Connie Jones - photo by Vincent Escudero, 2009
On seeing Connie Jones, previously unknown to me, perform at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, I was very impressed with his musicianship and presence, and decided to interview him. He graciously accepted. The interview took place October 7, 2013 in his home, with his wife Elaine, and my friend Don Hargrove of Toronto also present.
Craig Morrison : How did you get involved in music ? What kind of music did you hear at home ?
Connie Jones : The first kind of music I can recall listening to was western swing. My dad was a big Tex Williams fan. Around 1940 we got a record player and a radio, big monstrosity of a thing. Remember those 78s ? He had a whole bunch of Capitol Records, one of which was Tex Williams. We also had some classical music. The First Piano Quartet’s “Hungarian Rhapsody” [by Franz Liszt] and stuff like that come to mind.
CM : Where were you at this time ?
CJ : Just about six or eight blocks away from here, over across the railroad tracks and two blocks down. On Woodlawn Place, 5500 block of Woodlawn. My around-the-corner neighbour was a very famous New Orleans trumpet player named Tony Almerico. He had a place called the Parisian Room, which had Sunday afternoon jazz concerts. That’s where I first started playing. I can remember as a little boy, listening to Tony practice [thinking], “Boy, I wish I could do that.” Although he was a night person, we’d see him running around the neighbourhood. I must have been about 16 or 17 years old, [when] in some kind of way I got to know him. I told him what I was, and he invited me up to the Parisian Room to play. He had had some “junior bands,” is what he’d call them. One of which was Frank and Freddy Assunto, who later became the Dukes of Dixieland. They had gone on to the next step ; they had started playing professionally. Frank was two or three years older than me, so he had gotten out of high school. I scrounged up a bunch of kids and we did that junior band thing. In fact, there’s a picture on the wall of the band at the old Parisian Room. Then I started playing different jobs ; I started working with the Basin Street Six.
CM : How had you started playing the trumpet before you met this neighbour ?
CJ : I went to a military school. While at the military school I started playing a plastic bugle, because this was right after World War II.
CM : What’s your birthdate ?
CJ : My birthdate is March the 22nd, 1934. I didn’t do too good in school so my parents sent me to this military school to kind of teach me how to focus.
CM : Did it work ?
CJ : Yes it did. To be honest with you—people say, “Ugh, military school”—I loved it ! I loved it. I started playing the bugle over there ; they let me take it home for the holidays so I could practice. I guess I drove my parents, probably the whole neighbourhood, crazy, playing the damn green plastic bugle. From then, my mother decided I could have a trumpet. My dad didn’t want me to have anything to do with music. But my mother bought [it for] me ; they gave me a trumpet for Christmas.
CM : How old would you have been at Christmas ?
CJ : About 11, I guess.
CM : On the bugle, were you playing “Taps” and all that ?
CJ : Oh yeah ! I could still remember the bugle calls.
CM : Did you ever throw them in your solos as little quotes ?
CJ : No, I don’t quote when I solo, I don’t use quotes in solos. But I have a pretty good memory. I’m almost 80 years old, and although I have trouble recalling names now, I still remember all the music. I had a really bad head injury 20 years ago, and I thought maybe it might have some effect on my memory but it didn’t.
CM : Not the musical memory. Thank goodness for that.
CJ : Not the musical part of it. Thank goodness, yeah. That’s always been a very important part of my life. As a kid, even before I knew what a musician was, I always wanted to play music. Fortunately I’ve been able to do that. I’m very, very, very lucky. Coincidences happened too, that furthered me along that road.
CM : Do you still listen to western swing at all ?
CJ : No, but you know there’s no reason I shouldn’t because I enjoyed it and I listen to YouTube almost every day. But I just never have thought of, “I’ll look it up,” like Tex Williams.
CM : There were some trumpet players in western swing.
CJ : Yes, there were. Yeah, a lot of the country, western swing bands, they used to play a muted trumpet and cup mute.
CM : “New San Antonio Rose” by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys has mariachi trumpets.
CJ : Bob Wills, right, yes. A good friend of ours was on the Bob Wills band : [drummer] Monte Mountjoy, who is now deceased. Yeah, that was good music. From what Monte told me, I’ve talked to a couple of other people since then, those guys’d played with the western swing bands with guys from New York. Really good players, and they’d come down and make up a section. It was good music.
CM : So you heard this neighbour Tony Almerico. Did you ever take lessons from him ?
