with Jones in it from the early 80's. I could scan and send it to you, if you'd like.

3. Jim Chapin always stated his admiration for what he called "drum athletes" (which he was clear to point out is a separate category from great musical players), and I have heard him bring up Rufus Jones a couple of times as a great example of this type of player. On one of his "Songs, Solos, Stories" CDs, he talks a bit about Jones, and said that at those "Gretsch Night at Birdland" events in the early 60's (which I'm guessing were mostly just drum pyrotechnic cutting contests more than anything else), Jones would participate and "wash everybody away" with his playing. Although he adds something like, "Max could compete, because he had his melodic thing going," and "Blakey could compete, too, because he had the African drumming thing going."

On a sad (and non-drumming related) note, Rufus Jones had a mentally disabled son named Lebrew who was wrongly accused and convicted of murder in the 1980's, and spent decades in prison, until (due mostly to the efforts of a journalist who became convinced he was innocent and worked to expose flaws in his case) he was finally released around 10 years ago. Rufus Jones died around 1990, I believe.

Todd Bishop said...

I don't even want to come off as criticizing him, I'm just trying to identify what's happening, figure out my own reaction to it. People are going to have different ideas about the job, especially in the case of old school guys-- I wouldn't expect to share all the same values with someone like that. I do really like his playing on those Maynard records.

1. I'd be curious to see that book, just because I like books. I'll keep an eye out.

2. I found that! Interesting interview-- good stuff about chart reading in there. A lot of it is about soloing, and getting a reaction from the audience when soloing-- verifying what I was thinking, that it's really the approach of a show drummer. "I'd know I was getting paid to play solos and make the show more exciting."

In a way it's part of the tradition to be aware of-- it's a little bit present in Max's playing, and Blakey, and Philly Joe-- even Billy Higgins at times, and our own Mel Brown-- but I don't want to hear playing that is 100% about that.

3. That's the big issue here-- I have zero interest in the athletics of it. To me that's a whole other field. The only reason I was in corps was that my instructors were all former Dowd students or Cirone students-- music was a priority. The pure rudimental chop socky gets boring really fast. It's interesting that Chapin categorized players that way-- athletes vs. musical players.

Actually there's a really good quote towards the end of that interview:

“The first thing I'd say is forget about making it big. If you're that good and it's in the cards for you to make it big, you probably will and no one can stop it. However, I say first prove to yourself that you are a drummer.”

Ed Pierce said...

Agreed on all of that. And I didn't mean to imply that you were criticizing him or his playing. It's interesting to examine or speculate about what motivates musicians to play like they do.

Lazaro said...

Hi guys, great post and comments. Could anyone upload the MD interview? I been looking for Rufus books, but the prices are atronomical. Well, thanks for this post.

Jaydee Daley said...

I had just come across Rufus after watching a Count Basie performance. I hadn't expected the drummer to blow my mind. I've never been so impacted by a drummer before. I would make a great talent scout because I know greatness when I hear it.

I read a few criticisms and I as gobmacked that anyone can criticize such a great player; there is no pleasing some people.

He's the greatest drummer I have ever heard.

Todd Bishop said...

It's good to be inspired by musicians, I would never say anyone shouldn't be.

Chaplain14 said...

I enjoyed the man's ability, but I am mystified about his death at such a young age, and the brief treatment of that death, and it's cause. Can you educate me on this?


Emes will prevail said...

Definitely in the caliber with buddy rich

Paul Speter said...

I saw Rufus Jones play with Ellington on two different tours in Australia. The album 70th Birthday Concert was recorded during that world tour. Listen to his playing on any of the tracks, up tempo, ballads whatever. Perhaps especially on Black Swan and his gentle shuffle work on several tracks. He remains an inspiration to me and the album is on of my all time favourites. Sad he didn’t get the recognition he deserved before he died. I read where he had to give up playing due to rheumatoid arthritis and worked as a hotel doorman/janitor. Check out the album and his own album, you might change your minds about his playing.

Anonymous said...

I agree

Anonymous said...

Can’t believe the criticism. Have a listen to the Duke’s 70th Birthday Concert album. Some of the most sublime drumming one will ever hear. I saw him play twice with Ellington in Sydney Australia during the 70s. He remains an inspiration to me as a drummer.

Todd Bishop said...

Thanks for the comments guys. I'll give a listen to that 70th Birthday album.

Anonymous said...

Thank you friend now I'm going to take over my father talent.yes he is the fastest drummer in the world

Anonymous said...

Yes my father is the same caliber as buddy

Anonymous said...

Thank you Paul for having good comment for my father

Todd Bishop said...

Thanks for visiting Anon-- Mr. Jones was your father? I apologize if my comments come off as critical, that's not the intention. Clearly I wasn't at all diplomatic the way I wrote that-- out of respect I've edited my comments a bit.

His playing is clearly very different from what a lot of us do today, even though we're all in the same business, and that's what I was thinking about.

He did say something very great in that Modern Drummer interview, that speaks for a lot of us, what we're doing with our lives:

“I say first prove to yourself that you are a drummer.”

Anonymous said...

Buenas tardes colegas Toco en Argentina en la década de 70. Realmente era el motor de la orquesta. En el intervalo del concierto con Duke, salió con un martillo y puso clavos delante de los bombos para que no se le corrieran. Un genio !

Unknown said...

What I find most interesting regarding these forums written by drummers who supposedly know what they are talking about is simply this...except for a very few drummers I could name on one hand...his expression, speed, technique, clarity and attack are unmatched. Oh and some of the best that every lived thought he was pretty good too.

Todd Bishop said...

Thanks for the comment unknown-- I want to be clear: I've only commented on Jones's playing regarding how it fulfills *my* taste-- which is not the same as saying I think he's a bad drummer, or that I think he was bad at his job as he and his employers and fans conceive it.