Philly Joe Jones

Currents + | -



Here's how I met Philly Joe.

Back then, I was married to a cab driver who thought he was a trumpet player. Actually, he was a cab driver. This was in Philadelphia, mid-seventies. Anyway, I didn't have a piano, but there was a great one on the University campus on Spruce Street, so my "driver" would drop me there on his way to work. He drove for Yellow. (We lived down the street from the A and A Steak House that made those Philadelphia Cheesesteaks, Hoagies, and we lived on them, it seems). Frank Rizzo ran the city. I had very few "gigs" and so I did a lot of playing alone, on that piano.

It was a nine-footer, a Steinway. And it was summertime, and it was hot. And I had flung open these big windows that opened onto the inner square (the building had a big Liberty Bell in the foyer), so if you passed by these windows you could hear me playing.

That day, I was playing Put Your Little Foot Out by Miles Davis, and this cat in short sleeves and a hat stuck his head in the window and said "I played that with Miles" and I knew it wasn't Paul Chambers or Red Garland, it had to be Philly Joe. He came inside and asked me to play Tadd's Delight (in Ab, which scared the hell out of me, as I had always played it in F for reasons of sheer laziness) and If I were a Bell, which was no problem, since I knew that one really well, and it was in F. That was my audition for the Philly Joe Jones Quintet (which usually turned out to be a quartet for some reason or other).

Tyree Glenn was in that band, and a different bass player on every gig. We played the joints... in Camden, Trenton, Hoboken, all the seamy little holes-in-the-wall. I was terrified most of the time. I can't remember exactly why... probably just totally freaked that I was playing with THE Philly Joe Jones. I mean, gee whiz, kids!

Then Philly Joe wanted me to go somewhere in Europe, and I chickened out and quit. I had just gotten married and figured I wanted to be like Barbara Billingsley (remember June Cleaver?) That was a very stupid move. Philly Joe understood, though. He knew I was very green and very unhip and very unready, and he was right. He was cool with that.

Years later, right before he died, I met up with him at the Keystone Korner in San Francisco. He was just beautiful to me (as he always had been) and we laughed and talked and hugged.

And that's how I remember him, how I saw him last. He seemed happy, and he looked beautiful.

He was 54. I'm pretty sure of that, without going to Google to see if I'm right. I pretty sure he was only 54 when he left us.

It scares me sometime. That somebody like that could die so soon, so young. He had so much vitality. He glowed.

I guess I had better be very careful with my health! I haven't smoked or drank for many years now, and I know I'm not out of the woods yet! I wouldn't trade all these moments, though.

They're not big, long moments. Most all of my memories from those days are like little frozen snapshots, short moments that have huge significance to me now.

Like Dexter lighting a cigarette, waiting for that match to burn down so slowly, almost burning his fingers, keeping us all on edge.

Or Philly Joe, that one eye (the left one, I believe) half-closed, cigarette hanging on his lip, stuck there somehow, smoke making his eyes tear up, just being hip by standing there looking like a king or a prince or some kind of royalty.

To me, this was the Royal Family. These were the Leaders, the Chosen. Every place Philly Joe went, he looked like he owned the place. He was that present.

I guess this is what happens as you get older. You can see those still pictures again, in full color. Just like you were there all over again.

I don't regret any of it. - JW 3.5.01