‘Mean What You Say’: Remembering Thad Jones On His Centenary

Mondays With Morgan is a new column in LondonJazz News written by Morgan Enos, a music journalist based in Hackensack, New Jersey. He will be diving deeply into the jazz that moves him – his main focus being the scene in nearby New York City.

For this second feature for LJN in the series, Enos interviewed two dozen (*) of Thad Jones’ creative collaborators, acolytes and loved ones to mark what would be Jones’ 100th birthday on 28 Mar 2023.

Thad Jones at the piano in a TV studio in Lugano, Switzerland, 1982. Photo courtesy of Tim Hagans

Dick Oatts had just been hired by a jazz titan, and he was convinced he was about to be sent home.

The year was 1977, and the young saxophonist was in Nice, France; it was his first time in Europe with the revered Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. Co-leader Jones, one of the most enrapturing trumpeters, writers, arrangers, and bandleaders in jazz history – and an imposing, room-filling presence with a bon vivant personality – approached Oatts.

“He said, ‘Hey, I want to talk to you for a second,’” Oatts recalls. At that moment, his stomach dropped: “I immediately thought he was just going to fire me and get rid of me,” Oatts admits.

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Oatts packed up his horns and approached Jones. Jones deflected, saying he wanted to go to pianist George Shearing’s room to celebrate his birthday. After “hours and hours and hours of drinking,” Jones exited Shearing’s room. 

“You said you wanted to talk to me?” Oatts asked.

Jones’ reply was startling: “Well, what can I talk to you about?”

At that moment, Oatts couldn’t comprehend the question. Jones asked a second time. And then, a third time – a lot more deliberately. “I was so dumbfounded; I didn’t know what to say,” Oatts recalls. He haltingly expressed relief he wasn’t fired – that he wouldn’t need to find his away back to the airport. 

But to Oatts, Jones meant something more profound. It had to do with Oatts’ hard feelings – his imposter syndrome at the time. “What he was saying, basically, to me, was: If you have a bad solo, or you have a bad night, or you don’t feel that good, don’t bring it on the bandstand,” Oatts says, calling himself “young, and inside my own world – of feeling inept in every category of playing and music.”

“So, when I figured that out, I said, ‘Wow, what a gift,’” he continues. “I couldn’t have gotten that from anybody else. It was just so honest, and he wanted the best for me.”

“What can I talk to you about?” It’s elliptical, a question answering a question. But when considering Jones’ life, work and legacy, it feels fresh, urgent, incandescent.

A century after his birth on 28 March 1923 – and almost four decades after his death on 20 August 1986 – Jones remains beloved in the global jazz community for many reasons. His unmistakable tone on the trumpet, flugelhorn and cornet, and the intelligence and exuberance in his improvisation. His innovative, idiosyncratic writing. And the crackling electrical current that flowed from his body to the band and back again. 

Those three components – playing, writing and arranging, and bandleading led to Jones modernising the concept of a large jazz ensemble, by way of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, his pioneering band with the warm, organic, deeply swinging drummer Mel Lewis.

Just as Dizzy Gillespie codified bebop language with a big band in the 1940s and ‘50s, the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra did likewise with post-bebop language, including the modal jazz of John Coltrane and the like. Even more importantly, they had an emotional impact: on a spiritual level, they changed the game forever.

Almost 60 years after their debut at the Village Vanguard, on 7 Feb 1966 – and decades after both leader’s deaths – the band continues to hold court within the New York institution’s hallowed walls, every Monday night. And they still play plenty of Jones’ beloved tunes, from “A Child is Born” to “The Groove Merchant” to “Kids Are Pretty People” and beyond.

As such, Jones’ gifts to the world are utterly accessible, in the purest form. You don’t need a college education or to break the bank: a $40 ticket is virtually all you need to be baptised in music history, and behold some of the most powerful musicians New York has to offer.

