If there’s a “Zelig” of American music, it might be Bob Jones. Originally an aspiring young folk singer from Massachusetts, Jones began working with the legendary producer George Wein in 1959 as a volunteer at the first Newport Folk Festival. Over the next six decades, he became an invaluable member of the Festival Productions team, serving as producer of the Folk Festival, technical producer of dozens of music festivals annually and managing worldwide tours led by some of the greatest artists of all time.
But the Newport gig wasn’t simply making sure Bob Dylan had the electricity turned on the famous night when Bob cranked up the rock, flipped out the folkie fans and faced the wrath (and purportedly the ax) of an angry Pete Seeger. Jones was also out in the hinterlands searching for blues and folk acts to bring back to Newport, a venture fraught with danger in the ’60s American South where civil-rights era gains were often earned in blood. When Newport was temporarily sidelined, Jones was on the road with jazz geniuses such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan and Thelonious Monk, taking America’s Art Form to Europe, Asia, Australia and behind what was then called the Iron Curtain. Jones’ work with Monk led to his inclusion in the 1988 Charlotte Zwerin doc, “Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser,” which also led to his first name-check in Variety. Last month that film was added to the National Film Registry and Jones also had reason to celebrate when his daughter, Radhika, was recently named editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair.
The night in 1965 when Bob Dylan “went electric,” and played high volume rock and roll to a bunch of confused folk fans is arguably the most famous night of the Newport Folk Festival. How did it look and sound from your POV?
I was a little distracted. I was in charge of looking after a Grand Ole Opry-style singer named Cousin Emmy and she was a handful to maintain. I had noticed that Dylan had rehearsed his band with the electric arrangement, so I knew it was coming up, but it never occurred to me that it would be so off-putting. The big thing was that this crowd saw Dylan as one of the “folk people” and so they felt kind of deserted. Their hero was gone. But that never occurred to any of us who were “music people,” and it was great music. Even today, when Dylan does Sinatra, my basic response is “Go ahead man, go!”
The “Jazz Baroness,” Pannonica de Koenigswarter, who was born a Rothschild and known as “The Jazz Baroness” and “Nica,” sounds colorful.
I didn’t know her that well but she was very close to Monk. I do remember that she was very confident that Monk would be taken care of if I was there and that was a strong compliment. My basic instinct was, and still is, whoever I’m involved with, I want them to work in the most comfortable way possible.
Going down South in the ’60s looking for musical acts sounds like an adventure of discovery.
I worked with Ralph Rinzler and our task was to find rural musicians and bring them to the festival. Working mostly with a Nagra recorder, we recorded them in the field. We were looking for different kinds of music, including gospel, blues, bluegrass. We were guided by incredible folklorists like Alan Lomax and Dick Waterman. Sometimes they would mention a town where they knew an act had been and they’d say, “Our research shows he’s still there.” Since I was a big blues fan, I loved the work.
Who were some of the acts you recall working with?
Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers were great. I also liked the Cajun people and their music. When we started, Cajun culture wasn’t seen as that great and the schools wouldn’t allow you to speak Cajun. We brought Cajun acts to Newport and they were a tremendous hit. This allowed them to go back to their hometowns and point out that people all over the world loved their songs and their culture. It was very important and it led to a real renaissance in Cajun culture of all kinds, including food and music.