CJ : No. He was a player ; I don’t think he was a teacher. He had a band, I guess you would call it a big band, that had maybe ten pieces : three saxophones, two trombones, a trumpet [and rhythm section]. They played all different kind of functions, weddings, carnival balls, and events like that. He was a very, very busy musician. Then he had a radio show every day, in the afternoon. That’s really good self-promotion. He was really good to us kids. In fact, all of his band was. They didn’t say, “Come on, get away from me.” They were all, all very nice to us and very helpful to us.
CM : In the junior band ?
CJ : Yes, we would play during the intermissions. The way they’d start, they’d come on for about 45 minutes, and we’d go out and play 20 minutes. They come back and do a radio broadcast. At one time, they were dong three half-hour radio shows, one for the armed forces, one for a local station, and one for WWL, which was a 50,000 watt clear-channel station. We played in between them.
CM : What was the repertoire of the junior band ?
CJ : It wasn’t very large, maybe 20 tunes. We were learning in those days. We didn’t do too many of the complicated things, like the ODJB [Original Dixieland Jazz Band] tunes that went to three different keys, because we weren’t that good, to be honest with you. We did “The Sheik of Araby” and “Bill Bailey” and stuff like that, the simpler, the easier stuff. And we all went on to become professional musicians.
CM : Did you play with any of those guys again later ?
CJ : I did. When I was a band leader on the Delta Queen [riverboat], I hired the bass player from there, Bobby Alexias. He worked with me for a couple of years. He had gotten a Ph.D. and worked for the state of Texas. He was retired and so he could come on for a couple weeks at a time and play. Ronnie Duport did, yes, and [pianist] Larry Muhoberac. Some of them are still alive.
CM : What happened after the junior band ?
CJ : I was hired by the Basin Street Six. George Girard, a very good trumpet player, left the band and started his own band. The band at the Parisian Room on Sunday afternoon asked me if I would play with them for that. I played with them, and they asked me if I would like to work with the band. A week or so later, I started with the band. It was a tremendous learning experience for me.
CM : What was it that you learned ?
CJ : Ensemble work. I learned how to play my instrument more. Being I guess 19 years old, they sent me to a local trumpet player and teacher, a guy by the name of Al Hirt [pictured], who gave me some instructions which really helped me out. I learned basically how to run a band. A lot of theory from the trombone player, because he was a very good musician, and my repertoire really grew. Again, I liked music, and I had a really good memory. I mean a really good memory, so I learned stuff like that. I know show tunes and arias, and things like that.
CM : Do you play in the style of Al Hirt because you took lessons from him ?
CJ : Oh, no ! No, I don’t. I’m kind of a mish-mash of styles. I was influenced by, of course, [Louis] Armstrong. And Charles Teagarden, Jack’s brother, was a very big influence on my playing. Bobby Hackett, people like that. Harry James, I listened to as a young man. Although I don’t play, really, like any of them, I liked what they did with their instruments and I found out why. I’ve been really very lucky, I played with really good musicians. Just to drop a few names : [trombonist] Jack Teagarden and [clarinetist and saxophonist] Eddie Miller. I always found that if you asked them—other people too—certain things, they didn’t mind telling you. Eddie Miller and I were really very close. We worked for like seven years together on Pete Fountain’s band. Eddie was a studio musician before he moved back here. I’d say, “Eddie, on such-and-such a record you just did….” And he’d say, “Well, you can do [Connie sang a riff to illustrate].” I would absorb what they told me. It was a great learning experience. Every day’s a learning experience. Should be, if you’re lucky.
CM : My mother told me that during the Second World War she was putting a lot of nickels in the jukebox for Henry Busse and Bunny Berrigan.
CJ : Berrigan was another influence, oh yeah ! He was a great trumpet player. He was an awful drunk, but a great trumpet player. He was not only the jazz player on the bands he played with, he played leads. That was unheard of. Most of the time the jazz trumpet player played second chair, but Bunny played them both. I don’t know if it’s the reason why Benny Goodman’s band was written like that, because he played with Benny Goodman’s early band. Well, the people who followed Bunny Berrigan, people like Pee Wee Erwin and Harry James, were not only great lead players but played jazz too.
CM : When you say you took an influence, let’s say, from someone like Bunny Berrigan, can you actually name what it was you got from him ? Or was it more like a general inspiration ?
CJ : It was like a feeling of what he did. I like Yank Lawson as an ensemble player. I like the way he did it. And I saw what he did ; he played basically the melody. There’s nothing wrong with that. Until my later years, when I was playing with smaller groups, trios and quartets, that’s what I did. I was a trumpet player in a dixieland band. I played the lead ; but then when you’re playing with trios and things like that, you have to do a bit more. I always was a pretty good improviser, so I started doing that more.
CM : When you do your improvisations are you thinking more about melodic embellishment or harmonic motion, chord progressions ?
