Obituary: Max Jones
Wednesday 04 August 1993
MAX JONES was the first jazz musician to become a professional journalist, writing solely about jazz. In fact, he was so accomplished that to his death he remained one of the few people worldwide able to earn his living from writing about the music.
A naturally likeable man, he was popular with some of the most prickly visiting American musicians and struck up lasting friendships with people like Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and Louis Armstrong. He must have interviewed more jazz musicians than any other writer in the five decades of his writing career. Max and his radiant wife Betty used to take the American visitors in tow when they arrived, and many of the most eminent jazz musicians came to depend on the ever-friendly couple in their frequent difficulties.
Dinah Washington, for instance, called Jones from her London hotel at half past five one morning to accuse the hall porter of threatening her with sexual assault. It is difficult to imagine that Dinah, who had the dimensions of a Churchill tank and who had seen off half a dozen husbands before she was 40, could feel about to be overwhelmed by what transpired to be a slight and not entirely sober janitor.
'I zoomed to a dawn-empty Oxford Street to see what I could do,' Jones wrote. 'The facts, as I interpreted them from her story, were that she had 'sent out for a bottle of whisky' in the small hours and the night man - delivering same and discovering our singer bare except for a shortie nightie - had drawn a perilously false conclusion.' Jones succeeded in calming the situation but discovered later that Washington had had the man sacked.
Frequently Max Jones made first contact with American musicians at their lowest point. When he first met Billie Holiday, at London Airport in February 1954, she was clad from neck to foot in a luxurious mink coat and 'tired, cold and resentful'. Like Washington, Holiday was notoriously impossible and intimidating. Jones opened the door of the hire car which was to take her to her hotel. 'Gingerly I proffered the bottle, asking whether it was too early for a taste and apologising for the lack of glasses. The look of menace was replaced by a smile. I don't think she spoke but she slid forward and the bottle vanished into the mink . . . .'
Max Jones and his brother Cliff became interested in what was then dance music while they were at school. They taught themselves to play saxophones and by 1930 had formed a semi-professional band called the Campus Club Dance Band. At their weekly rehearsals they played the latest jazz records from America and studied the Melody Maker, then and for decades mandatory reading for anyone interested in jazz. With Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Coleman Hawkins visiting Britain for the first time it is no wonder that Jones recalled the early Thirties as enchanted years. When the Campus Club Dance Band broke up in 1935 Jones hoped to become a full-time professional and 'joined a new group fronted by trumpeter Johnny Claes and played happily alongside him until a close encounter with the sound of Coleman Hawkins convinced me of the futility of that ambition'.
Eventually Jones disposed of his instruments and followed his other interests, cricket and motor racing, but retained his love of the music. he became much involved with 'rhythm clubs', where enthusiasts would give record recitals to each other. By the beginning of the Forties he had come to be regarded as an authority on the music and worked on the BBC's Radio Rhythm Club programme from 1942 to 1943. In 1942 he and the astute but eccentric writer Albert McCarthy established Jazz Music, one of the best of the early jazz magazines.
A man of strong principles, Jones registered as a conscientious objector at the outbreak of the Second World War while his anarchist friend McCarthy became what he described as 'a trotter'. He kept trotting ahead of the authorities as they pursued him and was thus able to avoid military service altogether.
Jones was invited to contribute to the Melody Maker's Collectors' Corner feature in 1944 and in January the following year was taken on full-time. His views on the more traditional forms of jazz had become widely respected. This was the beginning of his international renown and as his Melody Maker articles burgeoned, he came to be regarded as amongst the leading writers on New Orleans, swing and mainstream jazz.
The pieces he wrote for the paper were amazing both in their proliferation and their perception. Few of them have dated and the collection of them published in book form as Talking Jazz (1987) is delightful to read and an essential reference. With the 'talking' part of the title Jones was being ironic for, as he happily admitted, he was a most voluble conversationalist. 'Max Jones phoned' was a good excuse for any of us who missed a deadline, and indeed to phone Max was to risk one's phone bill's taking on national-debt proportions.
Jones made his name at a time when the opportunities for a writer about jazz were thin on the ground. The high quality of his writing helped and also came into play when he co- authored with John Chilton in 1970 a biography of his real and long-time friend Louis Armstrong. Louis: the Louis Armstrong story was the first candid book about Armstrong's life and the authors were respected as being amongst the best international jazz historians.
After he left the Melody Maker in 1982 he retired to Middleton-on-Sea from where he continued to write for jazz magazines and to supply them with photographs from the huge collection he had amassed over the years. He was working until recently on a further collection of his writings to form a sequel to Talking Jazz.
Max's black beret - he was never without it - was seen at most of Armstrong's British concerts and indeed acted as his landmark in any audience or pub crowd. When Talking Jazz was being published in the United States, the American publishers admired Wally Fawkes's cover drawing which pictured Coleman Hawkins, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Johnny Hodges and, in the centre, Max.
'Very good,' said a publisher, 'but who's the guy with the beret?' When it was explained that it was the author he said, 'No good, he'll have to come out.' Fawkes had to remove Max Jones from his art work and replaced him with a drawing of Ben Webster.
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