These days, too much jazz is locked in an ivory tower, but Jones himself didn’t have formal accreditation; the artist born Thaddeus Joseph Jones was self-taught. This child was born on 28 Mar 1923 in Pontiac, Michigan; his older brother, Hank, was a formidable pianist, and younger brother, Elvin, changed jazz drumming forever, most famously through his volcanic playing as a member of John Coltrane’s quartet.

As Mark Stryker notes in his indispensible 2019 book, Jazz From Detroit, Louis Armstrong galvanized Jones to play the trumpet. With this in mind, trumpeter, arranger and composer Tim Hagans, a former member of Stan Kenton’s band who went on to play with Jones in the late ‘70s, offers a touching anecdote:

“I remember after rehearsal in a club in Copenhagen, they had a big jazz calendar on the wall as you walked into the club,” Hagans says. “We were leaving, and I was talking to Thad about something and and he saw that that month’s picture was a big picture of Louis Armstrong. He put his fingers on his mouth, kissed his fingers and then put it on Louis Armstrong’s mouth in the picture.”

Jones began his professional career at 16; two years later, he began touring the Midwest in various groups. In 1952, he established himself in Detroit as a member of the house band at the Blue Bird Inn, which, at times, featured brother Elvin.

Two years later, Count Basie hired Jones, a position he held until 1963. While a member of the Count Basie Orchestra, he recorded essential small-group leader records, including The Magnificent Thad Jones and Detroit-New York Junction for Blue Note. In 1955, Jones met drummer Mel Lewis, then with Kenton – and in the mid-’60s, the pair began to devise their own group.

Jones and Lewis were a bit of an odd couple – in Jazz From Detroit, Stryker notes they were “one black and Baptist, the other white and Jewish. Jones was genial, Lewis rather brusque and a talker of rabbinical proportion.” But their creative chemistry was seamless – and the musical results, dynamite.

In Jazz From Detroit, Stryker calls five records between 1966 to 1970 – Presenting Thad Jones–Mel Lewis & the Jazz Orchestra, Live at the Village Vanguard, Monday Night, Central Park North, and Consummation – “indispensible.” 

In 1979, Jones abruptly moved to Copenhagen – a move that devastated Lewis, who soldiered on with the band as the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. For the majority of his final years Jones lived and worked abroad, until his 1986 death at 63. After Lewis passed in 1990, their band assumed their current name.

As the jazz world marks Jones’ centenary, it’s worth meditating on how his impact continues to ripple forth – as per his playing, writing and arranging, and bandleading.

His Playing

While Jones arguably made more of a dent in the jazz firmament as to those latter two components, those in the know are unanimous on his raw facility with the horn. 

“He was a great, great trumpet player,” says legendary drummer, educator and NEA Jazz Master Billy Hart. “I know he was a genius.” Especially in how Jones could improvise – which still drops jaws all these years later.

Scott Silbert, a multiple-woodwind player and arranger, remembers hearing Jones for the first time on baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams’ 1964 album Pepper Adams Plays the Compositions of Charlie Mingus. (A fellow Detroiter, Adams would go on to famously play in the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra; the album also features Hank Jones on piano.)

“I was like, Holy s—, this sounds beautiful,” Silbert recalls. “His playing on that album is what impressed me the most.”

“I always think of Thad – and I’d throw Lee Konitz and Sonny Rollins in this group – as the three improvisers who probably have the highest percentage of improvised ideas, when they’re improvising,” Hagans says. “I never heard Thad play anything twice. He was improvising from note to note, based on what he was feeling, what the rhythm section was doing.”

“He would play those eighth notes with a lot of swinging articulation – like a force,” says tenor saxophonist Ralph Lalama, who has regularly performed with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra since 1982. “You never knew what the hell he was going to play. It was the element of surprise.”

How did Jones manage to engender that in his lines? Pianist, composer, arranger, and educator Jim McNeely homes in on his complete command of tension and release. He joined the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra in 1978 as a featured soloist and maintained that position after Jones’ departure – so he watched him work this mastery up close.