CJ : Let me see if I can put this like I tell students : at no time can you tell me, “Play the lead,” that I can’t. I don’t care what I’m playing, what part of [a tune], say “Play lead” and I can just jump right into the melody line. I’m always conscious of the melody line. I know where I am and I know the chord changes. So it’s both, yeah.
CM : You play cornet now, but you started on trumpet. If I get this right, the difference is that the cornet has a conical bore and the trumpet has a straight bore.
CJ : Basically, yeah. The bell on the trumpet is longer and more gradual than it is on the cornet, and it’s kind of like an air horn on a dump truck. It’s that big long thing and it gets a different sound. A cornet is smaller. The inside diameter is the same on both. If you fill up a cornet with water and pour it in a trumpet, it’s going to be full. It’s just that the tubing is stretched out longer on a cornet ; it looks shorter, but it’s the way it’s wrapped.
CM : So it’s not the bore, it’s the length.
CJ : It is the bore. And it’s a combination of the bore. You couldn’t get a trumpet mouth piece into my cornet, because it’s larger there.
CM : When you play cornet and when you play trumpet, do you play much the same thing ?
CJ : I haven’t played trumpet in many, many years. But I have a feeling if I did have to, first of all, I’d have to get used to the sound that comes out, because it’s a different quality. The cornet is a little bit more mellow.
CM : A warmer sound ?
CJ : Warmer, and I play a deeper mouth piece too. As I got older, my sound started getting a little harsher, so I went to a deeper mouth piece, which gives you a little bit more mellow sound.
CM : It seems that quite a few people that started out on cornet, such as Louis Armstrong, switched to trumpet. And you did the opposite. Why ?
CJ : I did the opposite, yeah. I just like the way it sounds, yeah. When I was on Pete Fountain’s band, LeBlanc musical instruments was his sponsor, so to speak, and every three months or so a truck would pull up in front of the club and dump off a crate of instruments for us to play. We had trumpets we didn’t know what to do with. But I had asked the guy for a cornet. I used to play both of them, ‘cause I played lead trumpet on Pete’s band, and with two trumpets, five brass, five instruments ; and I would do the jazz, the little bit of jazz that I did do, on the cornet. And I liked it. So when I left the band I went to cornet.
CM : Do you have a recording that you think is the best representative of your style ?
CJ : I don’t listen to my own music. Rarely. Rarely. The most recent was that thing I did with [pianist] Tim Laughlin and I’m not happy with that at all. My idea, every once in a while—I say I don’t listen to myself—[but] every once in a while I’ll say “Jeez, is it as bad as I thought it was ?” and I’ll listen to it : “No, it’s not.” I’ve done some duet stuff with [pianist] Tom McDermott that’s, I guess, pretty much on the top end of my playing as far as my ability to play the instrument [on a CD called Creole Nocturne]. ’Cause with the duets, you don’t have as much wiggle room. You pretty much have to play all the time.
CM : I saw that you had done the Music Minus One series. What did you think of that ? Was that a good project ?
CJ : Uhh, that’s a funny project. That started off as an album for Tim, and then when we did this Music Minus One series, they used the rhythm section track. And then we each went in and did our own parts, separately. So, if you bought the thing for a trumpet player, it was the whole thing minus the trumpet, thus the minus one. Then I did the writing for that, the accompanying book for each instrument. Paid well.
CM : In the lineage of New Orleans trumpet players, there are some famous guys that never recorded, such as Chris Kelly and Buddy Petit, and of course Buddy Bolden. But there’s so many that did record, and you’ve been playing New Orleans jazz for long, long, long time.
photo : Elaine and Connie Jones on the day of the interview
Elaine Jones : Sixty years.
CM : Yeah. Do you see yourself linked to that lineage through the very early players ? You mentioned Armstrong, but did some of the other players click with you ? Maybe I can be more specific. Do you ever listen to, or what do you think of someone, say, like Lee Collins. Do you know anything about him ?
CJ : I knew Lee Collins. He was a marvelous trumpet player. He was a really, really good trumpet player. I mean, player of the instrument. He could just play the stuff out of it, the instrument. And a very nice man. I met him in his later years, at the Parisian Room. I remember listening to him playing. I went “ooh,” ‘cause he got the big, bright, hard sound.
CM : He got under-recorded, I think.
CJ : Probably. A lot of guys did.
CM : Did you ever read his book ? It’s wonderful. It’s called Oh, Didn’t He Ramble. The subtitle is The Life Story of Lee Collins as told to Mary Collins.
CJ : No. I’ll find it. Well, that’s nice. I think that’s very nice of somebody.
