By Mark Guarino
Whenever the Rolling Stones play Chicago, it’s always a bit of a homecoming considering the veteran British rock group was first inspired by the blues greats who lived and recorded on the city’s South Side.
But for one member of the band, the return to Chicago is more than just symbolic. “Chicago’s home for me,” said bassist Darryl Jones Sunday, the night before the Stones play the first of two shows at the United Center. (The second show is Wednesday.) Jones, a Chicago native who joined the band in 1994 after founding bassist Bill Wyman resigned, lives at an unusual crossroad. He is an acclaimed jazz player mentored by Miles Davis who is now playing rock classics in sports stadiums. If jazz is about finding something new in the present and classic rock is about clinging onto the old, Jones insists his position in the Stones does not compromise the two.
“I have to first point to Keith (Richards) in that regard. Keith is a jazz musician if you consider the way he is always reinventing what he is playing,” he said. “Standing next to him every night, there’s always something new coming out … So even though this is a different medium than say jazz, there are elements that make it a very improvisational band.”
Jones, 44, grew up in the South Side neighborhood of Chatham to a mother who sang Sarah Vaughan songs in the house and played R&B records and to a father who drove CTA buses during the day but blared jazz at night. Jones remembers often coming home Saturday nights to find his father in the basement drumming on practice pads along to Count Basie records cranked to full volume. It was an education he today realizes that was critical to his versatility. “Everything I’m doing is really a reflection of (being inspired) by them,” he said.
He first spotted the bass guitar in the third grade when a neighbor four years older played it at a talent show. That was May. In June he hit the neighbor up for lessons. That later led to Chicago Vocational High School where the band director scheduled professional gigs around town at museums and civic functions as well as taking the band out of town.
Jones soon became one of the youngest players in Chicago, backing up soul singer Otis Clay and playing with guitarist Phil Upchurch and others. Drummer Vince Wilburn Jr., a local drummer, was the one who recommended Jones to Miles Davis, his uncle. In 1983, Davis called Jones at home and told him to come to New York City for an audition.
Resisting the jazz tradition of relying just on seasoned elders, the jazz enigma had a habit of plucking young players out of nowhere to bring them under his wing. “This was part of Miles’ vision,” said Jason Koransky, editor of Downbeat, the jazz magazine with offices in Elmhurst. “He would hear something in someone well before someone else heard it and really in a sense catapult them to fame. He definitely enjoyed discovering people.”
Although the opportunity opened the door to tours and sessions with A-list stars including Sting, Eric Clapton, Madonna, Peter Gabriel and others, Jones says he’s “still learning” from Davis, a fellow Illinois native who died in 1991. “What I’m learning, I have to say, is to listen. And it sounds simple and everybody thinks they’re doing it, but very few people are,” he said. His background in jazz helped in his audition with the Rolling Stones when he strove to connect with Charlie Watts, a drummer who injects jazz inflections into his playing. “It would have been easy to go into the audition and see Keith in front of you and Mick (Jagger) in front of you and play to them, but that’s not what I did,” he said.
Jones locked in with Watts from the start. “I left that audition thinking, ‘if it felt as good for him to play with me as it felt for me with him, I’ll get a call back’,” he remembered. “And I did.”
He is now a 12-year veteran with the band, heard on their last three studio albums including their newest, “A Bigger Bang” (Virgin). “Their sound is with Darryl Jones,” said Koransky.Jones admitted that while he was aware of the Stones throughout his childhood, he didn’t know much else. “If I bought a Stones record, it was the single ‘Angie’,” he said. A girlfriend introduced their music to him years before the audition. By the time he joined the band he could play the bass parts based, not on what was recorded, but on how the songs felt. Soon after, he went back to learn Wyman’s original parts by heart. “I was much more influence by Bill Wyman since I joined this band than before. I think he’s really a fine musician,” he said.
His connection with the Stones runs deeper than what he anticipated. He is a product of the South Side, which means his Southern roots run deep. “What I hear (in my playing) is the softness from the country and the empathy with the other musicians, with the drummer particularly,” he said. That Southern feel wrapped around an urbane cool is something the Stones defined.
In addition to spending time with his family (his father died last Thanksgiving), Jones will play two club sets tonight at Martyrs with saxophonist Tim Ries, trombonist Michael Davis and singer Bernard Fowler, all touring musicians in the Stones band.
Rumors that this is the last Stones tour is news to him, he said. “They so love what they’re doing, they’re not doing this to get rich. They’re already rich. They are still in the game because they love the game,” he said. “What else is there?”