Thursday, April 12, 2012

Papa Jo Jones, Jazz Drummer and . . . Actor?

In honor of Jazz Appreciation Month this month, writer Paul Devlin has agreed to discuss Papa Jo Jones' little-known stint on Route 66, a series for which all episodes have been recently made available on YouTube. Hello, Good Night, Sweet Blues!


Editor of Rifftide: The Life and Opinions of Papa Jo Jones

Papa Jo Jones (1911-1985) was one of the greatest drummers of all time. He is perhaps best known for the innovations he made with the Count Basie Orchestra in the 1930s and 40s. Still, most people do not know that he also had a brief and wonderfully entertaining acting career. He starred alongside Ethel Waters in an episode of the thoughtful weekly drama Route 66, which gives a glimpse of an acting career that might have been. Jones had no dramatic roles on film before or after, though it is not easy to understand why.

Ethel Waters (1896-1977), the legendary singer and actress, became the first African American nominated for an Emmy Award for her moving role as a dying blues singer in “Good Night, Sweet Blues,” an episode of Route 66 that first aired on October 6, 1961. Waters was nominated for outstanding single performance by a lead actress, and while she did not win, the power of her heartbreaking performance leaves little doubt that she should have.

Route 66 was a stylish, smart production that featured two young (white) men from different class backgrounds, Tod and Buz, who travel throughout the United States in search of a place to belong (which they never find) and in the process have adventures and assist people in need. While it was a highly polished program, it was more Quantum Leap than Mad Men in that each week featured a new cast (aside from Tod and Buz). It was known for its intelligent themes, smart dialogue, and fine acting. (Another episode captures, with pitch-perfect precision, the paranoid, nativist strain in American politics and presages the Tea Party movement.)

Although Route 66 has largely faded from pop consciousness, it was an enjoyable, solidly middlebrow hour of television and within those parameters, the episode “Goodnight, Sweet Blues” is something of a masterpiece. It is the story of Jenny Henderson, a retired blues singer with a heart condition (the show was ahead of its time on the topic of women and cardiovascular health) who seeks to reunite her old band, The Memphis Naturals. As the episode opens, Jenny has a heart attack and nearly has a head-on collision with Tod and Buz on a highway outside Pittsburgh. They call for an ambulance and the scene shifts to her house, where an African American doctor (a general practitioner) is conferring with a white cardiologist about Jenny’s prognosis. After chatting with Tod and Buz, and realizing that Buz is a jazz buff, Jenny reveals her identity and conceives a grand plan. She wants to reunite The Memphis Naturals one last time. This is where the backstory becomes particularly interesting: three of Jenny’s six former bandmates are played by jazz legends Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldrige, and, alas, Papa Jo Jones. The other three are played by veteran actors Juano Hernandez, Frederick O’Neal, and Bill Gunn. The men are introduced by means of a faked old photo: that is, a 1961 photo made to look like it was 30 years older, for which Jones even dons a toupee.

After a 1976 after-dinner lecture to the Duke Ellington Society (which is included in Rifftide), Jones participates in a Q&A session with the audience. One of the audience members vaguely remembers Jones being in a television program some fifteen years earlier. (The "Good Night, Sweet Blues" episode actually re-ran several times throughout the 1960s, at least in the New York market, according to the television listings of the New York Times.) Jones replies that yes, it was indeed Route 66:

The man that wrote the show up studied piano with Teddy Wilson. Roy Eldridge started on drums. I started on trumpet! Now, don’t worry about it. I think we got about 2,000 people out here that can back us up; that’s still alive. ‘Jo, do you still play trumpet?’ I’m using my mother-in-law’s teeth! I can’t even… shoot! [audience erupts in laughter] NO! NO! ‘Why was you on the trumpet and Roy on the drums?’ I say, ‘didn’t you read the communique?’ It was written two weeks before came out. The man wrote a preview of what the show was all about, and why he selected us to do these things. But you notice it was done in good taste. At least Roy was in New York, playing in the studio. And Coleman Hawkins was playing in this big lavish place, you know, “Snooze.” Juano Hernandez, he had pawned his horn, he was a shoeshine boy. But this is thirty years later, when Miss Waters is dying and she wants to see her boys and she’s got enough money. She’s not a colored mammy down in Mississippi still picking cotton. She said ‘go find my boys!’ Now they find me because – I’m Lover Brown, yes! I’m in jail, still doing the same thing – I’m a bigamist! At least I wasn’t in there for nothing! I’m still flirting with the chicks in prison, you know what I mean. At least I’m a bigamist, I wasn’t, you know, a pot-hound. It was real funny. And they gonna run it again! …I don’t know what I’m-a get out of it. Next time they show it I’ll get 68 cents.