CM : There were two guys that came in after as editors. Collins wrote some things himself, and he said some things to his wife that she either recorded or wrote down. And the editors went into the Tulane archives [The Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University, New Orleans] and they got a couple interviews that he’d done there, and they put it all together. It reads seamlessly. It came out in 1974.
CJ : Really, well that’s good to know. I just finished a book on Pee Wee Erwin about a year ago or so. God, what a memory he had. He could remember each band, each date.
CM : Since I’m asking you about earlier players now, what’s your opinion of Bunk Johnson [1879-1949] ?
CJ : I never listened that much to him. We used to refer to him as a ‘primitive.’ I was never a big fan of the Preservation Hall bands. I liked things a little bit more… a little bit less primitive.
CM : More sophisticated.
CJ : When I first started listening, my favourite bands were Armstrong’s later bands, and then Sharkey Bonano [1904-1972], remember Sharkey ? That was the first live white band I ever heard in my life. I must’ve been 12 or 13 years old. He was a good trumpet player. I consider myself an extension of him, if anything.
CM : I have a recording that has two live broadcasts from 1957 and 1958, and the one from ’57 is fabulous.
CJ : Broadcast from where ? Wouldn’t be from the Parisian Room, would it ?
CM : Might’ve been. They don’t say on the album [Sharkey and his Kings of Dixieland].
CJ : Could’ve been, ‘cause they did a couple albums like that. He was very good, very melodic, and he didn’t know that much about music, about his chord changes and stuff like that. A lot of people are like that. They don’t learn the changes, they don’t know why this happens, or why, if this note fits here, it doesn’t fit here. But they learn to accommodate, they learn to adapt to that.
Bunk Johnson and George Lewis in 1946
CM : That’s funny, cause that’s what Lars [Edegran] told me an hour or so ago. We were talking about [clarinetist] George Lewis [1900-1968].
CJ : Yeah, George was a primitive.
CM : And he said, “Bunk Johnson knew the changes, but George Lewis was a melody player. He was good on a hymn or something like that, but when it got into some of those chord changes, he didn’t know where he was. He was totally unschooled. He was a feel player. But Bunk Johnson, he was trained.”
CJ : They were primitive. I mean nothing derogatory about that term, ’cause those guys were making that shit up as they went along, back in the early days. [laughs]
CM : And they had feeling.
CJ : Oh yeah ! George Lewis was in the band that played my senior prom. It was fronted by [trumpeter] Papa Celestin [1884-1954].
CM : No way ! My goodness. That’s remarkable.
CJ : Yeah, 1952. I danced to their music. I went to George Lewis’s funeral too. It was at the Olive Branch Baptist Church, and it was a mob scene. Thousands of people there. He was very well liked. And I understand he was a very nice gentleman too. Louis Cottrell [1911-1978] was another very good ‘primitive,’ although a little bit more advanced.
CM : Would Mutt Carey [1891-1948] fit into that as well ?
CJ : Mutt Carey was a primitive also, yeah. Are you familiar with Dick Sudhalter ?
CM : Yeah, he wrote the book Lost Chords [Lost Chords : White Musicians and their Contribution to Jazz, 1915-1945 by Richard M. Sudhalter]. He’s an extraordinarily good writer.
CJ : Right. We were working together for a couple of weeks on the Mississippi Queen. He played trumpet.
CM : Was he good ?
CJ : Yes. And he was a very intelligent, super intelligent person. It took him about eight years to put that book together.
CM : That’s an astonishing book.
CJ : He had two degrees : one in music and one in journalism. His first job when he got out of college, a small, prestigious college, was in Germany. Instead of flying to Germany, he took a boat to Germany, and learned German in the seven days or whatever it took, and then he moved into a German family household that spoke no English. That’s how he learned German. He spoke a couple or three languages.
CM : Dick Sudhalter passed away recently, I think.
CJ : Within the last few years. He was very sick for about six, seven, eight years. He had some kind of disease, where it got to where he couldn’t speak. He would come to the phone when I called him. He wouldn’t come to the phone for many people, but we were pretty good friends. Finally he got so bad where Dorothy would sit there and translate for him, to me, while we talked. He died a gruesome death. I don’t know what his disease was.
Elaine : You did a good album with him.
CJ : I sure did, yeah. I forgot all about that.
Elaine : It’s called Get Out and Get Under The Moon.
CM : In the Lost Chords book, I read about Red Nichols. Do you have a feeling for Red Nichols ?
CJ : I liked Red Nichols’s playing, yes I did. It was great. People don’t like him ‘cause it’s a little stiff, and cut and dried, but it was always good music. He always had great musicians. He’s a good trumpet player.
