When the news came last week that Jimmie Jones had died, it wasn’t really a surprise.
He was 87 and had been in failing health for a few years. Anyone could tell that from watching him as he limped, increasingly stoop-shouldered and bent almost parallel with the ground, lugging his camera toward the photographers’ pit of the Chicago Jazz Festival or up to the stage at one of the after-fest sessions that extended the music into the night.
So, not exactly a surprise to hear that Jones had passed – last Sunday, July 22, at Genesis Medical Center in Davenport, Iowa – but a shock nonetheless: the realization that with this year’s jazz festival rapidly approaching, Labor Day weekend will have a small but glaring hole in it.
Jones took pictures, thousands of pictures, of the musicians he admired. You probably haven’t seen them. He didn’t shoot for magazines or newspapers, though a few of his photos appeared in print. He was a pure amateur, in the best sense of the word (from the Latin amatorem, literally “a lover of” something). He shot for himself, enlarging the best images and framing them for display at his home in the Quad Cities, often sending a copy to the subjects themselves.
(Occasionally, he wrote about the music, too, as in this recap of the 2001 Chicago Jazz Festival.)
In any case, it wasn’t the photos themselves that made Jones so identifiable; it was the image of a crippled elderly man, continuing to persevere, lit from within in his dedication to his craft.
“He wasn’t just a ‘fan’; he was a real aficionado,” Jones’s son Chester told me over the weekend. “He figured that musicians were some of the best people in the world, in terms of the discipline and practice needed to gain control over what they were doing. He always admired that. And he always had a trumpet; he always meant to take lessons.”
The trumpet has been donated, at Jones’s request, to the AACM (Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), home base for the world-renowned musical experimenters that Jones had come to revere above all else.
After today’s funeral in Davenport, Iowa, right next to the city of Bettendorf where he made his home, Jones will be laid to rest. In this case, the term seems especially appropriate; the idea of “rest” especially welcome.
His son told me that Jones – whose death was first reported in the Quad-City Times – suffered from a small panoply of illnesses and conditions. The actual cause of death was toxic shock infection, but Jones also had suffered for years from the autoimmune disorder Guillain-Barre Syndrome. “That explained the crippling,” Chester said, and also made it increasingly hard for Jones to fight off infections.
But he had a congenital heart problem, too, which led to congestive heart failure in recent years. He also endured the specific curvature of the spine called kyphosis – that’s what gave him the hunched back – as well as osteoporosis; in addition, his son said, “He had fallen and broken his hip. And he had a major infection in his kidneys. At the end, it just all cascaded.”
And yet, until last year, Jimmie Jones – crabbed and breaking, increasingly slowed by his physical deformities – showed up each fall to shoot photos at the Chicago Jazz Festival. Each night, when the music faded in Grant Park, he would then drag himself south to Fred Anderson’s (now shuttered) Velvet Lounge, working his way close enough to the stage to photograph the AACM musicians and other avant-gardists who had captured his ear.
Actually, he didn’t have to work that hard to get near the club’s small stage: people just got out of his way as he inched forward. Even if they didn’t know him, the sight of this haggard-looking old fellow pursuing his art spoke volumes about the music’s power to move and inspire – as well as that “indomitability of the human spirit,” so much ballyhooed but all too rarely witnessed.
Jones grew up in Oxford, Mississippi, and attended Ole’ Miss, just ahead of Mose Allison. By then, Chester told me, he’d already been seduced by jazz. “When he was 13, he saved up some money from caddying and bought his first record; he’d heard Charlie Parker on the radio and was just knocked out, and he’s been collecting records ever since.” In the armed services, Jones gravitated toward and met several musicians, among them pianist Kenny Drew – who would join Charlie Parker’s group in the 1950s – and trumpeter Billy Brimfield, who would later become Fred Anderson’s onstage alter-ego.
After leaving the Marines – yes, Jimmie Jones was a Marine – he went to work as a civilian employee of the Army, in a somewhat peripatetic career that landed him in Bettendorf when he retired in 1977. His work for the Army should provide another surprise to those who knew him only in his later years – a gnarled but vigorous senior citizen with something approaching a flat-top haircut, wildly incongruous among the other photographers half his age, updating acquaintances in a still buoyant bayou drawl, his body collapsing but his wits still razor-wire sharp.
“He was a munitions specialist,” Chester told me. “Chemical and nuclear munitions. He was a branch chief when he retired; that’s pretty high up.”
Some photographers make their way to documenting the music after they’ve mastered their craft; Jimmie Jones did just the opposite, his son explained. “The amazing thing was, he picked up a camera once when he was [on assignment for the Army] in Germany, but he was a novice then. He kind of taught himself as he went along.
“And when the new digital cameras came in, he was still using the old 35 mm film cameras. He only switched over a little while ago. But he still got the pictures ‘manually.’ He took them into the photo shop, and later the Walgreens, and had them download and print the pictures there. I told him he could download the photos himself, on his own computer, but he said computers were bad luck.”
Jimmie Jones had had enough of that in his own body, but it really didn’t stop him. “He had a deep love for three things,” his son said. “The music, his family, and reading the Bible.”
I get the feeling that the lines between those concepts blurred; he treated the musicians he befriended like family, and the music itself was almost a religion.
From 2002 till last year Jones, hosted a jazz radio show using his own collection of reportedly 8000 recordings; he also served on several committees of the Mississippi Valley Blues Society and helped program its annual festival. They’ll miss him in the Quad Cities.
And here in Chicago, come Labor Day weekend, longtime patrons of the Chicago Jazz Festival may also notice something missing as the music plays on. His name was Jimmie Jones, amateur photographer, and the place won’t seem the same without him.