Headed back to town for a performance with his seven piece backing band Friday night at Park West, I spoke with Darryl Jones about growing up in Chicago, and the importance of the music education he received at Chicago Vocational High School, touring and recording with Miles Davis and 25 years on bass for the Rolling Stones...
Growing up in Chicago had a profound impact on the life in music bassist Darryl Jones would eventually embark upon.
Early bass lessons in Chicago from south side neighbor Angus Thomas (Albert King, Miles Davis, Johnny Winter) and four years of music at Chicago Vocational High School prepared Jones well. Only a few years out of CVS he landed his first professional gig: touring with legendary composer, bandleader and jazz trumpeter Miles Davis.
Jones not only toured with Davis but also worked with him in the studio on the Decoy (1984) and You're Under Arrest (1985) albums.
Still only in his twenties, he joined Sting for his first project post-Police, taking over bass in a band which also included jazz greats like Omar Hakim, Kenny Kirkland and Branford Marsalis for The Dream Of The Blue Turtles album.
In addition to work with jazz luminaries like Herbie Hancock and John Scofield, Jones handled bass for Peter Gabriel during the famed "Human Rights Now!" series of Amnesty International benefits in 1988 and as a member of Madonna's band during the massive "Blond Ambition" tour in 1990.
Larger than life touring experiences like that would prove beneficial as Jones first picked up the bass for the Rolling Stones heading into what was then, arguably, their most grandiose outing behind the Voodoo Lounge album.
2018 marks his twenty-fifth year with the Stones, a stretch during which he recorded on and toured behind each Stones studio album: Voodoo Lounge (1994), Bridges to Babylon (1997), A Bigger Bang (2005) and Blue & Lonesome (2016).
Taking over bass for the Stones in 1993 following the retirement of Bill Wyman, Jones credits the 1988 debut Keith Richards solo album Talk is Cheap for changing his idea of what rock and roll could be. "When I heard Talk is Cheap, I thought, 'If that's rock and roll, I want to be involved with that!'" Jones said. "Because it rocked... but it also rolled. It was funky."
In the midst of work on a documentary celebrating his career, Jones presents the Darryl Jones Project Friday night at Park West.
It's a group over which Chicago looms large. Alongside Musical Director, Chicago born artist Nicholas Tremulis, Jones has put together a backing band featuring Chicago artists presenting a batch of new songs with a blues forward goal. "Come to the concert with an open mind," said Jones. "This music is a little bit more soul, a little bit more rock and roll... I really feel like I love a lot of different kinds of music... [But] I really want this blues forward."
I spoke with Darryl Jones about the importance of music and arts in the classroom, fond memories at Soldier Field both watching James Brown and performing on stage as a Rolling Stone, the similarities between Keith Richards and Miles Davis, and what he learned from Davis as a bandleader as he steps into that role for the first time. A transcript of our phone conversation, edited for length, follows...
Q. Well the Darryl Jones Project band that you and Nick Tremulis have put together is quite the lineup and one heavy on Chicago players. You’ve worked with Nick quite a bit in his role as your Musical Director. Where did you guys first cross paths?
Darryl Jones: We met through an old friend of mine actually – the guy who first taught me how to play when I was very young: Angus Thomas. And Nick was on the scene and Angus and he were playing together, just the way those things happen – musicians meet the friends of other musicians.
Q. What kind of an impact does being from Chicago have on you and what kind of an impact has it had on your music over the years?
Jones: I think it's pretty significant.
The music scene in Chicago is kind of set up in a way where you learn from kind of the elders down. If you are not respecting a particular kind of music in the way that they think is proper, then you get told about it. So, it really does help.
I also had the incredible fortune of going to a high school with a great music program. I went to Chicago Vocational High School. At that time a guy named Dr. Joseph Miller was the Orchestra Director and he really exposed us to pretty much everything. We played Bach. We played Beethoven. We played “The Sidewinder” by Lee Morgan. We played Duke Ellington's music. We played the pop music of the day.
So, I was lucky to come from Chicago and I think that it really does help having come from a place where there's such a musical proving ground. I had such a really great musical education and it really prepared me.
Q. At Chicago Vocational you had music all four years, right? That's something that's kind of disappearing today. Is that lack of music and arts in the classroom something that should be an area for concern?
Jones: I think very much so. I really do.
I did an interview a number of years ago and we were slated to talk about music education and schools and stuff. And so I did a little bit of research. And what I found out was pretty astonishing.
It would appear that music education for young children helps with many, many more things outside of music. There are studies that have shown that it helps with children developing social skills. It helps with mathematics. It helps children to develop leadership skills. There are all of these things.
With the Stones, when I asked them, “Well, where are we playing in Chicago?” And they said, “Soldier Field.” I was like, “YES!” That was like old stomping grounds.
Q. I know your father was a musician and you were kind of surrounded by music from a young age. I’ve heard you refer to the notion of growing up in a “two radio family,” with both parents listening to and exposing you to different stuff. Was Chicago radio a big influence on you in those formative years?
Jones: Completely, yeah.