CM : I got to know who he was from records that my mother bought. My mother’s favourite music is dixieland. She’s 88 and when I go home, we always listen to dixieland together.
CJ : I must’ve been 17 years old or so, maybe 1950, I had a two-sided record, on 78, with the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” On the first side Red Nichols did it as a rubato tempo [Connie sang a little of it]. Then it went into a blues type, one chorus of that. Then you’d put the other side on and it said something like, “Now that we’re on the other side, let’s take a ride.” Then the whole band played it as a jazz. It was some great musicians : Matty Matlock, Eddie Miller, I guess Mo Schneider : all the good players on it.
CM : I first heard his later records ’cause he came back in the dixieland revival, and he did about five albums on Columbia. One was a ragtime album [Blues and Old-Time Rags, 1964].
CJ : Rick Nelson [trombonist] was on that.
CM : They were very good. Recently I saw the movie, The Five Pennies, about the Red Nichols story. It’s pretty good. It gets a little sappy towards the end.
CJ : Of course, it’s a movie, it’s got to. Never seen it.
CM : Louis Armstrong’s in it. There are some nice scenes. Danny Kaye plays Red Nichols. Then I wanted to hear the older records and I got a CD with the best of his early recordings. In the Lost Chords book, Dick Sudhalter wrote a lot about him, and he defended him. I thought that was right, because well, I’m a guitar player, I play piano, I’ve been playing in bands for years, I know what music is, I’ve had good training. I know all my theory, I teach music at a university, but I don’t play that style. But I can hear it. And I heard it and I thought it’s fantastic. I couldn’t understand why people hated it so much.
CJ : I don’t, I can’t even.
CM : Dick nailed it in that book. The Europeans went crazy for it, and then they found out more about Armstrong and the other guys, and they went back and said, “Oh, he’s no good at all,” and they wrote him off completely.
CJ : European jazz fans are unique. They can hear with their eyes. If you’re white, forget about it. You just don’t have a chance, even if you play. “Oh, he’s a nice black musician.” “Oh, he’s not black, he’s white.” “Sucks !”
CM : Gone ! That’s true. It’s a great expression, “They hear with their eyes.” He said almost no musician in jazz has been so loved and so hated, and that it flipped so fast as with Red Nichols.
CJ : Yeah. He always, always had a good band. It was never like, “Okay guys, let’s do ‘Bill Bailey,’ and you get a chorus, and you…” It was always very well blocked out and well-played, and he had people like Jack Teagarden and Miff Mole in his bands, all the greatest players available. He must’ve had the keys to the studio because they recorded hundreds of tunes.
CM : Even those later records, they also have that attention to detail, and arrangements and high quality players.
CJ : Yes, they did. That’s one thing you gotta say for him, he surrounded himself with good players, and the better the players are, the better you sound.
CM : He could play great too.
CJ : Yes he could.
on the book cover : Louis Armstrong with the Dukes of Dixieland
CM : For the name of the style, some people put out books and they call it “classic jazz” and some people say “dixieland.” There’s this guy, Tex Wyndham, you must know about him.
CJ : I know Tex Wyndham.
CM : He put out a book [Texas Shout : How Dixieland Jazz Works] and he said, “Let’s agree to call it dixieland. That’s the best name for it.” Other people say, ”No, no, we have to call it trad, or traditional jazz.” Do you have any preference or reason that it should be called one or the other ?
CJ : No. Call it “grits and grillades,” I don’t care. It’s a shame that you have to put a handle on it. The longer music is around, the more names you got. You got “dumpster funk,” and all the different kinds of stuff.
CM : There’s a new kind of rap called “bounce.”
CJ : What the hell is that !? Yeah, bounce. No, I don’t really care. There’s also, it’s a shame, but bam music : B.A.M. : Black American Music. Okay.
CM : Tell me a little about Al Hirt. What was he like ?
CJ : He was a strange guy. He was a big guy, a big, threatening-looking guy, formidable-looking. He was about 6’4’’, 6’5’’. I know he’s bigger than me. He was a nice guy. He had problems like everybody else, me included, I mean certain things. He didn’t translate well, he was a drinker. His personality changed when he got drunk, as everybody’s does. But boy he could play the shit out of that instrument ! He was not my favourite jazz player, by far, but just to listen to him play, he could do anything anybody did, twice as loud and twice as fast. And I’ve told this to people who can’t believe it : he never practiced. Doc Severinsen practices four hours a day ; takes him an hour to warm-up, just to warm-up. And he does actual hard practicing. Al never took the horn home. He left it in the club ; probably ’cause he was afraid he’d forget where he left it, which barroom he left it in. But he was, jeez, he was a magnificent trumpet player. He was nice to me, very nice to me. He loaned me a horn. We had lots of kids but no money ; and I needed a horn, and he gave me a horn, he says, “Till you get something.” I thought that was very nice of him. But he was some kind of trumpet player. If you want to go on YouTube and look up a thing he did—it’s not a video, just a recording with pictures of him—it’s called “Holiday for Trumpets.” Billy May wrote it for him, and it’s at an ungodly end of the horn, where everything is all close together [makes high fast sound ]. It’s just unbelievably difficult and he sight read it.
