Remembering Philly Joe

An Essay by Sumi Tonooka
April 12, 2021

Philly Joe Jones lived for the drums, and he loved the music with a passion. He was devoted to the craft and the art of jazz. Besides being an innovator in modern drum technique, helping to establish post-bop styles, he was an all-around musician with multiple skills and a vast range of experience, including arranging and sight-reading. He was a brilliant drummer with a virtuoso technique, tremendous musicality and big ears. His swing was fluid and graceful, hot and fiery, cool and simmering. He possessed a personal sound and control over dynamics, drum technique and rudiments. He was able to go from a roar and in a heartbeat drop to the lightest pianissimo. He could play the most glorious fiery fast tempos and also make the brushes purr, providing a relaxed glowing warmth to ballads. When it came to the drums Philly Joe set the bar high. He was a consummate rhythm section player, able to make everyone he played with sound better.

Philly Joe Jones performed and recorded with some of the most dynamic musicians and rhythm sections in jazz – Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Duke Ellington, Tadd Dameron, Paul Chambers, Archie Shepp, Red Garland, Bill Evans, Ben Webster, Sonny Rollins, Johnny Griffin, Tommy Flanagan, Dexter Gordon, and Fats Navarro, and that’s just for starters. I still find it amazing that Philly Joe hired me to play in his band, considering the level of musicians he had worked with and my lack of experience. He told me that one of the reasons he called me to play in his band was because he really liked a tune I wrote called Sula’s Dance, a tune inspired by a character in Toni Morrison’s book, and he wanted to play it. I suppose that he also liked my playing well enough to hire me at such a young age, or at the very least, he heard something in my music, some potential that also inspired his decision.

The first gig I played with Philly Joe was at a local club in Germantown, Philadelphia, called Trey’s. Philly had a regular stint there, featuring the legendary Bootsie Barnes, one of Philadelphia’s great be-bop saxophonists, who sadly passed recently during the pandemic. Trey’s was a neighborhood joint, a place where prominent local musicians would gather. It featured a regular rotation of local Philadelphia jazz musicians and occasional stints with more prominent, nationally recognized, players. It was probably at Trey’s that Philly Joe first heard me with my own trio.

As a mentor, Philly spent a lot of time coaching and teaching me about jazz, especially as a rhythm section player. He understood that he was passing the knowledge, and he made me feel that I was worthy to receive it. I was green and eager to learn. I remember him writing out rhythmic figures that he wanted me to play, comping patterns for the rhythm section to play together on certain tunes. He talked a lot about music and sometimes made suggestions to me about my playing. Philly Joe really did take me under his wing and I felt supported. We would listen to music together, hanging out at his apartment where he and Eloise lived. He would talk about how Red Garland would end his solos, with those beautiful block chords, signaling his last chorus to the band. He wanted me to think more about structure and phrasing. I remember him saying to me “You have a weird time thing, but don’t worry, Monk did too. One day it’s gonna fall into place and work for you, it’ll become part of your style”. I remember meeting Etta Jones once at that apartment while hanging out with him. They were close friends. Etta Jones! She was super nice and told me that Philly had said good things about me. Meanwhile, I felt I was hanging by a thread and barely able to hold my own.

My first road trip with Philly Joe Jones was a weekend gig in Washington DC. It was 1975. I was nineteen years old and he was in his mid-fifties. My mother was not happy about my taking this gig and very wary of him, and that’s putting it politely. Philly Joe Jones was the last band leader that any parent would want to see their teenage daughter go out on the road with! My mother did not trust him. She was aware of his drug use and the many notorious stories, some of which are legend. During this period, he was not at his peak of hard drug usage, thanks to the influence of his wife, Eloise, who helped him transition off of heroin. He was still a heavy drinker though and a user of multiple substances at once.

We checked into the hotel, a four-floor walkup. When we got to the top floor, Philly Joe gave one set of keys to Jimmy Merritt and tenor saxophonist Charlie Bowen to share a room, and then he looked at me and motioned with his head to follow him to his room, expecting me to share it with him! I was livid, and said “No way!” He got angry with me, yelling “How do you expect me to take you on the road if I have to pay for an extra room?” Road lesson number one: (especially true for women) never go out without enough money to get yourself home

I quickly went back downstairs in the middle of his rant and explained that I was the piano player in the band and needed my own room. The hotel clerk laughed and said Philly Joe had told him I was his wife. I was so mad that I would have left if I had had the money, right then and there.

But here’s the thing. I felt free to express my anger because I also thought of Philly Joe as a friend and I was not afraid of him. He did end up paying for the extra room, and I played the gig that weekend. It helped that Jimmy Merritt was very protective of me during these times, providing soft-spoken but firm support. Aside from being a great musician and visionary composer, Jimmy Merritt was also a dad and had kids around my age.

I remember it was this same gig that I met tenor saxophonist, composer and arranger, Frank Foster who said to me, “incredulously”, what in God’s name are you doing out here on the road with Philly Joe Jones of all people? You should be going to college and studying music!” It’s interesting now to look back and realize that one of the reasons, among many, that women can have an especially hard time growing and developing musically in jazz, is because of road life, and the largely male culture that goes with it. It doesn’t accommodate women easily. But it is on the road that much experience as a jazz player is gained, and if you are a woman out there playing this music, chauvinism, patriarchy, and misogyny are part of the terrain you learn to navigate.

Philly used to come visit me in West Philadelphia, where I lived at the time, sharing a big old house with five female roommates. After hitting on everyone he possibly could, he would sit at the piano, an old upright, and play for hours. He played piano so well, and he knew a lot of tunes.

His nickname for me was Sumi Samich (sandwich). I learned to shrug off his sexual advances and inappropriate behaviors, which were mostly in his use of language and various shenanigans, probably because this was all mixed up with his genuine support, affection, friendship and respect for me. I remember being really hurt when Philly Joe did not take me with him on a European tour. He told me I was not ready. I was crushed, but he was right. I wished I had saved the postcard he wrote me from Europe on that tour. I cannot remember exactly what he said, but as usual, he was checking up on me, and I knew he felt bad about it. I eventually did take Frank Foster’s advice and went to music college to sharpen my skills and grow musically. A few years later Philly Joe brought Bill Evans to hear me with my trio at a club in Philadelphia. Philly Joe and Bill Evans in the audience! I somehow survived that night without dying from fear of them being out there listening to my band.

Being the pianist in the rhythm section with Philly Joe and bassist/composer Jimmy Merritt is still one of my most potent musical memories. Time and swing became something else in their hands. They had a way of being inside the music (talk about trying to find the one), carrying the flame of history, tradition, and musical maturity.

Working with Philly Joe taught me many things on many levels, musically and otherwise, with lots of ups and downs. Philly Joe was a complex character and our relationship was complicated and nuanced. He was an imperfect mentor, but he was a mentor nonetheless, and one whom I am not only grateful for but who I recognize as being very influential in my musical growth and development.

Remembering Philly Joe appeared in THE ART OF BEING TRUE: M³ ANTHOLOGY OF WRITINGS, a collection of writings put together by Je Writer @ Public/Private.