Trumpeter Thad Jones reinvigorated the big-band genre through his harmonically rich arrangements and compositions for pianist and bandleader William “Count” Basie’s mid-fifties orchestra, and the groundbreaking ensemble he co-led with for a dozen years with drummer Mel Lewis. Universally admired by musical peers for his charts, bassist Charles Mingus once called Jones “the greatest trumpet player I’ve heard in this life.” Trumpeter Tom Harrell said Jones’s imaginative tone was “like Louis Armstrong on acid.”
Thad Jones, was born in Pontiac, Michigan to a musical family of ten (an older brother was pianist Hank Jones and a younger brother was drummer Elvin Jones). A harmonically advanced trumpeter and cornetist with a distinctive sound, as well as a talented arranger and composer, Thad Jones had a very productive career. Self-taught on trumpet, he started playing professionally with Hank Jones and Sonny Stitt when he was 16. He served in U.S. Army bands during World War II (1943-46).
After the war, Thad Jones continued his professional music career, eventually winding up with Count Basie in 1954, for whom he arranged, composed, and performed. He stayed with Basie for nine years. Thad achieved critical acclaim during this time, but not for his work with Basie. Much of Jones’s music was stylistically original and didn’t always fit in with the Basie group which he left in 1963. In the early sixties he became a free lance arranger and performer in the New York area.
In 1965 he and drummer Mel Lewis formed the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band. The group initially began with informal late night jam sessions amongst New York’s top studio musicians. The group eventually began performing at the Village Vanguard, to wide acclaim, and continued with Jones in the lead for twelve years. In 1979 they won a Grammy Award for their album Live in Munich. Jones also taught at William Paterson College in New Jersey.
In later years his playing ability was overshadowed by his composing and arranging skills. Jones’ big-band arranging style was unique, especially from the standpoint of featuring dissonant voicings in a tonal context. His best known composition is the standard – “A Child is Born.”
In 1978 Thad suddenly moved to Copenhagen, Denmark, (to the great surprise of his New York band mates), where several other American jazz musicians had gone to live. There, he formed a new band Eclipse, composed for The Danish Radio Big Band and taught jazz at the Royal Danish Conservatory in Copenhagen.
A year before his death, Jones came back to the U.S. to lead the Count Basie Orchestra but had to step down due to ill health. He returned to his home in Copenhagen for the last few months of his life. He died of bone cancer on August 21, 1986 after being hospitalized for months.