Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Raymond Jones: A Magnificent State of Humble Grace

by Barry Michael Cooper

Never has one flown so high, while grounded in such graceful humility.

On Friday, 1 July 2011, a true musical revolutionary named Raymond Jones passed away. He was 52 years old. These are my mental Polaroids of not only a great musician, but a majestic human being and a real friend. GOD Rest his creative soul.

The journey of Raymond Jones began on 13 December 1958. I was born in June that same year. We--like many young African American children born at the rise of the Civil Rights/Sputnik/I Have A Dream/Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You/By Any Means Necessary/Tune In Turn On aeon--were children of cultural promise and privilege. 

Black children like Ray Jones, the illustrious filmmaker Spike Lee, virtuoso guitarists Ronnie Drayton and Vernon Reid, noted film producer and political observer Geoffrey Garfield, phenomenal essayist/music critic/theorist Greg Tate, prolific author/film/television producer Nelson George, American musical innovator Prince, the greatest entertainer who ever lived, the late Michael Jackson, and even the President of the United States, Barack Obama, are Mountaintop Children.

Mountaintop Children are the children hoisted onto the shoulders of history by ancestors who struggled, sweated, bled, and died to make this America--this one nation under GOD, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all America--a level playing field. The opus of Ray Jones not only reflected this momentous lineage--illustrated by his preternatural ability on the keyboards, his poetic and ingenious compositions for music and film, and his dynamically soul-searching narratives as a lyricist--but it underscored a Mountaintop Child's embedded sense of epos. Greatness. Ray's family expected him to rise to a sense of distinctive excellence.

Raymond Jones did not disappoint.

I was blessed to make the acquaintance of Ray in 1980, in our hometown of New York City. In the early 1980s, New York was a case study in the reductive absolutes of gigantic imperfections; a metropolis beautifully disfigured by its enriched poverty and synthesis of cultural segregation. A shiny, skyscraper-tall construction of urban apartheid built from serpentine politics, voodoo economics (inculcated by Wall Street witchcraft), Sistine graffito, cocaine kinships, battle-ready NYPD batons and pigment-skewed bullets; all used to spin the turnstile of social manipulation against a rising flood of multi-ethnic people. A diverse populace already uncombined by the divisive Babel-logues of tribal suspicion.

It was in this Johannesburgian environment that I met Raymond Jones. I was a newly minted freelance music critic for the Village Voice, the Soho News Weekly, and a few other publications. Ray was the keyboardist for the landmark pop-rock-dance-soul group Chic. The receptionist at the Voice handed me a phone message (Wow; remember those? Handwritten on the printed pink slips? Tempis fugit.) from Raymond Jones; Raymond Jones, keyboardist for the group Chic, and his telephone number. I remember calling Ray, and he told me he was a fan of my music reviews, especially my essay titled Buckaroos of the Bugaloo back in early 1980, which was the very first Voice piece on the emergence of Hip Hop out of the Bronx.

It was a mutual admiration society; I told Ray I was a fan of his work with Chic. I even remember telling him in that initial conversation, "Man, I saw you on TV with Chic, and the way you were dancing behind the keyboards during the performance of "Le Freak" in your dope Comme des Garcon jacket, I just knew you were from Harlem." Ray laughed and told me he was from Queens, NY. I told him it didn't matter; he was still Harlem-down. We laughed and bonded as friends.

I met up with Ray not long after that conversation, at the now-defunct NY rock cabaret, Max's Kansas City, in Union Square. In addition to freelancing for the Voice and the Soho News Weekly, I was writing a NY nightlife column--titled Barry Cooper's New York--for a small national magazine devoted to soul music, appropriately called, Soul Magazine. The editor of Soul was a white kid from the Philly area named J. Randy Taraborelli, who would later go on to make a name for himself writing several unauthorized biographies, including a lurid Michael Jackson tome. 

