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On the cover of his first and so far only CD, Soul Serenade, Jesse Jones, Jr., is pictured gazing intently into the distance, clutching his alto saxophone to his chest as if it were a newborn child, an irreplaceable part of himself. The photograph may make Jones look maniacally possessive, but the image of him holding something utterly precious is apt. For the 55-year-old self-taught musician, who also plays flute and bassoon, the instrument is something that has been central to his life since he was six years old. The saxophone is family.
In fact pretty much everyone the humble and easygoing Jones comes across is family to him, whether they're the jurors he deals with (one of whom became his wife six years ago) in his nine-to-five existence as a bailiff in the criminal court of Judge Ellen Leesfield or the audience members at one of the many gigs he plays at local jazz clubs such as Fort Lauderdale's O'Hara's, South Beach's Van Dyke Café, or the newest addition to Miami's live jazz scene, Champagne's, which recently opened on NE 79th Street.
Miami native Jones grew up the eldest of four children in Liberty City. As a young boy he would listen to a neighbor perform along to records by bebop saxophonist Cannonball Adderly, the sounds of which captivated him. "Evidently God gave me some sort of musical knowledge that led me to think 'Hey, I like that jazz,'" Jones says chuckling. "I decided right then that I wanted to do whatever he was doing." Adderly that is, not God. "As I got older I understood [Adderly] took gospel and put it together with jazz. As a kid I knew there was something happening but I didn't know exactly what. Whatever it was, it tingled my body; it tingled my innards," he recalls warmly.
The frisson of recognition was perpetuated by Jones's parents, who supported their son's interest and talent in music. When he got into sixth grade, they bought him a C-melody saxophone and some music books. Because they couldn't afford to give him formal lessons, he went about teaching himself. He progressed so quickly that he performed at his graduation from Liberty City Elementary School. "My first tune that I ever played at the graduation was 'Ave Maria,'" boasts Jones, laughing heartily at the fact that back then the separation of church and state was a burgeoning issue.
Once he entered Dorsey Junior High School, Jones began to realize what was going on around him: Miami -- Liberty City in particular -- had a thriving musical nightlife, and he wanted to be a part of it. At that time he and brother Melton, who took up the trumpet at his older brother's urging, put together a calypso band that would perform guerrilla-style for tips in the patio areas of various Miami Beach hotels. Soon they formed a jazz band called the Jets and played at special occasions.
Vibrant nightlife scene or not, Miami was still very much a small southern town in the Fifties. Entertainers the caliber of Billie Holiday and Sammy Davis, Jr., could perform in fashionable Miami Beach hotels but were then relegated to the blacks-only hotels on the mainland if they wanted to stay overnight. One of the fortunate few, Jones doesn't recall facing discrimination in the musical arena during that time. "We weren't at that place where we were playing in the major hotels," he says. "I don't have any bad memories of it back in those days, at least with us. I'm not saying that for other people. Maybe we were lucky in that sense."
Around the time of his graduation from Northwestern High School in the early Sixties, he got a gig performing five nights a week with an organist, drummer, and vocalist at the prestigious Double Deck jazz club, then located on 79th Street and 7th Avenue. "My parents had to come with me because I was a minor!" he recalls. "I had a good time back then. We'd pack the house every single night." The ritzy establishment offered two circular bars, one upstairs and one downstairs, with the band ensconced in the center of the lower floor's bar. In that seemingly golden era, jazz was everywhere, as were its practitioners. Clubs all over town, such as the Sir John Lounge, the Café Society Overtown, and the Hampton House Lounge, pulsed with energy into the wee hours.
Young and eager to experience life outside his hometown, Jones fled to Mississippi Valley State University on a music scholarship. Later he did a stint touring the world with the U.S. Navy Show band, lived in Boston briefly, and then returned home. By the middle Seventies the Miami jazz scene had begun to evaporate. Jones, however, kept eking out an existence as a musician, all the while maintaining a day job and more important, a good attitude. "All of my nights have been big for me," he claims. "I've always loved it, playing night after night. I could be tired but I get onstage and I'm fresh as a bird."