Hawkins, Eldridge, and Jones were major innovators on their respective instruments, so one thing that makes “Good Night, Sweet Blues” particularly fun is that in the episode Hawkins plays clarinet, Eldridge plays drums, and Jones plays trumpet. (Eldridge began his career as a drummer, and even after becoming one of the world’s most important trumpet players, would still sometimes play drums in Gene Krupa’s orchestra in the 1940s, when Krupa was out in front conducting. Later in life, Eldridge returned to the drums. Jo Jones played trumpet, piano, and vibraphones in the 1920s, prior focusing on drums in the early 1930s. To paraphrase what he says at one point: I tried trumpet, but there was Louis Armstrong: no good! I tried saxophone, but there was Coleman Hawkins: no good! I tried piano, but there was Art Tatum: no good!)

I cannot help but think that somehow behind the scenes, this episode is related to the comeback album of sorts, “Blues for Rampart Street,” recorded by the “Uncrowned Queen of the Blues” Ida Cox (1896-1967) earlier that same year. The Coleman Hawkins Quintet (Hawkins, Eldridge, Jones, Sammy Price, and Milt Hinton) accompanies Ms. Cox on that album. A few years later, when Milt Hinton interviewed Jones for the Smithsonian’s Jazz Oral History Project, they reminisced about making the album with Cox. Jones reminded Hinton that when Cox was rediscovered, so to speak, she was not “washing dishes in [the coffee shop in] Macy’s.” On the contrary, according to Jones, Ms. Cox still had her original diamonds that she’d bought in the 1920s. Jones told Albert Murray some years later, on one of the tapes that Rifftide was culled from, that Cox’s traveling show had consisted of an entourage of no less than eleven cars. (I'm unsure whether this means automobiles or train cars.)

On another note, when Tod and Buz track down the former members of The Memphis Naturals, they find the men in a wide variety of circumstances. In an era when some jazz musicians had turned to drugs, particularly heroin, thus creating an image that lingered to some degree in the public imagination, the creators of Route 66 did not wish to engage in such stereotypes. Recently, the trumpeter and singer Nicholas Payton, in his crusade against the word “jazz,” has lamented the fact that the image of the jazz-musician-on-drugs was so prevalent in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet “Goodnight, Sweet Blues,” which ran in re-runs throughout the 1960s, pitched middle America a very different collection of images. Route 66 presents a realistic portrait of several people gone their separate ways: some are successful, some are getting along, some down on their luck – but excessively morbid or maudlin images of the African American jazz musician as junkie are not indulged in.

Trumpet player “Lover” Brown (as Jones notes above) is in prison in Kansas City for bigamy, of all things. He has to say that his sister is ill in order to get a furlough for the weekend. (There is a little joke going on here – Kansas City is where Jones made his name and revolutionized jazz drumming with the Count Basie Orchestra in the 1930s.) In a notable exchange in "Goodnight, Sweet Blues," Jenny asks Brown about the tall, suited white man who has just entered her room along with Lover Brown.

JH: Who’s the gentleman?
LB: Oh, that gentleman? That’s my manager. You know, I can’t go nowhere without him. You know how it is when you become a star, you have accounts, and managers…
JH: [Seeing right through this charade] And wardens and guards…

This wonderful rapport in this and further scenes between Waters and Jones brings to mind when this duo first appeared on film together. Waters sang, accompanied by the Basie band, in the 1943 World War II propaganda film "Stage Door Canteen"; a still from this film appears in Rifftide.

Route 66 is a landmark for African Americans on screen, not just for Waters’ performance, but for the diverse portrayal of the other jazz musicians as well. It is also a welcomed artifact for the study of Jones, showcasing his on-screen dynamism and giving a hint of what his acting career might have been like had it found traction. For all the homage that the episode pays to the music, it does not damp down the earthy good humor and exuberance of the musicians and their personalities.

Indeed, it showcases the diversity and dynamism of their personality and backgrounds, and by extension, of jazz and African American history.


Paul Devlin is a doctoral student in the English Department at Stony Brook University. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Slate, the Root, and the San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications.

"Jo Jones, an elegant, swinging dude, always had a style of his own. When he was with us, you could hear him, feel him—everything was right there."
—Count Basie


Paul Devlin is among the featured authors participating in the Alabama Book Festival on April 21st.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this wonderfully written piece on this brilliant episode of one of American TV's best series.

    Actually, the "Goodnight, Sweet Blues" episode of "Route 66" just aired last weekend in the Los Angeles area on Memory Entertainment TV.

    I was so blown away by the episode that I watched it several times.