WILLIE JONES III
WILLIE JONES III, DRUMS
Ever since 1997, when he moved to New York City from Los Angeles, his hometown, Willie Jones III has been one of the jazz capital’s most prominent drummers. Whether functioning as a savvy bandleader or high-profile sideman, Jones applies to every context an abiding musicality and a tonal personality that, as Wynton Marsalis puts it, is “ever tasteful,” marked by what pianist Eric Reed, his frequent collaborator, calls “a West Coast swagger in his swing, with a looseness that isn’t lackadaisical and an edge that isn’t overwhelming.”
Jones’ indomitable will to swing infuses each of his six CDs as a leader, issued on his imprint, WJ3 Records. The most recent is the 2015 release, Groundwork, on which a nonpareil rhythm section (Jones, Reed and legendary bassist Buster Williams) propels a multi-generational, all-star cast of improvisers (vibraphonist Warren Wolf, trumpeter Eddie Henderson, trombonist Steve Davis and tenor saxophonist Stacy Dillard). Jones has also played on, produced and released on WJ3 critically acclaimed CDs by pianists Reed and Cyrus Chestnut, alto saxophonist Justin Robinson and guitarist Jacques Lesure.
“Art Blakey’s groups, especially from 1955 to the late 1960s, are my ultimate model,” Jones says. “Like him, I’m trying to surround myself with musicians who write great songs. At the end of the day, I like to swing.”
That aesthetic stance makes Jones, born in 1968, a first-call sideman for such like-minded generational contemporaries as Russell Malone, Javon Jackson, Kurt Elling and Reed. After competing in the semi-finals of the Thelonious Monk Competition in 1992, he emerged on the international scene in 1995 with trumpet virtuoso Arturo Sandoval. Soon thereafter, he took an engagement with Horace Silver, and, in 1998, began a seven-year run with the Roy Hargrove Quintet.
In 2007, he joined the Hank Jones Trio, and held the drum chair until Jones’ death in 2010; he was Cedar Walton’s drummer of choice in various-sized ensembles from 2008 until Walton’s death in 2013. Jones’ sideman resume also includes multiple engagements with tenor saxophonists Sonny Rollins, Michael Brecker, Frank Wess and Houston Person; Wynton Marsalis; the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band; vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson; trombonist Steve Turre; and vocalists Ernestine Anderson and Ann Hampton Calloway.
Growing up in Los Angeles, Jones absorbed hardcore swinging jazz vocabulary from a host of master practitioners, including his father, the accomplished pianist, composer and arranger Willie E. Jones, whose friends and collaborators included such L.A. titans as trombonist George Bohannon, tenor saxophonist Teddy Edwards, and drummer Lawrence Marable. He first took private drum lessons with Clarence Johnston, whose c.v. included several years in James Moody’s popular octet in the 1950s. At California Institute of the Arts, Jones studied drums with Albert “Tootie” Heath, while working locally with Edwards and James Newton, and attending Thursday night jam sessions run by drum legend Billy Higgins, who advised him to move to New York.
“I still follow Billy Higgins’ model,” Jones says. “I’m always trying to support whoever I’m working with to make the music sound as good as possible. I have a good balance. I’ll continue to evolve as a leader, but I’ll always play as a sideman—I still love learning and playing other people’s music.”