CM : Tell me a little about Pete Fountain.
CJ : Pete’s one of my oldest, dearest friends. I’ve known him since about 1950. I’ve worked with him on a few different occasions, with his band. He was best man at our wedding when I got married. He was one of these guys who just got it. Some people, they go through music school and they just don’t get it, but he did, and at a very early age. Now, he was not that well educated musically, as far as theory was concerned, but he knew what he was supposed to do. And the older he got, the better he got. Up until his 50s, when we all started to kind of top off, but he just had that magic way of being able to play. He’s just magic. A very good person too, and kind of bashful. But he just could play.
CM : That photograph over there is from the time I saw you at the Jazz and Heritage Festival. I remember you guys took the clarinet part in “High Society” and arranged it in harmony. That was incredible.
CJ : That was for my band. I did that with my ten-piece band. I had Otis [Bazoon] on tenor, I had Otis to play clarinet and Tim Laughlin to play clarinet. It was written for three clarinets, but I only had two, so I got Jimmy Webber, who was playing lead trumpet and can sight read anything, in any key at any tempo, to do it in a cup mute. It sounded like three clarinets.
CM : Have you recorded that arrangement of “High Society” ?
CJ : No. About six or seven years ago, I got a gig playing in Bordeaux, France. I have a friend who lives over there, a band leader in Bordeaux, who said “Come on over and do this festival I’m in.” He wanted me to do some things with a big band, a full band. So I started writing up some New Orleans things for three trumpets, three trombones, five saxophones, and rhythm.
CM : That’s a lot of writing.
CJ : Yeah. Then he calls me and says, “They can’t.” They were gonna use a French band, he said, “That band can’t make it. It’s just not gonna work. Can you write something for something smaller ?” Matty Matlock had done a series of things with a group he called the Paducah Patrol, with two trumpets, two trombones, clarinet, baritone sax, and rhythm. Well, I wrote it for two trumpets, two trombones, tenor sax, and rhythm, so when we got over there with my six-piece band, I hired three guys from over there, to play the second trumpet, tenor, and second trombone. That’s where that started. I started writing for that and I’ve done a few shows, a few Jazz and Heritage Festivals. If they have me again this year, I’m gonna do it with the ten-piece band. It’ll probably be my last trip there. I don’t have the energy any more.
CM : Oh yeah, it’s a lot of energy to blow a horn.
CJ : Yeah, especially outdoors. The show [that you saw] with Pete was at a different set. For this set, Pete was starting to fail there. He’s had a couple strokes, and he can’t construct a sentence anymore. He gets stymied. I’ll talk to him probably every day ; but just for a minute. He’ll say, “Thank you for calling me. I really appreciate you calling me.” But if he wants to tell you something, he gets excited and [stammers]… “I know what you mean, Pete.” I don’t think he’ll come back. He’s very ill. He went, a week from yesterday, he went to the hospital, his son went with him, with pneumonia, again. He has that periodically. His health is not the very best. He walks with a walker now. He’s a good friend.
CM : I was so happy to see that show, and that’s how I found you. I went to see Pete Fountain. My mother had those records and I heard them when I was growing up. When I got to the festival, I heard you and thought, “Who’s that guy !?” That’s when I zeroed in on you.
CJ : He had a good A&R man “Bud” Dant, Charles Dant, that always wrote good stuff with him. And always had good players, Conrad Gozzo and people like that in the trumpet sections. He made a lot of good music. I forget how many albums he did, 60, 70 albums, something like that, well-recorded. A lot of them are very commercial, a lot of them are pap, but he always played well on them. I’ve enjoyed my association with him.
CM : Do you have a repertoire that you prefer to play ? Or a signature song, one you always have to play and people won’t let you off the stage if you don’t play that particular song ?
CJ : Not really. I just like music. I have a, I’m saying this with all modesty, a tremendous repertoire. Thousands of songs, all kinds of songs, show tunes, Cole Porter ; I must know 30 Cole Porter tunes. Rogers and Hart ; just pop tunes ; plus I know a bunch of tunes from the ‘50s. I played a little modern jazz in my day, with some modern jazz groups. I really didn’t enjoy it, and I haven’t retained too much of that repertoire because I didn’t like it. But I still know things like Clifford Brown.
CM : It was tragic that he died so young.
CJ : Yeah. It would have been very, very interesting to see just how he would’ve gone on. Some of the really good trumpet players of the day, Chet Baker, jeez he had the world by the short curlies, and he just got so screwed up.
CM : Did you ever listen to Fats Navarro ?
CJ : Yes.
CM : What did you think of him ?
CJ : He was a very, very good trumpet player. Not somebody that I would want to sit down and listen to now, but I liked his playing. I liked Blue Mitchell ; I like the way he played. He was more melodic, more linear than a lot of those guys were.
CM : What about Miles Davis ?
CJ : I was never a Miles Davis fan. I didn’t like him as a trumpet player. I don’t think he played the instrument that well. His approach to jazz was just something beyond me, and he kept getting farther and farther beyond, finally a tiny little bit speck in the distance. But I didn’t think he was that good of a trumpet player. Do you know about Banu Gibson ?
CM : Yes, she’s a singer.
CJ : She got some gigs for a trio. Her husband was a wonderful banjo player, and Tom Saunders on bass sax, and me, just a trio. It was the most fun I’ve had in my life.
CM : Have you been out on the dixieland festival circuit much ?
CJ : Not that much. I haven’t done that many in my life, not as near as many as other people have. I’ve done Decatur and Illinois a few times. Sacramento a few times.
CM : What are you most proud of in your music or in your life, or both ?
CJ : I’ve been a very, very successful family man. My children have all become very successful in what they do. They’re all nice young people. Their children are nice young people. So, I’m a patriarch I guess you call it.
Elaine : In 2012, he was given an honorary Doctorate from Loyola University. Doctor of Music.
CM : Congratulations ! That must’ve made you feel proud.
CJ : Thank you. Made me feel insecure, insignificant [laughs]. What did I do ?
Elaine : Tell him about your speech. What you told the students was funny.
CJ : I thanked my wife and my family and the university. They were having a reunion of all the graduates of 50 years ago. They were making a pretty big deal out of it. I actually enrolled in Loyola in 1952, so I said, “It’s taken you 50 years, and it’s taken me 60 years.” [laughs] It was an honour.
Elaine : He’s received quite a few awards. I think that you didn’t mention that the best band that you like is the Bob Cats.
CJ : Yeah, that was my favourite dixieland band : the Bob Crosby Bob Cats.
CM : Who was the trumpet player in that ? Not Crosby.
CJ : No, Bob Crosby didn’t play. The saxophone player, Eddie Miller, and I were pretty good friends for many years. When they put the band together, it was a cooperative band. They had worked for Ben Pollack, come from LA to New York, and they put together a rehearsal band or something. They said, “This is pretty good, let’s try and book it.” The agents liked it but said, “You’ve got no name. You gotta get a name.” They presented three names for them to pick somebody to front the band, one of which was Johnny “Scat” Davis, or Henry Busse, or Bob Crosby, who didn’t play anything. They figured he could do the least damage to them musically so they got him. He was a wonderful front man, Bob was ! He sang. Really, on his best day he was mediocre. I mean nobody was like Bing ; his brother was just a wonderful singer. Bob just didn’t have it, but he was good front man. The trumpet player on that band was originally Yank Lawson, and then when Yank left and went with Tommy Dorsey, Billy Butterfield started playing with the dixieland band. Then they had a guy from New Orleans, I can’t think of his name, that went on to play trumpet for a while with them. There were four people on that band from New Orleans, Irving Fazola, Eddie Miller, Nappy LaMar was the guitar player, and Ray Bauduc was the drummer. They made some really, really good music. And Matty Matlock wrote for them ; he was in the band too. Gil [Rodin], who played saxophone, was the manager of the band. I got to spend some time with him in Vegas, and he told me, when the band was doing real good and they needed some more arrangements, and Matty was playing alto and clarinet in the band, he sent Matty back to New York to do nothing but write. Gil said the guys in the band got really furious at him for sending Matty, until they found they were getting Irving Fazola. Then it was okay. Then when Fazola left the band, Matty came back and played clarinet. Matty was a wonderful writer. Like “Pete Kelly’s Blues” things, all those things he did. He wrote well, he played well, was a good organizer.
Elaine : Tell him about the toughest band you played in, the hardest band.
CJ : That would’ve been Billy Maxted.
CM : What was hard about that ?
