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."
While he admits to sporadically suffering slumps, periods when the gigs would dry up, he counters humorously: "I don't remember when!" At one point he worked as often as six nights a week. Now he limits himself to four nights. Sometimes, though, that might entail three gigs in one day. On a recent Saturday around noon he played at Fort Lauderdale's Sound Advice Blues Festival. Later that afternoon, he raced to the Hollywood Jazz Festival, where he put in a set with the hardbop ensemble he performs with at South Beach's Van Dyke Café. A few hours later he was looking dapper in a tuxedo, leading his quartet in the elegant atmosphere of Champagne's.
But on that night at Champagne's, Jones wasn't playing with his usual quartet. Amazingly the keyboardist and vocalist had never gigged, let alone rehearsed, with the ensemble before. Their seamless collaboration had everyone fooled. But the grounded Jones is not fazed by abrupt change. He's equally at ease performing alongside any gifted local or greats such as Clark Terry, Dizzy Gillespie, and Dexter Gordon.
"Jesse amazes me. He never ever runs out of energy. I've never seen the guy tired," says Don Wilner, bassist and music director at the Van Dyke Café, who has known Jones for fifteen years. In the late Eighties and early Nineties, Wilner worked for Jones at the popular Carol City music spot Studio 183. For the past two years Jones has worked for Wilner on Thursday nights at the Van Dyke. "Most people slow down by the time they're his age," Wilner jokes.
Retirement is not an option for Jones. ("I plan to play at least until I die and after that," he says, chuckling.) In 1996, after being heard by veteran jazz producer Bob Weinstock, he recorded his first album for the Contemporary label, a subsidiary of the Berkeley, California-based Fantasy Records. The result was the aforementioned Soul Serenade, a rousing soul-filled set of original tunes and a few covers, featuring Jones's richly toned saxophone and flute and his energetic clear scatting. It's a combination that accentuates Jones's ability to move between the Adderly-styled funk grooves of his initial childhood attraction to the sax, and the more experimental vibes of a Rahsaan Roland Kirk: a duality all too rare in South Florida's jazz scene.
Keyboard master Dr. Lonnie Smith, bassist Curtis Lundy, and drummer Danny Burger lent their talents to the album. Ever the family man, Jones also enlisted the help of his brother, Melton Mustafa, now a highly acclaimed trumpet player in his own right. Mustafa, who has performed frequently with the Count Basie orchestra and fronts his own big band ensemble, contributes songs, trumpet riffs, and his skills as a producer.
Disappointed with the way his first album was promoted, Jones is currently amassing songs for a second CD, which he plans to market internationally via the Internet. It's another way of reaching out, of increasing his clan of potential listeners and friends. "I tell people, when you finish playing a song or taking a solo, the people you are conversing with through your horn should know a lot about you," he explains. "They should know things like what type of person you are, what you like to eat, even what time you wake up in the morning. It's a spiritual thing: You play what you feel. You bring out your spiritually through your horn."