Willie Jones III isn’t shy about crediting his late father, a renowned pianist from Los Angeles, with sparking his interest in jazz.
“Even before I started school, he would take me to rehearsal with him and I would watch while he rehearsed. For some reason, I would always sit next to where the drums were, and I was just amazed by the physicality of the instrument,” Jones says.
“I used to play on the pots and pans, and I used to take forks and knives and bang on the back of the sofa, so my parents said, ‘We gotta get him a drum set.'”
They started him off with some practice pads and drumsticks, but when he was seven or eight, his dad bought him a snare drum. Then, in middle school, he got his first full drum set.
“That was an incredible thrill. I wasn’t really serious about practising, yet, but I was always passionate about just playing. I’d put on Art Blakey records, and I could play with that for hours.”
He also loved watching his father at work with his colleagues.
“I could watch musicians practise and play for hours as a kid. I knew that was the kind of lifestyle I wanted.”
Growing up in L.A., Jones soaked up the output from the Blue Note and Prestige jazz labels, and cites East Coast drumming luminaries such as Max Roach and Philly Joe Jones as early influences on his style.
“But I am from the West Coast, so there are a lot of people I’m influenced by – drummers like Donald Dean and Larance Marable, who weren’t household names like the drummers on the East Coast, back in the day.”
Another major influence while Jones was studying at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) was hard-bop drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath, who was his drumming instructor and member of the Heath Brothers trio.
It was Heath who expedited his first big break by suggesting Jones to replace him on a gig with the legendary vibraphonist Milt “Bags” Jackson.
“I did a three-week West Coast tour with Milt Jackson because Tootie recommended me for it. That’s still one of the high points of my career so far.”
Another CalArts faculty member who gave Jones an early career nudge was flute player and composer James Newton, who provided the young drummer with some of his first professional gigs.
But there is one mentor Jones cites above all others.
“Billy Higgins is my biggest influence by far. My whole approach to how to play drums when I’m playing in an ensemble is based on the concepts of Billy Higgins.”
In fact, it was during their time with the Billy Higgins workshop, The World Stage, that Jones and a few of his friends started a quintet called Black Note in 1991. That same year, they took top honours in the John Coltrane Young Artists Competition.
From there, the ensemble went on produce four CDs, including one for Columbia Records, which sent them on tour, opening for Wynton Marsalis.
The Higgins concept that struck him the most and remains with him to this day? Simply play with people.
“That’s a simple statement, but it’s so difficult to do. His genius was being able to make music with anybody, no matter who you put him with,” Jones says.
“It could be (sax player) Ornette Coleman, it could be (pianist) Thelonius Monk, it could be (hard bop trumpeter) Lee Morgan. He was able to make music regardless of the style, and make something beautiful happen,” he explains.
“So that’s my concept. No matter who you’re playing with, keep your ears open and look at how to make it sound musical. That’s something I strive for all the time, whenever I’m put on the bandstand.”
Since moving to New York City 19 years ago, Jones has made the occasional foray into composition, but doesn’t consider himself a “real” jazz composer such as Cedar Walton, Wayne Shorter, or Horace Silver.
“I’m working on some new ideas right now. I favour ballads; that’s my thing. Beautiful melodies and nice harmonies, so I’m always trying to come up with something along those lines.”
About 18 months ago, Jones put together a quintet for his sixth CD, Groundwork. An as-yet-untitled seventh CD is due for release next June on his independent label, WJ3.
Although there have been a few personnel changes, that is essentially the ensemble Jones is bringing to Whitehorse for a Jazz on the Wing concert at the Yukon Arts Centre on Sunday, Oct. 30.
It will include pianist Eric Reed, his long-time colleague from the Black Note days, bassist Gerald Cannon, with whom he played in Roy Hargrove’s band, tenor saxophonist Ralph Moore and trumpeter Jeremy Pelt.
The cabaret-style concert will begin at 7:30 p.m. More information is available at www.JazzYukon.ca.