CJ : Everything was written. It was a unique combination. There were four horns, me, a clarinet, a trombone, and a second trumpet player who doubled on bass sax. So, the all, the opening ensemble was written four-part harmony, and then the second trumpet player, who was at that time Billy Prince, had eight measures, would put his horn down, sit down behind the bass saxophone and play. Then you played background the entire times when you weren’t doing a solo. If you did a solo, it was like, “Oh, thank God,” cause the rest of the time you were pumping out backgrounds behind other soloists.
CM : Lot of breath.
CJ : And he said he wanted it loud. He never wrote anything pianissimo ; he said, “I have triple forte, triple fortissimo, I want it loud.” It was a good, good band. He was a wonderful piano player, played like Bob Zurke, with the two-handed stuff. He was a very, very tough guy, loved to fight, would fight at the drop of a hat, pick a fight, just for the thrill, the adrenaline rush. He had been a carrier pilot in World War II ; he was actually, from what I understand, in the Navy when World War II broke out, and he had been shot down three times. They fished him out of the ocean three times. He was just a tough guy. And he was a good boss, a good band leader. But he didn’t put up with any kind of stuff, nothing. You came to play. One time, I told him, “Man, Max you got us playing all the ensembles and the backgrounds.” So he says, “I’m not paying you to stand up there and hold your horn. You got a horn in your hand, play it.”
CM : This morning, I asked Lars, “What was it like, what was different about growing up in Stockholm in Sweden, then coming to New Orleans and hearing the bands ?” One thing that really surprised him was how quiet the bands played here. He said, “When we heard those records, we just thought those guys were blasting, because that’s the way the record sounded like. When I went to hear them play live, they were really quiet, and I realized it was attack and not volume.” Plus they got a different sound, it recorded different. It sounded like they were blasting. They were strong players, but they were all young. Now, he said, they just play louder, generally.
CJ : Bourbon Street syndrome.
CM : Anybody, they just play louder now But maybe back then they were saving their breath because the jobs were longer.
CJ : Jobs weren’t longer. You don’t know what a short job if there ain’t no short jobs. You played a six-hour job because that’s what the job was.
Elaine : When we were first married, he was working five, six hours a night.
CM : That’s a lot of energy.
CJ : It is. When you’re 20 years old or 30 or 40 years old, it’s still a lot of energy but you have it to give. I did a thing on the Natchez boat last Friday with [pianist] David Beoddinghaus [on piano] and Tom Saunders [bass sax, tuba, string bass]. Banu called me while I was on there. She asked me if I could come down - she had a guy who was gonna come play with her, couldn’t get there for the first half hour or so. I went down to play the first half hour with her, she had a saxophone player. I had to play standing up, and now in my old age, my equilibrium is not as good as it was, so I have to be really careful when I’m standing up to play. I prefer to sit down and play it. In fact, I practice sitting down in my rocking-chair, in front of the TV, with the captions on. [laugh]
CM : “Old rocking chair’s got me…”
CJ : I can do two hours of practice, sitting down, and watching television, without getting bored to death.
CM : What do you practice when you practice ?
CJ : Just basic stuff. I’ll do long-tones, lip slurs, and then scales. I have a couple of exercises, in all keys, that I played for 40 years, and I’ll do them. Then two octave scales.
CM : So it’s all technique ?
CJ : Yeah.
Elaine : He plays a few tunes.
CJ : Then I’ll play songs. I don’t like to play songs, because basically I can’t think of anything when I’m sitting there to play. If I had a list in front of me, but I never practiced songs and I should have, because if you’re more familiar with something, especially now, it comes out a little bit better.
Elaine : He used to practice in the yard when we lived on the West Bank. For years and years he would practice in the backyard, and like he said, long-tones and scales. One of the neighbours asked me, “Does Connie know any songs ?”
CJ : The guy who lived behind us, big old Dooley, he said, “Do you take requests ?’ I said, “There’s a tip jar right there.” [we laugh]
CM : Is your name Conrad ? Is that how you got Connie ?
CJ : My name is Conrad. My grandmother’s sister, my aunt Maude, was a music teacher, who lived with us, that started me off on [music]. She was a baseball fan, and they were from the Maryland area. Her favourite ball club when she was younger was Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics, so she tacked Connie on to me.
Elaine : His full name is Conrad Rodman Jones III.
CM : Impressive.
Elaine : A few of his dear friends call him Conrad.
CM : What do you call him ?
Elaine : Connie, honey.
CM : Well, we covered the ground that I wanted to cover. It was wonderful.
CJ : I hope it was enough.
Connie Jones died February 14, 2019, at the age of 84. In memorium.
I have posted interviews with many veteran musicians. To go to the index page, click here.