Obituary: Eddie Jones

Click to follow
The Independent Online
"It was a fabulous time, a golden age for jazz," the bassist Eddie Jones said of the ten years he spent in Count Basie's band which began in 1953. "It was a good time to be in that band and a good time to be alive. Working for Basie was a pleasure: all he asked was that you show up, do your job, look good, and play well." A job in the band was much to be prized. "You couldn't afford to get sick in that band - if you didn't show up you disappeared."

Jones's family home in Red Bank, New Jersey was two doors away from Count Basie's. As a youngster he studied music education at the local Howard University where he played jazz with future Basie-ites Frank Wess and Bill Hughes, as well as the embryo jazz composer Benny Golson. Jones then worked as a teacher for a year before he began graduate studies, during which time he toured briefly as the bassist with Sarah Vaugham.

At this time Frank Wess joined the Basie band and, when bassist Milt Hilton decided to leave, Wess told Basie about Jones. One day in 1953 Jones came home to find that Wess had been waiting there for him for a couple of hours. He took little persuading and joined Basie at once.

Basie had moved to Kansas City during the late Twenties. He joined Walter Page's Blue Devils in 1928 and from there his piano-playing had become a potent element in the Kansas City style which later swept across the world to influence every corner of jazz. Basie's technique was based on the power of the rhythm section.

He played very sparsely and allowed the other rhythm instruments to sound through. This emphasised the importance of the beat and provided a light, close-knit and springy lift to the band, which had never been heard in jazz before. When Basie formed his original band, later renowned as one of the most famous grops in jazz, he took his former boss Walter Page on bass for his rhythm section, and added Freddie Green on guitar and Jo Jones on drums.

Green was still there when Eddie Jones joined and, teamed with the drummer Sonny Payne, then extended the great tradition and ensured that the Basie band and the word "swing" continued to be interchangeable.

Jones had a big, fat tone and an exquisite sense of time. The exposure he got with Basie made him immediately in demand amongst the top-most echelons of jazz musicians and he seemed to be seldom out of the recording studios. He recorded with bandleaders including, amongst many others, Ray Charles, Milt Jackson, Coleman Hawkings, Joe Newman, Thad Jones and Ben Webster. But it was with what became known as the "New Testament" Basie band of the period (the original Kansas City band being the "Old Testament" Basie band of the period that he made his most profound mark on jazz.

I will never forget Jones's underpants. Britain 40 years ago was conservative in attitude compared to that of our friends in the former colonies. We didn't have bubblegum, Coke, colour television or even Marks & Spencer's underwear - let alone boxer shorts. Before the Basie band made its first visit here in 1957 I had exchanged letters with Benny Powell, one of its trombonists, and on 21 April 1957 I turned up to see him at the Palace Theatre in Blackpool where the band was to play that evening. One of the staff left me at the door of the band's dressing room. When I opened it I was confronted by the rear view of four large pairs of underpants.

I had stumbled upon the Giants and the Midgets in action. The musicians of the Basie band at the time fell naturally into the Giants - colossal- sized musicians - and the Midgets. While changing for the evening's concert two of the latter, the diminutive saxophonist Frank Wess and the trumpeter Joe Newman, who were, like the giants, clad only in "shorts", had begun a furious row. The Giants, in the huge frames of Eddie Jones, baritone player Charlie Fowlkes, and trombonist Henry Coker and vocalist Joe Williams surrounded them benignly to look down at the fun.

In those days British underpants were bristly, off-white and uncomforable purely functional things that one bought frm the Co-op. But what exotic and dissolute splendour now confronted me! Eddie Jones's underpants were adorned with gold fish, while Charlie Fowlkes's were a riot of purple bubbles, Henry Coker wore some New York tartan and Joe Williams was bedecked with dominoes.

Jones finally left the band in 1963 because he felt he was underpaid. The economics of a big band have always been controversial. Duke Ellington ("But you'd be working with me, Sweetie"), Basie and Woody Herman were all fundamentally adept at luring musicians to work for them, touting musical satisfaction as being as much of a reward as the scavenged money. But on this occasion Basie had unbalanced the formula and around the time that Jones left he also lost the trumpeters Snooky Young and Joe Newman, the singer Joe Williams and the two saxophone players Frank Wess and Frank Foster. As a result he began paying better wages.

One of the most attractive jobs for an accomplished player is in the New York studios where television, radio and commercial recordings are made. Jones now tried to break into this field but, like many black mausicians before and after him, found barriers in his way which he thought were put there by racial prejudice.

Ironically his next success was reputedly by the same process in reverse. Disenchanted with the music business Jones joined IBM as a trainee. Adept at the work, his progress was rapid and he swiftly joined the company's management team. Rightly or wrongly some of his former colleagues in the music business believed that he was there as a "show" black man.

Later Jones worked for an insurance company in Hartford, Connecticut, and, as he had whilst with IBM he used his holidays to tour with jazz groups. He had been a member of many bands made up of ex-Basie players and played festivals in America and Europe, usually as a member of George Wein's Newport All Stars.

He was always one of the happiest of men, and his broad grin, not often absent from his face, was as inspiring as his prodigious bass-playing.

Steve Voce

Edward "Eddie" Jones, bassist: born Red Bank, New Jersey 1 March 1929; died Hartford, Connecticut 31 May 1997.