WVON was a big one. I had been hearing – I mean I was 3 or 4 years old – but I had been hearing a lot of soul music and some blues and then suddenly there was The Beatles with “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You.” Those tunes crossed over. Much later on, I remember hearing [Elton John’s] “Bennie and the Jets” on WVON quite a lot. And that was a soul station.
You know, radio was really different in 1970. I started playing bass in 1970. Right next to Led Zeppelin was Sly and The Family Stone. Right next to that was James Brown. Next to that was The Beatles. It was much more varied than it is now. And I think that that has had something to do with my desire, and perhaps my success, playing more than one idiom. I think I kind of grew up listening to that.
My father of course was listening to WBEE and WBEZ. Daddy-O Daylie was one of the DJ's. And on WVON Herb Kent was one of the DJ's. And of course my father being a jazz musician, not professionally, but loving jazz and playing the drums, I think he made sure that I kept jazz as one of the things that I learned how to do. And so I thank him greatly. We were listening to Led Zeppelin and he would take us downstairs and say, “Well, listen to this is. This is something you need to know about as well.”
My mother took us to see James Brown, for a period there, any time he was in Chicago and was playing someplace you could take children. She took us. So that was a really big influence.
Q. Where in Chicago did you see James Brown perform?
Jones: I saw James Brown at Soldier Field. It must've been 1970? Or 1971 or 1972? We saw him at The Black Expo which was at the International Amphitheatre. I think one time we went to Chicago Stadium to see him. My mom was a huge James Brown fan and my brother and I got that from her.
Q. With memories like that at Soldier Field, what was it like for you coming back here that first time with the Rolling Stones and playing Soldier Field? That would've been the Voodoo Lounge tour, right?
For two reasons. One – because I had seen the James Brown there so long ago. And, two, because a lot of the acts that I played with, up until that time, they would play Rosemont Horizon. Or once we played with Miles at Theatre In the Round – Mill Run [in Niles]! So Sting and Madonna, all these bands, it was always just playing around Chicago but not really in the city.
So, with the Stones, when I asked them, “Well, where are we playing in Chicago?” And they said, “Soldier Field.” I was like, “YES!” That was like south side! That was like old stomping grounds – not exactly but very close!
Q. You weren’t out of Chicago Vocational that long when you landed your first professional gig touring with Miles Davis. Obviously, that’s quite the learning experience – but I’ve heard you say that one of the key things you picked up working with Miles was learning what not to play. How did that lesson manifest itself as your career progressed?
Jones: It's a question of listening to the musicians around you and allowing what you play to be informed and inspired by listening to what they play. It would seem to be a simple thing. And it would seem that all musicians do that... But they don't.
In addition to the fact that Miles, as we all know, was an enigmatic figure – there were all the stories about how you never knew what he was gonna like one day but not the next day. And so I very much tried to play the best that I could – which doesn't mean the most that I could – whenever I was on stage with him. And that became a very permanent part of my playing.
And when I teach now, it's awesome that I hear young bass players that have more chops than me. And I tell them, “Man, you have more facility on the instrument than I do... But I doubt there are any of you here that listen better than I do.” And I think that that has definitely been one of the things that has helped my career.
Q. I read in an interview once where of Miles Davis, you said that you had never met anyone who loved music more than he did. I interviewed Ivan Neville, who performed in Keith Richards' band the X-Pensive Winos, and that’s almost verbatim the compliment he paid to Keith. Do Miles and Keith share a similarity at all in that way?
Jones: Well, I guess I hadn't really thought about it that way... But they do.
I remember once... You go to Keith's room and he's playing Fats Domino and he's playing Muddy Waters and he's playing all of that stuff. Or... then you'll go and he'll be in a Jamaican period where he's listening to a lot of reggae from guys that I've never heard of.
I went to his room one night and he had rediscovered [the Miles Davis album] Kind of Blue. And he was just nuts about it! He was just going, “Man, this record is SO incredible!” So, he has that kind of curiosity within different idioms and stuff like that.
And my understanding is that Miles was that way too. The whole Sketches of Spain album happened because the woman that he was going out with at the time took him to a dance performance and they were playing some music – I'm not sure exactly which piece it was – but it was kind of Spanish music, some kind of cross between flamenco – and he just got totally caught up with it so much so to the point that he did Sketches of Spain.
Q. I’ve heard you say that when you heard Keith’s Talk is Cheap album, it changed your idea of what rock and roll could be. What was your expectation prior to that and how did that album change it?
Jones: I guess when I thought about rock and roll, I was thinking about a lot of the earlier stuff. I was thinking a lot about shuffles and a lot about Elvis Presley – which is not to say anything against Elvis Presley.
But when I heard Talk is Cheap, I thought, “If that's rock and roll, I want to be involved with that!” Because it rocked... but it also rolled. It was funky. Charley Drayton and Steve Jordan definitely brought it.
Then you have Bootsy on that record! The first song on the record, [“Big Enough”], is like Bootsy Collins being funky with this rock and roll thing.
One of the things when I look back and think about why I was able to kind of fit in with the Stones is that our junction point, I think, is Motown. I grew up listening to Motown and becoming informed about how to play bass before I played! I used to dance to that music.
