Al Jones was one of the many American jazz musicians who moved to Europe in the 1960s. The Philadelphia-born drummer spent fourteen years in Belgium and Spain, where he found a new life but also an early death.
It was the 1st of March, 1953, when drummer Al Jones set foot in what would later become his second home land. Jones was finishing up a large tour with the Dizzy Gillespie Sextet that had taken him through the whole of Europe and Northern Africa. In the previous weeks the group, which combined Dizzy Gillespie (tp), Bill Graham (bs) and Joe Carroll (voc) with a young rhythm section that consisted of Wade Legge (p), Lou Hackney (b) and Al Jones (d), had played in countries like Sweden, Denmark, Spain, Switzerland, Italy, Tunisia, Algeria, France, and Germany. The performance in Paris, where the band was joined by Sarah Vaughan on the stage of the glorious Salle Pleyel, had been particularly successful and would shortly after be released on record by the French company Vogue, and so were a few studio sessions Jones did in trio with Legge and Hackney in Stockholm. At that point, Jones was merely 22 years old. He was born in Philadelphia on 18 December 1930 and had started to play the drums at the tender age of three. After some jobs with smaller bands, he had replaced Art Blakey in the Dizzy Gillespie band. The European tour with Gillespie was his first big assignment, and seemed to be leading to his definitive breakthrough.
To conclude the tour, the band was programmed at the Théâtre Royal des Galeries in Belgium’s capital Brussels and that night too, a special guest was to be featured. The morning of the concert, the president of the Hot Club of Belgium Willy De Cort had went to see guitarist Django Reinhardt in his hotel room to convince him to join Dizzy’s band on stage that night. If we are to believe the reporter of Hot Club Magazine, the concert was good but not unforgettable. What happened later that night, though, was historical. After the concert Gillespie, Reinhardt and Jones moved their instruments to the newly opened jazz club La Rose Noire, just around the corner of the venue. The jam session that followed remains a mythical event in the memories of those present. Al Jones provided the rhythm for the unique encounter between the king of bebop and the star of gypsy jazz that made sure every foreign musician passing through Belgian knew about La Rose Noire. He probably didn’t realize it at the time, but on his first day in Belgium, Al Jones already contributed to the country’s jazz history.
When Al Jones visits Belgium again almost ten years later, the circumstances are slightly different. Jones has spent the remainder of the 1950s freelancing in the hectic jazz scene of New York city (playing and recording with Miles Davis, Dinah Washington, the Modern Jazz Quartet and Arnett Cobb) and is struggling with an alcohol addiction. At the beginning of the 1960s, he eventually ends up with alto saxophonist Jackie McLean, who is then working with the Living Theatre Of New York, where he provides the music for the theatre piece The Connection. Despite all controversy, – The Connection is a raw story about a group of junkies awaiting their drug dealer – the piece is a relative success and even tours Europe. In May of 1962 the company including Al Jones performs in Antwerp. In the audience: local jazz musicians Mike Zinzen and Cel Overberghe. “It was an entirely new experience for us. The play was about drugs, the actors were shooting heroin and the musicians were standing on stage too,” Cel Overberghe explains. “During the break, we went into the dressing rooms and at that moment Al Jones decided to stay here. At that exact moment. After the show he went home with me and Mike,” recalls Overberghe.
In a rare interview with newspaper De Nieuwe Gazet from 1963, Al Jones gives an explanation for his seemingly sudden decision to not return to America: “Among the whites, there are people who hate negroes and among the negroes there are people who hate white people. The consequence is an inexorable solitude. And to escape that, one does stupid things. After a while you are so addicted to booze that you fall down somewhere every night.” In Antwerp things are different. Jones is offered a room above De Mok, a jazz bar ran by Mike Zinzen, and is warmly welcomed on the Antwerp jazz scene. “All of sudden our amateurish scene was enriched with a famous American drummer who had played with Dizzy Gillespie,” recalls Overberghe, “so we cherished him.”
A Second Wind
Mike Zinzen also introduces Al Jones to the cornerstone of the Antwerp scene, saxophone player Jack Sels. “Al was an American, an African American even,” says Cel Overberghe, “and when Jack saw a black man who played the drums, he was unstoppable. It also improved Jack’s image. That’s why they connected.” Jones becomes the fixed drummer of Sels’s band, which he performs with at the festival of Comblain-la-Tour that summer. In the coming years, Al Jones grows out to the rhythmic backbone of the Belgian jazz scene. He plays with vibraphone player Fats Sadi and pianist Jack Van Poll, accompanies foreign soloists such as Dexter Gordon and Art Farmer, works for the Belgian Radio and Television on a weekly basis and plays at the festivals of Bilzen and Middelheim. “There were people here who became friends instantly because we shared the same ambition,” Jones says in the interview with De Nieuwe Gazet, “but they couldn’t count on a hardened drunkard. I didn’t want to miss that sole opportunity, so I decided not to touch a single pint anymore. Since I’m in Antwerp, I only drink soda… I’ve mastered myself again.”
Jones has another good reason to stay in Antwerp. His path crosses that of singer Monique Verdonck. “I was jamming in a bar in Borgerhout. And bam, Al came in with a group of people. He saw that everybody was playing and joined in. He was a great drummer. And his appearance… I was quite impressed. He was a prince, you know.”
Sober, in love and plenty of work: Al Jones did get his second wind in Belgium. “On the other hand I also think that he had a difficult time over here,” tells Jones’s son Percy. “My father comes from a very rich musical environment. The Heath Brothers lived on the same block, John Coltrane lived in the block next door. They were juvenile friends. He played with Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington. So that was quite a difference with Belgium,” Percy explains. “He sure did miss that,” Monique continues. “One day we went to see Miles Davis, who played in the Queen Elisabeth Hall. When he passed by he said ‘what are you doing here’, looking down on Al.”
A Fishing Village In Spain
In the early 1970s Al Jones decides to quit Belgium for Spain, where he’s hired by Lou Bennett, an organ player who, like Jones, had settled in Europe. They had been playing in a trio for a long while already, mostly with René Thomas or Philip Catherine on guitar. “Things weren’t going too well for Al at that time, he didn’t have a lot of work anymore,” tells Monique Verdonck, “so he had to look for it somewhere else. He had an offer from a big band in Berlin, or he could go to Spain with Lou.” The entire family moves down south to Cambrils, Bennett’s residency in Spain. “I did go along, but I came back really fast with the kids,” explains Monique. “Cambrils was not much more than a small fishing village back then, and things weren’t organized too well. And then Lou started to act weird and all of a sudden disappeared to Paris. Al stayed over there, waiting to get work.”
But the wait for better days was to no avail. In April of 1976 Lou Bennett found the body of Al Jones in his apartment. He had probably died a few days earlier. The exact circumstances surrounding his death remain unclear. Stories about alcohol abuse make the rounds, but Verdonck blames Jones’ heart problems, of which he had been suffering for a few years already. The decision of Al Jones to stay in Europe rewarded him with a new life, but it came at the cost of an early death – he was merely 45.
The Dutch version of this article originally appeared in Jazz & Mo’ magazine in 2018. The drum skills of Al Jones are featured extensively on Jack Sels – Minor Works, the anthology that Jazztime Europe compiled for Sdban Records.