“Charles Mingus, the first time he ever heard Thad play, he said, ‘I just heard Bartók with valves’,” McNeely says, “by which he meant the angles of the melodic writing were very unusual and chromatic.” 

“He came out of the bebop tradition, but he really brought his own ears to the process and heard things in a different way,” he continues. “It was still very melodic, but to follow the lines that he played was taking on a real journey – jumping around the way the lines would move.”

This caused a little friction back when Jones was in Basie’s band, and wrote his first handful of charts for him. “There used to be a phrase: ‘the Basie way’,” McNeely says. “He started out kind of doing that, but he got a little more involved and complex with this harmonic and rhythmic language.”

Jones imbued his compositions with the unpredictable topography of his improvisations. “A lot of times, he would have the brass playing a long, sustained chord, and the saxophones would be playing a unison melody that would cut through those chords,” he adds. “Like a hot knife through butter.”

When read on paper, these descriptions might amount to athleticism or razzle-dazzle – if Jones’ approach wasn’t so deeply personal. “The stories that Thad tells are his own stories,” Stryker says. “We like to talk in jazz about schools of one, and Thad was a school of one.”

As Stryker continues about Jones’ raw musicality, “as sophisticated as can be, it’s just saturated with the blues.” To this end, pianist and singer Champian Fulton gets into a little theory.

“Thad plays so creatively and differently from other people, and what I mean by that is he’s often in the tri-tone or a diminished-related key, away from the one,” she says. “And yet, when he’s in this new space, he’s not playing intellectually, but melodically driven. I think that makes his note choices and his solos sound totally different from other trumpet players.”

This doubtlessly crosses over from Jones’ playing to his writing, which forever altered the jazz DNA in terms of mathematical majesty and pure feeling.

His Writing & Arranging

Composer and m_unit bandleader Miho Hazama recently dedicated a concert with the Danish Radio Big Band to Jones for his centenary; while transcribing Jones’ compositions, she perceived a fascinating throughline.

“I found that his iconic harmonic sense is really something special,” Hazama says. “[While] not depending on a chord progression, for each note, he changes those voicings, and that’s really sensational.” For example, she points to “My Centennial”: “I’ve never seen a piece that changes that complex chord,” she says with a hint of awe.

“Thad wrote horizontally, not vertically,” explains trumpeter, composer and arranger David Weiss. “If you’re voicing something out, you do it vertically; you build the chord and see the chord and how you want it voiced and stuff. But Thad had that all in his head, where he could write horizontally and write more melodically for every instrument, and still get all the voicings.”

Those voicings: Lalama calls Jones’ voicings “energetic, swinging, innovative, deep.” “His writing under the melody was very melodic,” he says, counting tunes like “Fingers,” “The Little Pixie,” “The Second Race,” and “Little Rascal on a Rock” among his favorites.

And, again, that tension and release: “[That] might be in the intensity of ensemble bait juxtaposed with solo sections,” says saxophonist, arranger and educator Leigh Pilzer, DMA. She cites “Big Dipper,” “which doesn’t have a ton of ensemble writing in it, but you get these hard-hitting ensemble things.”

Pianist, composer, bandleader, arranger, and educator Steven Feifke, who recently became the youngest bandleader to win a GRAMMY for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album, is a Jones acolyte who saw the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra “every single Monday when I was a junior in college.” 

These days, he warmly notes Jones’ sheer versatility, as per being able to inhabit both the small-group and big-band spheres. 

“I think it takes a pretty special person to be able to toggle between the huge sound of the big band, which requires basically writing music for every person in the band – giving a set of instructions to every person in the band. And then, also, just to switch back and forth and be like, ‘It’s a small group now; it’s intimate now.”

“And so when I think of large scale, big-band charts that incorporate that kind of improvisation,” Feifke continues, “it seems like it was effortless for him.”

How Jones inhabited both of these worlds with ease has a lot to do with his charisma, electricity and infectious joy on the bandstand. Some younger bandleaders have taken notes.