Q. In terms of Keith’s almost improvisational spirit, especially live – he really never seems to play things the same way on any Stones live album– and even in the way him and Ronnie Wood play together, the weaving – is there a little bit of a jazz feel in that playing?
Jones: Well... I don't know that it would be considered jazz but it is totally improvisational. He is a very improvisational musician. Like you say, I stand next to him... I never hear him play the same thing twice.
Even if he plays the same lick, he's always trying to fit that square peg into a round hole a little bit. And I think that's great. Because it creates a kind of excitement in the music that you just can't get when you play something the same way every night.
And also, if I could be allowed to say, that's not what rock and roll is. Rock and roll is supposed to be a little irreverent. It's supposed to not care so much about itself. It's supposed to take chances and be challenging. So I would say, in that respect, I think Keith Richards is a very improvisational musician.
One of the things I say about the Stones is that there is an element of chaos there. It's almost like they're riding the edge of the razor. And it almost feels like things could fall apart.
And actually, in a way, the same thing was true with Miles. He'd rehearse a band and it'd almost be like un-rehearsing. He would take the things that you had been playing, the things that you had worked out, and he'd say, “Don't play that anymore.” And he would force you to find something new. He wanted you on that razor's edge.
Rock and roll is supposed to be a little irreverent. It's supposed to not care so much about itself. It's supposed to take chances and be challenging.
Q. Obviously you came to the Rolling Stones with a proven jazz pedigree. And Charlie Watts’ approach to rock music comes from a similar place. In terms of providing a backbone as the Rolling Stones rhythm section, did you guys hit it off musically pretty fast?
Jones: I felt like we did. As a matter of fact, when I played with him the first time, at the first audition, I think it was easy to kind of look at Keith and Mick and try to impress them. But that's not what I was thinking.
I've always felt that my first order, the first thing that I'm doing when I play with a new ensemble, is I lock with the drummer – listen to him carefully, find out what he's doing and learn how I can work with that, how I can mesh with him.
And [Charlie] kind of stood up and started pacing a little bit. And I thought, "That's either a really good sign or a really bad sign." And things worked out.
Q. The most recent Stones studio album basically functions as an homage to Chess Records and Chicago blues. What was it like for you, as a Chicagoan especially, working on Blue & Lonesome?
Jones: Man, I was trying not to come off like the new guy, electric bass player, reading my charts!
A lot of it, I was literally muting the bass with the heel of my hand and trying to get almost a stomp with a little bit of a note – almost like what I heard on some of the stuff when you hear Willie Dixon playing acoustic bass.
Again, I wanted it to have that looseness.
Q. Well bringing it back to the Darryl Jones Project, moving forward with that now and doing some of these live dates, as you step into that role of bandleader for the first time, what have you taken from your experiences working with a bandleader like Miles Davis?
Jones: Well, I'm at the early stages of this. I've been performing with many people for many years. I haven't really stretched my legs as a leader and I am learning. I'm learning how to do that. That's a work in progress.
I really want blues forward. That's a term that I've been throwing around… I want the music – and this comes directly from Miles – I want everything that I play to have some blues in it… That’s my starting point. And from there, we’ll see what comes.
The other thing that I noticed about Miles early on was, we'd play at some points in the tour gigs that would be two and a half hours long. He would come back after the show, go to his hotel room and start listening to the gig that we had just played. And he would listen to it once. Or twice. Or three times. And, as a result of that, at four in the morning you'd get a call.
But the point about him listening... Everyone goes on about how Miles is a genius – and I do believe that – I mean, I've seen it. I've seen him, just with me and him in the room and him with a trumpet in his hands, do things that seemed almost mystical. But. He. Worked. Hard at it. He listened. And he was always tinkering with the music. He was always trying to make it better. He was always trying to explore different avenues. He was always trying to push musicians to experiment and to try new things. And I think it's important that people realize it wasn't just talent, it was a lot of hard work as well.
I do realize that you need some leadership skills and you need to be able to direct people in a way that moves them into the direction that you want to go without squashing their natural tendencies. So that's something I'm learning as I'm going along. In fact, that's one of the reasons that it's called the Darryl Jones Project. At some point I'll come back to Chicago, or I'll be playing around, and it'll actually be a band. It'll be my band.
I’m excited about this. I’m excited about trying to blend those things. And, yeah, it’ll be interesting. I think it’ll be exciting to watch. We’re going to try some interesting things.
- Jim Ryan ( @RadioJimRyan )
(Details on Friday's Darryl Jones Project show at Park West below)
Darryl Jones Project
Friday, March 9, 2018
Doors open at 7PM
Show starts at 8PM
18 and over
Click HERE to purchase tickets
Tags: Angus Thomas, Bill Wyman, Bootsy Collins, Charley Drayton, Charlie Watts, Chess Records, Chicago Vocational High School, Daddy-O Daylie, Darryl Jones, Darryl Jones Project, Herb Kent, James Brown, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Miles Davis, Nicholas Tremulis, Park West, Rolling Stones, Ronnie Wood, Steve Jordan, WBEE, Willie Dixon, WVON, X-Pensive Winos