Darryl Jones

Chicago-bred low-ender tells FBPO what it’s like to play bass for Miles Davis, Sting, Madonna and the Rolling Stones

Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
December 13, 2010

Born and raised in Chicago, Darryl Jones began his musical studies on the drums, inspired by his drummer father.  After a few years of drum lessons, Darryl saw a neighbor play bass in a talent show and decided to make the switch.  With a little financial help from his older brother, Darryl bought a Hofner Beatle Bass copy and became a serious student of the bass guitar.  Sold on a career in music, Darryl entered Chicago Vocational High School, where he took music theory courses, played electric bass in school stage bands and string bass in the orchestra.  Upon graduating, Darryl began establishing himself on the local music scene, eventually landing gigs with pianists Charles Matthews, Ghallib Ghallab and Ken Chaney and guitarists Curtis Robinson and Phil Upchurch.

Darryl’s career catapulted when he landed the gig with the legendary Miles Davis in the early ‘80s.  Jones held down the bass chair in the trumpeter’s band for two years, touring and supplying the bass tracks on Davis’ Decoy and You’re Under Arrest albums.  Having Miles Davis’ name on his resume opened up many doors for Darryl, who went on to perform with Sting, Madonna, Herbie Hancock, Peter Gabriel and many others.  He also became an in-demand studio bass player, having recorded with everyone from Eric Clapton to Spike Lee.  Most recently, Darryl has been playing bass for the Rolling Stones.

FBPO: Tell me about your musical upbringing.  How do you think growing up in Chicago influenced you, musically?

DJ: I grew up in a household with a few different styles of music in the air. My dad was listening to things like early Miles and Count Basie and my mother listened to soul and early funk, stuff like James Brown and Aretha Franklin.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but I think hearing more than one style opened my ears and mind to all kinds of music.  I think that has helped the direction of my career.

Growing up in Chicago, there was a burgeoning music scene that included blues, jazz and rock and everything in between. I grew up playing lots of different styles with a general emphasis on holding down the foundation and grooving, making sure the music felt good. I think Chicago musicians in general pay a lot of attention to the feel of the music. I think it’s the Southern influence with just enough urban slickness.

FBPO: How did you get the gig with Miles Davis?  Did he really have you audition for him over the phone?

DJ: I ended up not actually playing for Miles over the phone. I flew to New York the day after speaking to him on the phone and played along with a board tape from one of his recent gigs. He also had me play a B-flat blues, real slow. I guess he wanted to know how I would think on my feet and if I understood form. He hired me that day.

FBPO: How would you describe the experience of being in Miles’ band?  How was he different from other bandleaders that hired you?

DJ: Being in Miles’ band was very special, particularly when I look back on it now. I knew it was his band but we always felt as though it was our band too. He was an exceptional leader in that he inspired you to play above your level of ability. His standard of performance was so high that you came with you’re “A” game every night. That, along with his reputation to change his mind, kept us on our toes. Miles, in my opinion, was a leader among leaders. If you look at the people that played with Miles and some of the amazing bands they’ve gone on to lead, you get my point.  It was such a learning environment that you would always leave with something more than you came with. You had a clear idea about the organization of music.

FBPO: Tell me a little something about Miles Davis, the man.

DJ: Many people refer to Miles as a genius, which I think is true.  What goes unsaid is how hard he worked at it. He would listen to a tape of the night’s performance two or three times before he went to bed. He was always tweaking. You’d get a call from him at 5 a.m.  He’d be telling you to change direction on this or to expand the concept on that.  Also, I have to say, I’ve never met anyone who loved music more than he did. He loved music so very deeply. As a man, he had an incredible amount of grace and style.  He was the epitome of cool. I’m not talking about in that stereotypical jazz musician way. There’s a difficult-to-define Spanish term used in the arts: “Duende.”  It refers to something that is completely authentic, full of culture and creative emotion and action.  It is a power, not a behavior. Difficult to describe, but immediately known when it is encountered, Miles had duende. It showed itself not only in his music but also in his life.

FBPO: What was your experience like in New York?  What kind of stuff were you doing there?

