Photo by Sarah Walor
The selectors said: Rising Richmond drummers throughout the years have been influenced by the Brian Jones groove, ranging from intricate pop backbeats to free jazz. He has helped local musicians reach international success, from lending his talents on Jason Mraz’s first major album to recommending pianist Daniel Clarke for a recording gig with Mandy Moore. He’s a hero to the Richmond jazz community, and we are proud to call him ours.
His father, David, took 14-year-old Brian Jones to Harper’s, a smoky, subterranean jazz club in their hometown of Pittsburgh, in 1987 to experience the legendary bebop percussionist Max Roach. At the table next to the Joneses, a woman suffered a seizure. Roach jumped off the stage to see after her. “He made sure she was OK and comfortable, and then he got back onstage to continue his set,” Jones recalls, laughing at the memory and shaking his head. “Man, you see something like that — and at my age then — and you think: Max Roach. Jazz drummer. Superhero.”
At the time, Jones was listening to Metallica, Van Halen and Rush, but none of those guys had left the stage to rescue a distressed audience member. He formed a musical bond with an older classmate. “He would tell me that Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew was the greatest record ever. He was playing jazz stuff, so I’m thinking, ‘He’s great; he’s into this kind of music. Let me check it out.’ ” Jones discovered Roach and Clifford Brown’s Study in Brown, Davis’ Kind of Blue and Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ The Big Beat. “One thing leads to another, and down a rabbit hole that I’m still chasing after.”
He became the kid in the basement with the drums. Sometimes the percussion overwhelmed the family-room television, and on occasion, his mother would appear at the top of the stairs and urge him to quit for the night. “But they were supportive, then and now — Mom drove me to drum lessons. They put up with my various bands rehearsing down there. They never had to remind me that it was time to practice.” Though he played in high school garage bands, he also jammed with jazz ensemble members who took efforts somewhat more seriously.
He went to the University of Richmond as a history major in 1991, but he also wanted to make music his way and have a place to practice. The music program appealed to him, but a jazz percussion student would also become acquainted with mallet instruments such as the vibraphone and xylophone, which didn’t interest Jones. Mike Davison, director of UR’s Jazz Ensemble, told Jones to come and bring his drums, and Davison put in a good word for him with the admissions office. During his first weekend at the university, Jones sat in on a gig with Davison and some older professional players.
Jones’ participation with various UR jazz combos led to the fortuitous meeting and subsequent mentorship of drummer and instructor Howard Curtis. They talked about the life of making music, Curtis shared recordings and they conversed more than they played. Eventually, Curtis gave Jones some stylistic tests and then pronounced his mentee ready to substitute for him on some gigs. This led to playing alongside established Richmond musicians, among them tenor sax man Skip Gailes, pianist Steve Kessler, trumpeter John D’earth and saxophonist Glenn Wilson.
Jones also came together with a group called Agents of Good Roots, which was made up of saxophonist J.C. Kuhl, bass guitarist Stewart Myers, and multiinstrumentalist Andrew Winn.
By the time of Jones’ 1995 graduation, the band was professionally booked and soon touring to play 250 dates a year. Agents of Good Roots also joined the Dave Matthews Band for a tour. Their songs “Come On” and “Smiling Up the Frown” received airplay on big-format radio stations in larger markets, which helped them sell out 500-seat clubs. “And we were, basically, a jam band,” Jones says. “We weren’t neo-hippies, not the Grateful Dead, and sometimes were at odds with our audience.” Seemingly on an upward trajectory, the Agents had signed with RCA Records by early 1998. “And then the classic clichés came along,” Jones says.
“Creative differences. Internal squabbles. Problems with management. Whatever our aesthetic decisions were, we didn’t make good business choices.” The band broke up in 2001.
Jones’ post-rocker life segued into writing music and performing jazz and avant-garde pieces at Artspace, Ipanema Cafe and the Commercial Taphouse. He also began private instruction, and, with a recommendation from Howard Curtis, started teaching at UR and at the College of William and Mary. He formed his own Slang Sanctuary label, under which he’s released 30 records that he’s migrating onto the Bandcamp website (brianjones.bandcamp.com). Jones has also played sessions, including Jason Mraz’ latest album, Yes!, released in July. He’s also married, the father of three and working toward a doctorate in American studies on jazz and politics, at the center of which is a superhero named Max Roach.
He says, “I’m a musician. My job is now how best to validate a creative existence.” You can catch up with how he does that at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ Jazz Café night on Dec. 18.