Willie Jones

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The Chicago pianist is the youngest in a triumvirate of jazz musicians named Willie Jones, Willie Jones Jr., and Willie Jones III, who are actually not related to each other. His 1920 birthday in the…
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The Chicago pianist is the youngest in a triumvirate of jazz musicians named Willie Jones, Willie Jones Jr., and Willie Jones III, who are actually not related to each other. His 1920 birthday in the heart of the Mississippi Delta makes the pianist the "senior" of the bunch, a bit less than a decade older than the drummer who performed with the likes of Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus. The overlapping aspect of the bandleaders these players named Willie Jones worked with is part of the overall haze. Pianist Jones, although keeping his professional activities confined to Chicago, managed to record with players such as Gene Ammons, Clark Terry, and Paul Gonsalves. These stylists are not so far off from the type of bandleaders that Jones Jr. backed up, nor for that matter Jones III, whose '90s credits include a stint with hard bopping Horace Silver. The final recording session of the older drummer Jones Jr. was with the spaced-out Sun Ra, who had just left Chicago for New York City. Back in the Windy City, the pianist Jones was known as "the piano wrecker," a reputation Sun Ra might have been proud of.

Biographical research done by the Jazz Institute of Chicago is one source of more detailed description concerning what this man named Jones could supposedly do with a piano. He could run chordal bass lines at twice the speed of the blind genius George Shearing. He could play so hard that an upright piano would literally vibrate, appearing to be floating off the bandstand. Avant-garde jazz pianist Andrew Hill appraised Jones as a player who had absorbed funky organ music as well as the most advanced classical composition, a kind of early Cecil Taylor -- early enough, apparently, to have been somebody whose fingers were watched carefully by a young Sun Ra.

Jones' career took off in Chicago in the second half of the '40s. His first recording sessions were with alto saxophonist Buster Bennett, quickly followed by involvements with the band of vocalist and trumpeter King Kolax. Through the '50s he most likely played at any Chicago club that would possibly hire a pianist as well as for just about any independent recording company that would do likewise. He had occasional chances to lead his own sessions, such as a Vee-Jay production in the summer of 1954 that seems somewhat casual in nature, if titles of compositions are any indication. Jones does "My Thing," then "My Other Thing," leading to "Willie's Blues" and an equally possessive contribution from bassist Betty Dupree, "Betty's Mambo."

As was typically the case on the Chicago scene, labels that recorded jazz and blues also cut doo wop and vocal group records, an aspect of the Jones discography in which any piano wrecking was kept to a minimum. Jones himself was said to be a good singer who often vocalized in his nightclub acts but never opened his mouth in the recording studio, at least not with the intention of singing. Taking a drink was another matter. The pianist's reputation as a drunk was almost second to none on the Chicago scene and that might have been a case of whoever was making the judgment seeing double. Pundits have indicated that all this sipping was the reason that Jones is poorly represented on record, although that doesn't account for all the drunken piano players who do have large discographies. At any rate, Jones continued earning at least a few thousand bucks every year as a pianist in Chicago into the early '70s. He died of arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease on the last day of 1977.