His Bandleading

As hyper-modern as Jones’ tunes were on the page, they took on mind-bending new dimensions with the band, in the moment. 

“He would change an arrangement as it was being played,” says acclaimed jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater, who performed with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra from 1970 to 1974. “He loved to trip me up musically, but he called me ‘Big Ears.’” “The drummer would just stop playing,” composer, performer and educator Ken Schaphorst says with a chuckle. “For no apparent reason – just to keep things interesting.”

Composer, arranger and bandleader Jihye Lee shouts out tunes like “Tiptoe” and “Don’t Git Sassy” as among her favourites. She, too, is keenly aware that they transcend notes on a chart.

“Let’s say he has the most juicy, tasteful writing, but what if there are no people who can play that?” she says. “But he has the people who can play exactly what he envisioned. That’s why, when you hear his music, it’s very alive. It’s not just written, but organically written with a band in the venue, with the audience.”

Saxophonist, composer, arranger, and educator Bob Mintzer has played in fusion greats Yellowjackets for three decades and is the chief conductor of the WDR Big Band; in the 1970s, he played with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra for about nine months.

With these experiences fresh in his mind, Mintzer cites the precious value of an arranger being present on the bandstand – playing, listening, providing white-hot energy feedback.

“It’s a unifying factor that brings the music together in this very cohesive, beautiful way,” he says. “Thad’s body language was a big part of his influence on the players that were in front of him. He exuded this enthusiasm and body language that reflected so wonderfully the music at hand. It was hard to not be affected by it, either as a player or a listener.”

Clearly, Jones moved everyone in this article, directly or indirectly; shades of his work are perceptible everywhere in the jazz landscape. But are there many direct Jones disciples? The jury’s out on that one.

Some, like Pilzer and Bridgewater, see the new guard as largely straying from his influence; others, like Lalama and Lee, believe Jones’ pull to be inescapable, as he permanently altered the form.

“I must confess: my writing is pretty heavily influenced by what Thad Jones did,” Mintzer says, with the qualification that playing with Buddy Rich and other heavies also deeply informed his thinking. “Initially, it was something you would try to not do – not imitate Thad Jones, in the name of doing something different – more modern, shall I say,” he continues. “Although there’s nothing not modern about Thad’s music.”

Whether or not new practitioners choose to follow Jones’ lead, he’s hardly an unsung hero; his songbook is a staple of the jazz canon. And outside of the cross-section interviewed for this article, composers and arrangers from John Clayton to David Berger to Darcy James Argue arguably fall within his ancestry.

No matter who takes heed, Jones continues to speak to those in his wake.

“What can I talk to you about?”


Jones’ son, Bruce, now lives in Los Angeles. He played drums when he was young, but gave them up; playing in the shadow of his volcanic uncle Elvin lent itself to a great deal of self-consciousness. 

Of all in this article who had catbird seat to his father’s talents, he naturally has the tenderest memories. Naturally, he has innumerable stories, from his father and uncle Hank performing in the Ed Sullivan Show band to witnessing the writing of “A Child is Born.”

At one point, the younger Jones shares a story about the band’s dispute over rates during a televised performance. 

To hear him tell it, when a soloist turned away from a camera due to perceived unfair payment while on a televised show, Jones physically lifted him and pointed him towards the camera. 

I suggest that this resonated with a certain song title of his father’s. One that perhaps sums up his message to those touched by his life, music and legacy.

Mean what you say,” he responds with a wry chuckle. “Yes, yes, yes.”

LINKS: Village Vanguard

(*) With special thanks to Dick Oatts, Mark Stryker, Tim Hagans, Billy Hart, Scott Silbert, Ralph Lalama, Jim McNeely, Champian Fulton, Miho Hazama, David Weiss, Leigh Pilzer, Steven Feifke, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Ken Schaphorst, Jihye Lee, Bob Mintzer, Bruce Jones, Tom Bellino, and Billy Harper.

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