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Jazz Trumpeter Took Smooth RoadCopyright © 2000The Scotsman, 2000
Jonah Jones was on the verge of giving up music in the mid-1950s, but instead seized the opportunity to transform his style from a driving, Louis Armstrong-derived swing to a less challenging but commercially successful approach which brought him a ten year residence at the Embers restaurant in New York, and chart success with his melodic versions of popular tunes like On the Street Where You Live and Baubles, Bangles and Beads.
Long before he became known for that approach, however, Jones had established a lasting reputation as a formidable jazz trumpet soloist with a succession of great band leaders, including a highly productive partnership with violinist Stuff Smith, and a lengthy association with Cab Calloway.
He was born Robert Elliott Jones, and first learned to play his instrument at a local community centre in Louisville. He performed locally and on riverboats as a teenager, then worked in the midwest for a time with band leader Horace Henderson. He moved north in 1932, and played with a succession of leaders, including Stuff Smith, pianist Lil Armstrong (the wife of his main inspiration), and the famous McKinney's Cotton Pickers. He rejoined Smith in 1936 for an engagement at the Onyx Club in New York which eventually lasted four years.
He worked briefly with Benny Carter and Fletcher Henderson before joining Cab Calloways band in 1941, an association which lasted until 1952, and saw the trumpeter survive the shrinking of the group from a big band to a quartet. It could have been different if Calloway had known that Jones was the culprit in a famous incident in which a chewed-up ball of paper was thrown at the band leader, who mistakenly blamed the young Dizzy Gillespie. The misunderstanding led to a famous backstage scuffle, and Gillespies exit from the band.
Joness career slipped after leaving Calloway in 1952, and by the middle of the decade he was contemplating an alternative career when pianist Joe Bushkin offered him a gig at Embers as a replacement for Buck Clayton, on the condition that he play only with a mute in his trumpet. The management and clientele wanted soft, melodic music, and Jones duly obliged, setting aside his customary approach and cultivating an easy on the ear style which became his trademark for the rest of his career.
He took over the Embers residence with his own band in 1955, and remained there for a decade, racking up numerous chart hits in the process. Although the requirements of the job cramped his style, Jones was always primarily a melody player in any case, and showed little interest in the harmonic and rhythmic developments which his former band mate, Dizzy Gillespie, had pioneered. He adapted readily to the new demands, and enjoyed the success and the much wider audience it brought him, not only in America, but also in Europe, Australia and the Far East, where he toured successfully in the 1970s and 1980s. He continued to play muted trumpet and to sing until his retirement from performing in 1993.