A life in clave: Josh Jones keeps the beat

Josh Jones
Josh Jones, a product of Berkeley High School’s acclaimed jazz program, plays La Peña on Friday. Photo: courtesy Josh Jones. Photo: Thomas Heinser

Josh Jones has had a fair share of glory. An early product of the Berkeley Unified School District’s jazz education program, he’s toured and recorded with jazz legends, helped spark the Bay Area’s acid jazz scene in the 1990s, and worked with hip hop icons like Tupac Shakur, Digital Underground, and Too Short. But his most important work has taken place away from the spotlight, teaching young musicians about the intricacies of swing, funk, and clave, the essential pulse of much Afro-Cuban music.

On Friday night he leads the Josh Jones Latin Jazz Orchestra at La Peña, an annual event for an ongoing rehearsal band that he launched around the turn of the century. His connection to the cultural center goes back to grade school days when he was drawn to La Peña by the regular presence of Cuban music workshops and bands. About 13 years ago he applied for a California Arts Council grant to support an array of classes he wanted to teach, covering salsa, hop hop, hand percussion and drum kit.

“After the grant ran out I kept the salsa class going, because it was by far the most popular,” Jones says. “Now it’s a 25-piece rehearsing Latin big band that meets every Monday at La Peña. The ages ranging from 30 to 60, all local people with varied abilities. It’s a lot of fun.”

With full horn, percussion and vocal sections, the band packs a wallop. Designed to inspire dancers, the repertoire encompasses Cuban and Puerto Rican style salsa, with tunes from the books of Eddie Palmieri, Celia Cruz, Rumba Havana, Ng la Banda, and some recent originals.


Like many of the precocious Berkeley High musicians of his generation, Jones soaked up a tremendous amount of musical knowledge at a tender age and quickly put it into practice. He started studying with Charles Hamilton at Columbus and polished his craft under Phil Hardymon, graduating from Berkeley High in 1980. But he gained a good deal of essential experience on the street (or plaza to be exact).

“I was a jazz and funk guy until Berkeley High, when I met Buddha,” Jones says, referring to percussionist Robert “Buddha” Huffman, a student a few years ahead of him. “He was interested in learning the drum set, and I was interested in learning congas. We became really close, and all through Berkeley High my two best friends were hardcore into rumba. Every weekend we’d go to the Sproul Plaza drum circle and try to take over the world. I got really into the congas, timbales, and bata drums.”

His rhythmic vocabulary continued to expand as a founding member of Peter Apfelbaum’s Hieroglyphics Ensemble, a jazz-steeped band that was in the process of forging a highly personal synthesis of Caribbean, West African, and various American styles. When SFJAZZ commissioned Apfelbaum to compose a piece featuring trumpet legend Don Cherry in 1988, Jones got his first major break.

Cherry was so struck by the Hieroglyphics’ creative energy that he decided to move to San Francisco, and adopted the band as his own, featuring Hieroglyphics on 1990’s MultiCulti, an A&M album that includes Apfelbaum’s commission “Until The Rain Comes.” Jones ended up touring with Cherry’s MultiCulti band from 1988 until his passing in 1995.

The trumpeter encouraged Jones to start his own band, advice he took to heart. By the early ‘90s Jones was leading a salsa band, a hip hop unit, and a straight ahead jazz combo. He’s been a mainstay on the local scene ever since, collaborating with Bay Area hip hop heavyweights while earning international attention for his work with hugely influential alto saxophonist/composer Steve Coleman.

Over the past two decades Coleman has intermittently landed in the Bay Area, sometimes for a self-made under-the-radar residency and other times holding down a teaching gig, including a couple years in UC Berkeley’s music department. He was flying low when he came through in mid-90s looking for new collaborators and just starting to immerse himself in Afro-Caribbean rhythmic systems. It didn’t take Coleman long to find Jones.

“I nailed the audition, and he asked if I had a passport,” Jones says. “Prior to that used West African percussion and I was encouraging him in the Cuban direction. We went to Cuba and did that whole thing, recording with Afro Cuban de Matanzas and the amazing conga player Miguel Diaz, or Angá. Dafnis Prieto and Vijay Iyer were both in that band, and you know they both got MacArthur grants. We went to Africa, and played all over Europe, and I got to play along side Ravi Coltrane and Von Freeman. It was one of the most inspiring experiences.”


While many of his Bay Area peers ended up moving to New York City, Jones decided to stay put, anchored by his large, close-knit family (he’s the third oldest of 13 children). Living in Oakland’s Dogtown neighborhood near the Emeryville border, he’s busy teaching private students and classes at La Peña and Berkeley High, where he’s work with the jazz band for years.

These days he performs at San Francisco’s Cigar Bar the second Saturday of every month, a gig he’s held down for more than a decade. He tours and records with the inventive jazz singer Jacqui Naylor, and plays in various bands around the region.

“I’ve built a local thing for myself,” Jones says. “I go to New York at least once a year and see friends and have a great time, but I love not having to endure the cold. I really enjoy teaching and I feel very fortunate being able to help build a local scene. I’m as busy as I want to be.”

Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.

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