Koko Jones has a smile that lights up the room and a warm, understated presence that makes the complex rolls and bent notes she coaxes from her congas look easy. On stage, she moves between various drums and percussion toys, leading her band with subtle nods and hand gestures. If you don’t pay attention, you might think she’s just one of the players in the band, but every note and tempo change the group plays hinges on the bedrock rhythms she generates.
Jones has a lifetime of performing a wide range of styles with some of the top names in the field, and brings all those elements together on Who’s That Lady, her third album as a leader and her first effort under her own name. The intricate Latin and world/jazz arrangements that were the hallmark of Tenth World, the band she assembled in 2000, are still there, but the album also draws on the funk, rock, and R&B tunes that inspired her musical journey.
“I played all the percussion on the album — quadruple parts on some songs,” Jones says, from her New Jersey apartment. “The basic tracks were cut live, everybody in one room, then I did the overdubs with the mike close to the congas and cowbells to get the bleed that makes it sound like an old fashioned record. There’s a beauty to doing it that way, the way I did it when I recorded with the Isley Brothers. You go in with the charts and the band, play the music, add a few overdubs, and you’re done.”
Her years with the Isleys made Jones a top session player, leading to work with such high-profile acts as Whitney Houston, Jermaine Jackson, Archie Shepp, and Luisito Quintero. During those years, she was presenting as a man. When she began her transition to becoming a woman, she lost jobs and had to face the sexism, homophobia, and transphobia of the music business. “Like many people from the trans community, I knew I was different as far back as I can remember. Growing up, I always felt something was wrong with me. Music was my solace, a way to be creative and part of something bigger than myself.
“I grew up in Englewood, New Jersey, home of The Isley Brothers, The Sugar Hill Gang, and jazz artists like Tyree and Roger my house, music was a requirement. I took piano lessons, but everybody I knew, including my brother Patrick, was in a band. I couldn’t wheel the piano down the street, 1 so I grabbed my sister’s bongos. I showed up at my brother’s rehearsals and started knocking out rhythms.”
Other bandmembers were impressed. Jones begged her parents for a conga and they got her one. “The first night I had my conga, I took it to bed with me and put it under the covers, like a teddy bear.” Her folks also found a teacher — Karl Potter, percussionist for the Isley Brothers. “The lessons with Karl were amazing. I became a drum addict,”she says. “He taught me to get that huge conga sound and play strong. I was scrawny and thin, but I wasn’t short. I’d stand for hours after school every day and try to copy his sound. The drum was from Mexico, with a thick muleskin head. It was like hitting a piece of wood. I’d listen to ‘Lay Away’ by The Isley Brothers. [Karl] is up in the mix and you can hear his sound and style, crystal clear. I tried to get that sound out of my drum. It took six months to play a slap, but I soon had good tone and bass notes. Karl taught me to put emotion into my technique. After six months with him, I could play.
“When I was 15, Babatunde Lea taught congas and timbales at my high school. I’d been learning classical percussion — timpani, xylophone, marimba. ’Tunde taught me Latin rhythms — songo, guaguanco, rumba, and tumbao. Latin music was all over the radio in those days. I listened to Joe Bataan, Joe Cuba, any song with a conga on it. Baba taught me how to break a solo down so I could play it. I learned to read percussion charts. The more I learned, the more I played. I had the fever. I was determined to be a music major in college.”
Jones was also struggling with her identity. She didn’t know what the words “straight,” “gay,” or “transsexual” meant, but she knew she was different. “I knew I wanted to be a woman when I grew up, but my father would have killed me if I discussed it, so I didn’t deal with it. The band room became my oasis.”
Englewood was a hotbed of percussion. Saturday drum circles drew top players like Marvin “Bugalu” Smith (Sun-Ra, Archie Shepp, Mal Waldron). “Marvin is a great drummer. He taught me to swing, not just physically, but how to get inside the music. He took me to his jazz gigs and let me sit in when I was barely a teenager.” Babatunde Lea took Jones to see Tanawa Drum And Dance, an ensemble led by Congolese musician Titos Sompa. “That got me into African rhythms and helped me understand how rhythms interface with dance. I’d been in an R&B cover band; this took me in another direction.” Jones played for Tanawa rehearsals to develop her African rhythms. “When you play for classes, you have to play two or three hours, with no sitting around. You sweat and develop stamina.”
Around the same time, the cover band Jones played in got discovered. She was only 13. “A producer from All Platinum Re- cords [which became Sugar Hill Records] approached us,” she explains. “We became the backing band for Spoonbread, a boy band that had a hit with a cover of the Bee Gees, ‘How Can You Mend A Broken Heart?’ They were all 13. The label wanted a young band to play behind them. We toured, opening for Harold Melvin And The Blue Notes and The Isley Brothers. It was my first professional experience. It didn’t last long and we didn’t get paid much, but it showed me I could earn a living and get off from school.”
“We also got to hang out at All Platinum studios. Yogi Horton was the session drummer. I watched him work. He never played too much in his fills and his timing was impeccable, dynamic and strong. I modeled myself after him in terms of my timekeeping.”
In her junior year of high school, Jones discovered Jazzmobile, a non-profit jazz school in New York City. “I was a jazz lover and wanted to learn traps. I’d met Art Blakey, Jr. and we became friends. He sold me a set of his father’s old drums. I practiced drum kit as much as I practiced percussion.” At Jazzmobile she met and studied with Freddie Waits, Richie “Pablo” Landrum, and Charli Persip, from Dizzy Gillespie’s band. Jones mastered the rhythms of hard bop and began doing New York City gigs with Calvin Hill, Willie Mack, and other notable players.
