Jazz meets rockabilly in Oakland
Jinx Jones is one of the Bay Area’s most accomplished guitarists and songwriters. The Oakland resident has been a professional musician since he was a high school student in Denver, playing in bands that performed country, jazz, rockabilly, surf, soul, R&B, swing, blues, rock and every permutation thereof.
“Before the pandemic, I was doing a lot of shows in the Bay Area with Jinx Jones and the Kingtones, a trio that plays rockabilly, twang, honky-tonk and surf tunes—covers and originals. I was also playing straight ahead jazz in various duos and trios.
“I spent the summer and fall of 2020 recording and making sure we got the sound of a live band. I chose standards that aren’t often played, along with Stevie Wonder’s ‘Too High’ and ‘Me and Mrs. Jones,’ a hit for Billy Paul. A lot of my early experience was playing in R&B bands, so I like to bring that element, and a bit of soul, into my arrangements.
“I started by recording the guitar parts using a click track, then sending it off to other people. I had a good idea of the arrangement, but I was open to other ideas. I was fortunate to play with musicians that had the ability, even though they’re recording separately, to make it sound like they’re playing with me.”
The result is Blue Gardenia, a showcase of Jones’ low-key virtuosity in a wide variety of settings. “After I was satisfied with the music, it took a little bit of time to pick out the title track. I chose ‘Blue Gardenia’ because you don’t find too many recordings of it. There was a film noir in the ’50s called The Blue Gardenia. In the film, Nat ‘King’ Cole sings the song in a nightclub. I love the unique, haunting melody of the song.
“When I was playing the song, it had the feel and emotion I was aiming for. A lot of the music was improvised, and I was suddenly playing above my head, doing things that are normally beyond my reach. Then Tim Greenhouse, the piano player, elevated it and it became even more special.”
The rest of the album is just as distinctive. Jones glides into the melody of “Me and Mrs. Jones,” with a hint of Wes Montgomery in his muted approach. Greenhouse takes a brief piano solo before Jones closes with a flurry of single note runs. “Autumn Leaves” swings gently, with Jones strumming melodic chords, with drummer Arlen Felson and bass player Angeline Saris adding a mid-tempo groove. Greenhouse adds a relaxed solo to set up Jones’ long, inventive coda.
Jones said he’s been playing for most of his life. “My mom bought a used piano from a bar for $25 and brought it home. I took two lessons before my piano teacher quit. Anything she played, I could play back by ear. She said I could never learn to play music properly. By the 5th grade, I was in a band, but I thought the guitar was cooler than piano, so I switched.
“When my friends were out playing, I’d be home in my room with a record player, teaching myself. An electric guitar was like having a magic wand, or a rocket ship; it could take you anywhere you wanted to go. I was playing in clubs at an early age, with people who were really good. They’d teach me about chord substitutions and other stuff.”
Eventually, Jones headed West to see if he could make an impact on the music business. “I got a job at Starlight Studios in Richmond. Tommy McElroy and Denny Foster, who had hits with Tony! Toni! Toné!, came in to make demos for an all-woman group they were starting called En Vogue. They had me play guitar and bass on a song called ‘Free Your Mind.’ That track was one of the biggest hits on their debut album, Funky Divas.”
A versatile player, Jones moved on to a rockabilly band called The Fontanas. The improvisational aspect of the music appealed to him. He was soon leading his own outfit, The Kingtones, writing songs and making albums like License To Twang and Twang-Tastic! that added swing, surf music, country and jazz into the mix. He also played dates as a jazz duo and trio.
“I’ve been doing this all my life, and there are moments when something happens during the interplay between musicians that has never happened before and will never happen again. Those are the moments that mean a lot to me, the moments that make all the hard work worthwhile.”
‘Blue Gardenia,’ ‘License To Twang,’ ‘Rip and Run,’ ‘Rumble and Twang’ and ‘Twang-Tastic!’ are available from the Jinx Jones website (jinxjones.com) and all digital platforms. The website also has a list of upcoming gigs. jinxjones.com/dates