Benny Jones Sr. no longer lives in his beloved Treme neighborhood, where he grew up with the sound of brass band music and the ring of Mardi Gras Indian tambourines as a way of life. Nonetheless, the drummer and leader of the Treme Brass Band can be spotted in the area almost on a daily basis. He heads there just to keep in touch with the people and the goings-on.
“I come in and out of the Treme just about every day,” Jones says. “I go by Sylvester’s [the Backstreet Cultural Museum], I stop by [drummer] Shannon Powell’s, I stop by the Candle Light on Tuba Fats Night and I stop by Charbonnet [funeral home] to have a meeting and talk about different things.”
His omnipresence in the Sixth Ward and beyond is one of the reasons that when it comes to hiring a brass band, the answer to the question, “Who ya gonna call?” is often Benny Jones. The affable drummer is central to the brass band community so he’s ready to supply the entertainment with his core group or one of its offshoots. Always eager to help out, Jones also has become a go-to guy for artists’ contact info even when it’s not related to a booking.
“By me knowing a bunch of musicians and getting along with plenty of musicians, I can always put two bands together,” says Jones, remembering the time years ago when the Young Men Olympian Jr. Benevolent Association asked him to bring three groups to its annual anniversary parade.
“I have all of the musicians’ numbers—probably a couple of hundred—written on two or three pads at my house plus a [Musicians’] Union book. My regular musicians they are all in my phone at all times. The numbers are going up too because everybody wants to play with the band,” he adds with a smile.
Through the years, many of those players found listed on his pads have been members of the Treme Brass Band, with a number of them going on to pursue successful careers of their own. Back in the early days, trumpeter Kermit Ruffins and tuba man Phil Frazier used to blow with the Treme at the Petroleum Lounge. The Treme’s first gig at Sidney’s Saloon on St. Bernard Avenue included saxophonist Elliot “Stackman” Callier, trumpeter/vocalist Kenneth Terry and tuba player Kerwin James—Frazier’s late younger brother. It just might be easier to list who in the brass band world hasn’t played with the Treme than those who haven’t.
Benny Jones, who celebrates his 73rd birthday on August 11th, got what might be considered a late start in his career as a musician, though growing up in the Treme neighborhood he was surrounded by the parade culture. His father, Chester Ralph Jones, an accomplished drummer performing with illustrious ensembles like the Onward, Tuxedo and Eureka brass bands as well as traditional groups at Preservation Hall, was extremely influential.
“I would always go around to jazz funerals and second lines and I would always follow the drummer to see what he would do,” Jones remembers. “Then I’d go home and practice different kind of beats.”
Jones, always a hardworking guy, came from a family with 12 children so his time as a youngster was spent not pursuing music but working to help support the family. He remembers getting up at 5:30 or 6 in the morning to work with a man who had a mule-drawn peddling wagon and he helped unload produce and attend to the animal. Afterwards, the youngster would head to classes at the Joseph A. Craig Elementary School. In the evening after school, he’d return to the French Market to unload fruit.
“Benny is a born hustler—ain’t no shame in his game,” says saxophonist Roger Lewis with a laugh, quickly adding, “He’s a very special guy.” Lewis first met Jones in 1976 as a member of the Original Sixth Ward Dirty Dozen Brass Band, the initial name of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. The saxophonist, who continues to perform and record with the Dozen, represents the Treme Brass Band’s longest-term member.
“Benny don’t lose no time,” says Lewis of Jones’ rhythmic talent. “If you got a drummer that lose time that can be traumatic—you can’t groove. He’s not that fancy of a drummer; he’s no Herlin Riley or Shannon Powell. Benny do what Benny do—he’s like a clock. It’s the gift of God.”
The street parades were Jones’ home turf long before he hit them as a drummer. Since the 1960s, he had been parading as a member of the Sixth Ward Diamonds, the Sixth Ward Highsteppers and the Money Wasters Social Aid and Pleasure clubs. “I always hired the Olympia Brass Band so when the first Super Bowl [in 1970] was held in Tulane Stadium, the Olympia hired me and my son, Benny Jones Jr., to be the band’s grand marshals.
The emergence of Jones as a musician first came when he was in his twenties and hooked up with the Batiste family’s Dirty Dozen Kazoo Band, another precursor to the now internationally renowned Dirty Dozen. Jones gained entrance into the Batiste family’s Carnival and basically good time organization that included Uncle Lionel, Norman, Arthur, Miriam, Ferdinand and Felicia Batiste, by marrying Felicia’s oldest daughter. The Kazoo band would hit the streets on Mardi Gras, Halloween and St. Joseph’s Night, as well as when it was invited to parties and suppers. Along with the kazoos, improvised instruments including pots and pans were used as the group of often-costumed revelers would hit the streets. Jones says that during this time he was trying to focus on the bass drum.
“People knew me first as a bass drummer,” he explains, “and they called me Bass Drum Benny when I was a member of the Dirty Dozen and [Tuba Fats’] Chosen Few brass bands.”
The instrument-enhanced Dirty Dozen Brass Band was first heard when the group of musicians played in the bleachers at baseball games between neighborhood teams at Hardin Park. These were informal, fun-loving affairs where the players would clown by wearing dresses. After the games the band and crowd would head over to Darryl’s bar, a Seventh Ward watering hole.
The evolving band included bass drummer Jones, snare drummer Andrew Green, sousaphonist Kirk Joseph and his brother trombonist Charles Joseph, saxophonist Roger Lewis, trumpeter Cyril Salvant and drummer Jenell “Chilite” Marshall. As time went on saxophonist Kevin Harris and trumpeter Gregory Davis were added, and later yet trumpeter Efrem Towns.
“I bought blue tuxedos for them for certain kinds of gigs,” says Jones, who was obviously very involved with establishing the group. “Then I had some Dirty Dozen T-shirts made.”
The Dirty Dozen exploded on the scene with its hybrid style mixing up modern jazz, funk and rhythm and blues in a standard brass band format. Jones was on board during those now-legendary Monday night gigs at the Glass House, which rank up there in stature with classic dates such as pianist James Booker at the Maple Leaf and vocalist Johnny Adams at Dorothy’s Medallion Bar & Restaurant. Jones is also heard on the band’s debut album, the 1984 kicker, My Feet Can’t Fail Me Now.
As the Dozen gained in national and international recognition, the increase in outoftown jobs forced Jones, who worked a day job as a truck driver for an electrical business, to quit the band. Once again, as it did in his younger years, family came first.
“My kids were still in school and I wanted to make sure they got the right education, so I decided to step back for a minute,” says Jones, adding that after all, he had a job that provided benefits. His departure from the Dozen didn’t mean he was putting the music aside, just that he wouldn’t be hitting the road. He soon teamed up with a large and influential man on the brass band scene, Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen, to become a member of his Tuba Fats & the Chosen Few Brass Band. Naturally, Jones knew Lacen through encounters in the musical community as well as a member of saxophonist Harold Dejan’s Olympia Brass Band. It was with the Olympia that Jones got his first “big” paying job, acting as a grand marshal for the band at a hotel in Atlanta. Jones also made his first trip to Europe with the Olympia and has since traveled there many times leading the Treme.
It’s interesting and perhaps unusual that Jones finds all positions that have to do with brass bands equally satisfying. With the Olympia he moved from grand marshal to bass drum and then Dejan moved him to snare drum when Jones’ brother, Michael George, took over on the bass. “Harold had plenty of work,” says Jones, who played in what he calls the Olympia II band. “I bought their uniform so was ready at all times.”
As the leader of the Treme Brass Band, which he formed in 1994 after leaving the Chosen Few, Jones continues to alternate playing the bass and snare drums. When the Treme does its weekly gig on Tuesday nights at Frenchmen Street’s d.b.a., he’ll play the big drum; on Wednesday night shows at North Robertson Street stalwart the Candlelight Lounge, he’ll strap on the snare.
Of course when his lifelong friend, “Uncle” Lionel Batiste, who passed away in 2012, was playing the bass drum with the Treme, Jones stuck to the snare. “Sometimes he would double up or triple up the rhythms and I had to play between whatever he was doing and I had to compliment him,” Jones remembers. “He really elevated the band because everybody loved him. The band would rehearse whatever song he wanted to sing because he knew the words to all of the songs.”
“Uncle Lionel had that funk on the bass drum, because, you know, the funk comes from the bass drum,” Lewis offers. “And Benny would keep the time—you don’t need to be doing no fancy stuff.”
Jones and Batiste made for the perfect combination not only musically but in demeanor. Uncle Lionel was the jolly, outgoing man in the rhythm section. Jones is more laid-back and has earned a reputation for his patience even in the sometimes tumultuous world of brass band. Changing memberships in the Treme Brass Band never seems to faze him and it’s remarkable how he’s been able to keep the quality of the organization and its music so high.
“I believe in making people happy,” Jones offers. “They come to hear the band. Sometimes band members get under my skin but I try to hold it in. I come to play music; I don’t come for pushing and shoving. We can do that at another place, another time. I’ve always been that way. I’m a humble kind of guy. I worry about the music being right when I’m out there performing—on time, dress right and give the people what they are looking for, a great performance.”