“I was in classes at Jazzmobile when I started going to UMass,” she recalls. “They had no jazz department, so I was a Liberal Arts major, with a self-generated minor in Black Music and Theater. Max Roach supervised my independent study and was impressed by my work on drum kit and percussion.”
In 1974, Karl Potter left the Isley Brothers Band and recommend Jones for his position. “I was with The Isleys for six years, then went with Isley, Jasper, Isley for a few more. I did albums like Grand Slam, Between The Sheets, and Inside You, often unaccredited because they frequently paid musicians off the books.”
When she wasn’t on the road, Jones nurtured a parallel career as a studio musician. “I got a call from Archie Shepp in 1979 and joined his Attica Blues Big Band for a tour of Europe and the Attica Blues Big Band album. When I got back to the States, I did session work on a lot of albums I can’t even remember, including some disco stuff. That lasted until the dawn of the drum machine.”
After an Isley, Jasper, Isley tour in 1986, Jones joined Whitney Houston for a European tour. She continued to work with Houston’s live band until 1990, before rejoining the Isleys. During those years, Jones was dealing with her gender identity, preparing to transition. “I took my first hormone shot in 1987 and began electrolysis when I was touring with Whitney. It was difficult being macho on the gig and myself in private. Touring is like being on a sports team, the guys and girls in separate rooms. I had to hide my body as it began to change, which created a lot of anxiety for me. I was all about the music and doing my job, but it was tough. I wanted to express my gender identity and still be taken seriously as a musician.”
After her transition in ’91, Jones experienced difficulties finding work. The resume she’d generated as Kevin Jones was outdated and she struggled financially. In ’99, she petitioned the court to gain custody of her daughter and had to present as a male again. “I was amazed at how much work I suddenly got. Winard Harper’s Sextet, Gloria Gaynor, Reggie Workman, Luisito Quintero and his band Percussion Madness, and saxophonist T. K. Blue. I didn’t feel the exclusion I felt when I was living as my authentic self. It made me study harder and become more adept, so there could be no reason to be excluded. Who I am has no bearing on my craft.”
Playing again as Kevin Jones, she put together Tenth World, a collaborative effort with keyboardist Kelvin Sholar, which combined jazz, Latin, soul, and Af- rican/world music. “Kelvin had hundreds of compositions and a love of Latin and world music. He introduced me to a group of younger musicians including Brian Horton [sax], Kevin Louis [trumpet], [drummer] Jaimeo Brown, and bassists Damon Warmack and Joshua David. I was able to get two recordings funded: Tenth World and Tenth World Live! The music had jazz sensibilities harmonically and melodically, with Latin and African based rhythms and soul inflections — world jazz with R&B on the side. We were always adding people to augment our sound. Every gig was different.”
Jones resumed her female identity in 2009 and, once again, found gigs hard to come by. With the support of her record label, Motéma Music, she recorded Who’s That Lady. “The album is a musical autobiography,” Jones says.“It documents the music that was important to me, the music I played at various times in my career, songs connected to my triumphs and struggles. I wrote most of the songs with members of my band and included an Isley Brothers cover and a tune by Whitney Houston.” Jones produced the album with her friend and mentor Baba- tunde Lea, vocalist Myoshi Marilla, pia- nist Onaje Allan Gumbs, and engineer/ keyboard player Jesse Fischer. Another old friend, Jerard Snell, played drum kit. Years ago, Jones and Snell were known in New York as the Dynamic Duo, famous for their fierce interlocking rhythms.
The propulsive groove of “Xtravaganzas” opens the album on an upbeat note. It salutes House Of Xtravaganza, one of the leaders of New York’s underground ballroom scene and the interracial harmony it engendered in the ’80s. The multi-layered rhythms are all played live. “A lot of black and Latin, gay and trans youth found solace and support there,” Jones says. “That’s where I found the support and confidence to be who I am.” Jones adds a Latin tinge to the funk of the Isleys’ “Who’s That Lady.” “It always sounded Latin to me. I wanted to put a montuno into this tune when I played with them, so now I have my chance.”Charles Brown’s swooping bass supports Jones’ sizzling percussion break.
An instrumental Latin/jazz funk hybrid and a Jones original, “Decatur Avenue Stomp” takes a non-traditional approach to the institution of percussion/drum solos. “To get work as a conga player when I grew up, you had to play Latin and R&B and become an exten- sion of the drum set, to play with the drummer, or sometimes opposite the drummer. Jerard plays snare on the 2 and 4. I play the syncopated part of the rhythm in between the beats and stay out of his way, emphasizing the stron- gest part of the phrase. During the solo, I alternate between playing with him and off him, which makes the break more dynamic.”
The set also includes “Yemaya,” a hymn to the orisha Yemaya based on a bata rhythm; “Turn It,” a funky old school jam that tips its hat to Sly Stone and Stevie Wonder, with the percussion and drum rhythms going in an out of synch; and the anthemic “I’m Free,” a blend of funk and highlife.
During the Who’s That Lady sessions, Jones also worked with Lea on Native Soil, a percussion-dominated world music album she hopes to release in early 2015. It features many of her mentors, including Karl Potter, Coster Massamba, and Ozzy Simmons, her djembe teacher. She’s also working on a memoire called A Very Different Drummer — Journal Of A Triumphant Life.
“Writing isn’t like playing music,” she says. “It’s tricky wondering what to disclose and what not to disclose about my private life. There’s still bias and sexism in the music industry, although I have sensed a shift in recent years. Women don’t get called as often as men. Put ‘trans’ in front of ‘woman’ and it’s even harder. I don’t want to be known as Koko, the transgender woman who plays percussion. I want to be known as Koko, the musician.”