DJ: New York was wonderful. I was there from the time I was 21 till about 27 or 28, so I feel, as a musician, I grew up there.  I was playing with Miles and around the city with Gil Evans, John Scofield, Hiram Bullock and lots of others.  For a time, I hung out with Miles everyday. I studied acting a little when I lived in New York and I used to go to the movies everyday. It was the perfect place for me to be at that time. I learned a lot and I had so much fun.

FBPO: How did the Sting gig come about?  That must have been quite a change of pace after Miles.

DJ: Branford Marsalis pulled me into the situation with Sting. We played together on Miles’ Decoy record and got to be friends. I think we just liked each other and wanted to play together.  Actually, Branford and Wynton were playing with Herbie Hancock’s VSOP on the bill the first night I played with Miles. They were both very supportive and welcoming to me, despite the perception that they didn’t like the electric players. I’ve never forgotten that. When Sting told Branford he was putting together a band and wasn’t going to be playing bass, Branford recommended me.

It was a very different genre than the Miles gig. Sting had written great songs and the lineup was one of the greatest ones I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing with: Dolette McDonald, Janice Pendarvis,  Branford Marsalis, Omar Hakim and Kenny Kirkland. Leaving Miles wasn’t easy, but I loved playing Sting’s music with that band. Actually, though, after we did the Dream of the Blue Turtles tour with Sting, Miles invited me back to join his band again and I got to enjoy another two years with him. I was honored to have been asked back.

FBPO: How about Madonna?

DJ: I heard through the grapevine that Madonna might be interested in hiring me for what turned out to be the “Blond Ambition” tour. Later, I found out that Nikki Harris, a very gifted singer and daughter of the late great pianist Gene Harris, sang background with Madonna and suggested she consider me for the bass chair. Madonna is a visionary, a talented, hardworking person. I learned a lot about what it takes to put a show together working with her.

FBPO: So, how does a young jazz player from Chicago end up as the bass player with the Rolling Stones?

DJ: I met Keith Richards through Charley Drayton and Steve Jordan. They were playing with his band, the Expensive Winos, and invited me to a rehearsal to meet him. Actually, they’re the ones who got me interested in playing rock and roll. When I heard Talk Is Cheap, it really changed my idea about what rock and roll could be. I was impressed with the irreverence, the wildness of it. It was so funky. Charley brought me in to record a few things with Divinyls and when the Winos came through Chicago, I hung out with Keith one night and he gave me the quintessential altered tuning guitar lesson. I really liked Keith and hoped there might be some way I could play with him one day.  A few years later, I heard a rumor that Bill (Wyman) might be leaving the Stones and a friend, Sandy Torano, got Mick’s manager’s number and suggested I call to check it out.  I did and a while later they called and invited me out to audition.

FBPO: What’s keeping you busiest these days?

DJ: I’ve been working some with Gil Evans’ son, Miles Evans. He’s leading a smallish big band, similar in concept to his father’s band that played regularly at Sweet Basil’s in NYC during the ’80s. Also, I’ve been working with Tim Ries, who is one of the members of the horn section with the Stones. Tim has written jazz arrangements of Stones songs for his last two recordings and I’ve been working with him. I work projects Steve Jordan produces from time to time, which I really enjoy. Also, I’ve been working on music of my own for a long time and I hope to be finished early next year. Basically, it’s an amalgam of the music I grew up listening to and the music I’ve played during my career.

FBPO: What lies ahead for you and your career?  What would you like to accomplish that you haven’t done yet?

DJ: I’d like to lead a band using some of the things I learned from Miles. I’d love to get out and play some of the music I’ve been working on live next year and, who knows, maybe I’ll have the good fortune to play with the Stones again in the future.

FBPO: What do you like to do that’s not necessarily musically oriented?

DJ: I have a few other interests in and outside of the music field, namely, composition, photography and drawing. I’ve always been interested in acting, too. I’m interested in designing and manufacturing basses and guitars in the future. I love to cook, so studying formally is something I’d like to at least begin at some point.

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