“Benny is a very, very smart guy because he knows how to put the right combination of musicians together,” says Lewis, adding that he’s never seen Jones rattled. “He’s surrounded himself with good people. He has a special talent to do that.”
Jones’ experience and active involvement in all aspects of the brass band and second line street culture—and even his patience—have served him well as a founding member of the Black Men of Labor parading and cultural organization. Its goal, since forming in 1994, has been to keep classic brass band music and traditions on the street. Those match Jones’ old-school style that he engages in most everything that he takes on.
“He pretty much knows the history of the music and the dancing having participated in both aspects,” says trumpeter and co-founder of the BMOL Gregg Stafford. “He has knowledge of traditional second lining and an understanding of how the music goes. More than anything he’s dedicated to the culture.”
“First of all, you’re not going to meet a nicer man and he’s generous,” says Fred Johnson, president and cofounder of the Black Men of Labor. “You really got to go far to get Benny angry with you. When you hear people say some folks have the patience of Job, Benny has the patience of Job. He’ll go forever and ever and ever until he’s got enough of you. He’s brought a certain kind of balance [to the Black Men of Labor] that has helped us to keep an even hand in decisions, processes and direction.” Johnson, who for decades has seen and been around Jones at Mardi Gras Indian practices and second lines, adds that it’s Jones who puts the band together—often including next-generation musicians—for the BMOL’s parades. Also that Jones always second lines rather than plays in the brass band in the processions and acts as the band’s grand marshal.
“At that point the parade supersedes the band for him,” Johnson explains. “Benny is a wonderful representation of what New Orleans is all about. I call him the last of the Sixth Ward.”
“I’ve slowed my roll a little bit but I still got it in me,” Benny says with a laugh while comparing his second line moves today with those of the past. Presently, the only club to which he’s associated and where you can catch him steppin’ is the Black Men of Labor.
“Some of the clubs started buying real expensive clothes just to parade in and I didn’t need that. I like to buy expensive clothes to dress up when I can wear them for more than one or two times—no $500 shoes.”
Actually, the Treme Brass Band only hits the streets, other than short marches for weddings and parties, three times a year and doesn’t participate in any of the four-hour, Sunday afternoon anniversary parades. It rolls at the annual, brass band–filled Krewe du Vieux parade during Carnival season, leads the Lundi Gras day Red Beans parade and steps out for the Satchmo SummerFest second line that follows a jazz mass, which the band plays, that leaves from St. Augustine Catholic Church in the Treme and heads to the festival site—this year at Jackson Square.
Just before its performance on Saturday at 2:45 p.m. at this year’s Satchmo SummerFest, the Treme Brass Band, with favs like Lewis and the trombone pairing of Jones’ nephew Corey Henry and Terrance “Tap” Taplin, will supply the music for a children’s second line as it heads to the stage. Jones’ brother, Oswald “Bo Monkey” Jones will act as grand marshal. (Note: The Dirty Dozen plays the festival on Friday at 1:45 p.m.)
Jones has always been supportive and encouraging to the youth as a mentor, bandleader and through his regular participation in the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park youth education programs. “I like working with young people so they can learn some traditional music,” says Jones, who is always looking to ensure the future of New Orleans classic jazz music.
The Treme Brass Band, which has released four albums starting with 1995’s go-getter on Arhoolie Records, Gimme My Money Back, that included the now-classic “Food Stamp Blues.” Next up was 1996’s I Got a Big Fat Woman, 2008’s New Orleans Music, and its latest, 2011’s Treme Traditions, which includes Black Indian participants and tunes for the first time on a Treme album. “I always did follow the Mardi Gras Indians so I thought it was time to for me to put an Indian song out there,” says Jones, who used to play tambourine at Indian practices led by the likes of Big Chief Jake Millon of the White Eagles and Bo Dollis, the Big Chief of the Wild Magnolias.
Jones promises that he’s working on a new album and even threatening to write an original tune on which he’ll sing lead.
Singer/songwriter would definitely be a new feather in his band cap.
“I always wanted to be a drummer like my father and was always surrounded by drummers like James Black, Smokey Johnson and Freddie Kohlman,” Jones declares.
Benny Jones Sr. is all about the music and pleasing the people. “I always focus—number one—on my audience and see what kind of crowd I’m performing for and then I know how to present my music,” he explains. “When I see my audience is happy and dancing, I bring the music direct to them. Without an audience, there wouldn’t be no band. When people sit and stare all night, I make the band work harder. If the people are dancing and swinging out that makes my work easy.”