Jean Claude (JC) Jones
hand·i·cap (ˈhandēˌkap) – noun
1. a circumstance that makes progress or success difficult.
2. (OFFENSIVE) a condition that markedly restricts a person’s ability to function physically, mentally, or socially.
3. a disadvantage imposed on a superior competitor in sports such as golf, horse racing, and competitive sailing in order to make the chances more equal.
On our 31st installation I was hailed up to Jerusalem in order to have a chance to interview one of Israel’s leading musicians, improvisers and free jazz masters – JC Jones. JC Jones was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1988, and has since seen a marked decline in his health and mobility. I was not personally acquainted with Jones before the interview, but had heard of him throughout my life, and substantially so since having started my research project in Experimental Israel, where more often than not his name came up as a mentor and inspiration for the younger generation. I had managed to catch a glimpse of Jones in an improv gig a few months before our set interview and was amazed to encounter a disabled person, guitar on his lap, playing in what could only be described as a highly unidiomatic style, and managing, all the same, to create absolutely mesmerising music. I was immediately captivated, and was very much looking forward to meeting Jones in person.
Jones comes from a robust jazz tradition, going through all the right hoops of the trade. He started playing jazz guitar at a young age, and expressed an immediate affiliation with “fucking around” – or in more descriptive terms, doing with his instrument whatever was on his mind regardless of whether the subject was a jazz standard or a Beatles song. Later in Berkley he put the stamp of approval on his artistry and commenced a stellar career in “standard” jazz. However, the real change came for Jones in the early 90s, where he made the exclusive shift towards improvised music and free jazz, never looking back. Jones tended to agree with my observation, yet could not fully explain why most jazz practitioners find themselves in either favour or complete opposition to free jazz.
However, another great shift came for Jones as he traded his guitar prowess in favour of the double bass, an instrument he has since become quite identified with. Jones describes his life long fascination with the bass, and excuses his choosing the guitar as a necessity of the time: whereas modern jazz had loads of double bass players, there were hardly any guitar players around. But here Jones segways into yet another interestingly related topic: he claims that the bass, particularly the double bass, is a leader’s instrument. Jones made a note throughout his career of the fact that more often than not he was the leader – the dynamic force in an ensemble pulling it forward and giving it its momentum. Coupled with this realisation, he noted that this momentous force is more often than not the part of the double bass player. Put 2 and 2 together and you get JC Jones who within 2 years was a bonafide double bass player. On questioning the possible difficulties of trading his guitar technique with that of the bass, Jones simply brushes this idea off claiming that by this point in life he was playing improvised and free music, and so he wasn’t in any way interested in idiomatic technique.
A day before our interview, I got a mail from JC asking whether I would agree to forgo his dedicated improv during our interview – he had just hurt his left hand and was afraid he would not be able to perform without pain. My reply was level headed, expressing that I would obviously prefer to go on with our scheduled interview and would accept any outcome, but would ask him to look at our topic philosophically. I asked Jones whether, for the sake of experimentation, he could not try and see this new handicap as a means to crawl out of his “comfort zone”, and perhaps present us with something new both for him and us. Finally, when I arrived at his home, Jones’ hand was already doing much better and he was, more than anything, eager to play. Jones seems like a child exploring an instrument in the most playful and unattached fashion. He truly is in the moment, so much so that at some point he simply picked up the guitar and lapsed into another improv set mid sentence. I commented on this to JC, mentioning that it was like seeing a child in play. Jones agreed immediately, only added to this thought: “absolutely, yes, but unlike a child I know what I’m doing… I have years of training in harmony and rhythm and I know what I am looking for…”
Even before having met Jones or seeing him in action up close, I couldn’t help but have a very uncomfortable thought pass through my mind. It was a thought combining two supposedly unrelated things: JC’s illness and experimentation. I mean, here was a star musician, someone who had polished his technical ability throughout the years, only to have this horrible illness take away from him what he had worked so hard and long to achieve. And yet, this same illness allowed this same person to accumulate a plethora of non-idiomatic techniques and extract from the guitar sounds and ideas I had never encountered before. Hearing JC’s playing immediately brought to mind my past guest on the program and a protégé of JC’s, Ido Bukelman. It almost seemed as if Bukelman had in some ways based his technique and sound on something originating with JC’s post illness playing. With Bukelman too, there is the story of the able run of the mill jazz guitarist giving it all up for what seems like non-idiomatic almost reckless playing. Whereas with Bukelman there is a technical refinement and a search that has in no way ended, Jones seemed to me like an urtext – a sort of maverick force caught in a bind imposed by circumstance. But this difficult thought process went even further! I couldn’t help but feel an immense ego in JC’s claims regarding leadership and his role within various ensembles. However, I also couldn’t help but agree that he was probably right – here was a true jazz master, who had played with serious greats, and more so – the energy emanating from him was totally magnetic; I was in awe and, yes, a bit infatuated with his spirit. Hence, I could clearly understand how easy it would be to follow such a person and seek his approval. So maybe his illness was the biggest work of art of them all? I imagined God intervening and asking Jones: “you think you’re a mountain, don’t you? Let’s see you now!” But a mountain is still a mountain no matter what, and Jones not only manages to create mesmerising music still, but he finds new and innovative ways of creating it, using methods, techniques and styles that he had never dealt with in the past; and as for his leadership, well, to me it felt stronger than ever.
I finally mustered up the courage to present these horrible questions to JC himself, and he, of course, was much less philosophical about the topic. Life had handed him this card, and he was dealing with it in as much as he could. Some days are better than others, he said. This reminded me of Jones’ approach towards improvising. He recalled a recent gig at the Mizkaka in Jerusalem where from the first chord he played on the guitar he hated the sound he was producing. Jones sets up immediacy in his improvisations in various strategies – for instance: he will tune the guitar a night prior to the gig, not actually plucking the strings so that the new tuning will surprise him. What guts you need to do this, I thought to myself, and especially if you know that you might hate what comes out! “Today”, said JC, referring to the tuning of the guitar he used for our session, “I loved the sound from my first touch of the guitar”. I know this wasn’t in any way directed towards me, but I still felt so proud.
JC’s music is available here: