Rolling Stones’ Bassist Darryl Jones is Leading with the Bass

In the world of music, there are certain places and instruments that people tend to gravitate to. Many want to be the lead singer, up there on the microphone, belting out their lyrics. Others want to be the lead guitarist, shredding skillful solos. Drums are also a popular option, wild people on the kits. 

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It’s not often, though, people want to grow up to be bass players. What does a bass do? Why not just play guitar? Can you solo with the bass? Indeed, the instrument is a bit mysterious. But in another way, it’s also the most important instrument in a band. It’s the cornerstone, says bassist Darryl Jones, that touches aspects of melody, harmony, and rhythm. It’s the linchpin that bridges all three. For Jones, who has long toured with The Rolling Stones and played with everyone from Madonna to Sting to Miles Davis, the bass is creative bliss. This is the subject matter of the new documentary, Darryl Jones: In The Blood, which is set to release this fall (October 7).

“I had one of the most famous musicians I’ve ever met ask me, ‘Who leads the band?’” says Jones. “It was [jazz legend] Ornette Coleman. I was trying to be funny and I said, ‘I think the bass leads the band.’ And he said, ‘No, you’re absolutely right.’ No other instrument has control and influences the three elements of music more than the bass: harmony, melody, and rhythm.”

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It’s true. Ask any bassist worth his or her salt and they’ll tell you when they change how they play, the band follows. The other members in the group may not even realize it at the moment, but they feel the bass, hearing it physically in their bodies as well as sonically with their ears. It may seem like the instrument that the weakest player should be on, but if that person practices, it can become the vehicle for life-changing sounds and experiences. For Jones, those experiences began when he was a young, aspiring player. He grew up in a musical household. His father was an amateur drummer. His mother loved music. There was a guitar in the house from the time Jones was 5 or 6 years old. But he didn’t pick it up until he was closer to 10. He saw a neighbor play music in a talent show and it struck Jones. He decided then he wanted to be a musician.

“It hit me like a shot,” he says.

He asked the person he saw in the talent show to teach him how to play. As he began to play the bass, he realized it fit his personality. He’s a solid guy, he says, who came from a solid family. The bass often requires someone who is “steady,” who doesn’t fly too high or too low. While the bass can serve a band in any number of ways, it must, most often, serve as the glue for everyone else. Bolstering the percussion, accentuating the guitar, and fitting in between the lyrics. Jones says he was lucky from the start.

Darryl Jones (Photo by  by Greg Vorobiov)

“I had a great teacher,” he says. “I was his first student. It just so happened to be a guy who I’ve looked up to.”

Jones’ teacher had a “firm hand” with him, he says. He didn’t let him off the hook. The first song Jones learned, ironically, was “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” by Sly & The Family Stone, though it was a bit more of a basic version. Then he learned upwards of 30 more. But it wasn’t lazy work. He really had to nail the parts for his teacher. This, Jones says, provided the foundation for the rest of his acclaimed career.

“Now whenever I teach somebody how to play bass, I begin with that song,” he says.

In the documentary, Jones, who turns 61 in December, talks about his career. It’s filled with ups and downs, twists and turns. At times he talks about his early years, struggling. Then big breaks come with Davis and other big names. He goes back to the school that was the site of that first talent show. He reminisces. He says it was “heart-warming” to go back and remember those early details. Moreover, the documentary wasn’t his idea. It was that of the director, Eric Hamburg. He sought out Jones, in part, for his illustrious history with the Stones.

“I have to say,” Jones says, “from my point of view, I kind of don’t feel like I’ve done enough yet [to warrant my own documentary]. But it wasn’t my idea. At the same time, when someone asks you something like that, how do you say no?”

He’s humble. And while Jones is constantly working, both touring and playing with big names and writing and recording his own solo work, he’s most definitely worthy of a film. He talks about the instrument with such nuance and reverence. For someone so experienced, it might be easy to think he’s never intimidated when holding the instrument. But, Jones says, that’s not always the case. It’s good to feel a bit nervous when approaching a song. It’s healthy.

[RELATED: The Meaning Behind the Band Name: The Rolling Stones]

“Every time I play the bass, I’m intimidated by it,” he says. “And in a way, I hope that never changes. I do feel very, very comfortable and very, very much at home. But I always push myself into situations that are unfamiliar to me. I always end up saying to myself, ‘Why did I take this gig?’ [Laughs.] But I’m always glad that I did. I want to keep learning.”

Bass playing is as diverse as the hands who perform it, says Jones. Some, like Victor Wooten, are showmen. Others, like Ron Carter, are more reserved and stoic. Jones, himself, is somewhere in the middle. One thing is for sure, though: He’s always studying, always absorbing. With Davis, he says, the two would often stand close together, as if sparring on their instruments. With the Stones, they’d sometimes play in front of a million-and-a-half people, letting the roar of the crowd wash over them and the kinetic energy lift them. With Madonna, he was in awe of her stage presence and how she coordinated a show. With Sting, he admired his artistry and singing prowess. They were all interesting experiences that shaped his musicianship.

“I think even for a veteran like Keith Richards, it was shocking,” says Jones of a particular show the Stones played in Brazil with more than a million fans in attendance.

Jones recently finished a tour in August with the legendary rockers, and there will be more in the future. He’s been playing with the band for many years. But he’s also touring with other players and jazz musicians. He’s working on his own music, poised for upcoming solo releases. He’s going to be touring in Europe with some of his heroes like drummer Harvey Mason. The relationship between a bass player and a drummer can be sacred. But Jones says it’s often like a relationship with a romantic partner. Sometimes there’s no rhyme or reason as to why it works out.

“There are so many great styles,” he says. “Good time, steady rhythmic feel [are important]. But it’s basically if it just feels good to play with them.”

Jones is affable. It would be hard to think anyone wouldn’t get along with him in the studio or on stage. For him, music comes first. The playing, more than ego or personality, is paramount. It’s what he loves about music so much, in the long run. That it exists almost outside of the human experience. It’s there to participate in at any given time and will be so forever. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It’s so endless,” says Jones. “It is so infinite. Another thing I love about music is the musicians. Musicians are such unique individuals. I love hanging out with them, I love their sense of humor, and I love the way they look at the world. When I think about a path that would have led me to a different kind of life, I shudder.”

Photo courtesy ShoreFire Media

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