That particular evening, I was covering a show by an up-and-coming Queens, NY-based Black rock band called Sirius, led by the aforementioned Ronnie Drayton. Sirius was a precursor/template to Living Color, Fishbone, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the Foo Fighters. The band consisted of Ronnie, drummer J.T. Lewis, the late Shaun Solomon on bass, Baltimore, MD, native Lloyd Jones on keyboards, and occasional vocalist, Peachena. The music of Sirius (a double-entendre which referenced the mythological Dog Star--the brightest in the night sky--and their "serious" approach to their vocation) was bold, soulful, heartfelt, fiery. Much of what the Red Hot Chili Peppers produced in the mid to late '80s sounded a lot like Sirius. Ronnie Drayton and his band Sirius were the future of American music

What I remember about that epochal night, sitting in that crowded audience of Max's with Ray Jones, Chic's Nile Rogers, and proto-punk guitarist and MKC fixture Johnny Thunders, was Ray's genuine excitement and enthusiasm as he seemed to absorb every note from that Sirius set. After the show, we all went backstage and congratulated Ronnie and the band, and Ray was just as overjoyed at their successful performance as they were, as if it was his own band. 

It wasn't just that he and Ronnie Drayton grew up together in Queens and traveled in the same musical circles. Queens, NY in the '80s created some of the most greatest session musicians in the world: Ray, Ronnie, Return To Forever drummer Lenny White, keyboardists (including teen prodigy) Bernard Wright, Lesette Wilson, and Donald Blackmon, and the outstanding drummer Omar Hakm, to name a few. Locality had nothing to do with it; Ray's selfless nature beamed like the sun, as he cheered for Ronnie and his band to be successful. 

That unique, unselfish trait in Ray's persona was a rare quality in a business fueled by jealousy, malevolence, and hatred. Ray supported his friends and his belief in them emboldened their success as well as his own. Ray's belief in the brilliant Vernon Reid shined bright, as Reid went on to create the seminal and paradigmatic band Living Color, along with co-founding the Black Rock Coalition with Greg Tate. Ray's belief in the genius of Spike Lee shined bright in his lush, majestic, and contemplative music for Lee's trailblazing films such as "School Daze," "Do The Right Thing," "Mo' Betta Blues,"  "Clockers," and "Get On The Bus". 

I can remember telling Ray about this bold, brash, and brilliant young filmmaker I heard folks at the Voice buzzing about back in 1984. During that period, Ray Jones and Jeffrey Osborne--the dynamic R&B vocalist, who Ray transformed into a household name and a number one Billboard hit with "Stay With Me Tonight"--were looking for a young African American director for one of Jeffrey's music videos.  Ray Jones eventually met up with Spike Lee, and the rest, as they say, is history. Playing Bernard Herrmann to Spike's Alfred Hitchcock, Ray's musical scores sculpted the emotional hieroglyphics of a memorable Spike Lee Joint deep into the American cinematic psyche. Even Ray's short-lived pairing with renown Chic vocalist Norma Jean Wright--as the duo State of Art--on Spike's 40 Acres record label, was dance music to make you think, long after the boom ceased to bap.

I learned a lot from my friendship with Ray Jones, especially about music. He loved all kinds of music; he was just as enthralled by Herbie Hancock and Oscar Peterson, as he was by Todd Rundgren and Kate Bush. Ray told me that the chord changes that Todd and Stevie Wonder used were connected to the healing qualities in music. I agreed with him. 

Riding the subway to his house in Queens, NY (and when he drove to my neighborhood in Harlem to visit me) to debut a few of my sophomoric attempts at Hip Hop production, Ray Jones was never dismissive; he offered great critiques and encouraged me. But more than anything else, we talked about our role in the world. Discarding our adolescent exoskeletons, we were brand new Black men with brand new wings, floating on a jet-stream of ebullience and spiritual ascent. I would tell Ray about my new-found interest--after GOD took away my taste for coke in October of 1980--in the Apostle Paul and the New Testament, and he would tell me how Rainer Maria Rilke's Duino Elegies galvanized his creative process to write lyrics from the heart and not the bank account.

The last time I saw Ray Jones was in late 1984. He had come to Baltimore, MD--I moved there and got married--and met my wife and oldest Sun, who was a newborn at the time. He told me to take care of my family, be a good father, and stay positive. Meanwhile, Ray amassed an amazing oeuvre; he wrote an international dance smash for a German pop singer, Adele Bertei, titled "Build Me A Bridge", along with hits for Patti LabelleWhitney Houston, Lisa Fischer, and others. In the late '90s, Keenan Ivory Wayans hired Ray to be the musical director for his talk show. Ray continued his work in film; he scored a indie comedy, Wasabi Tuna in 2003, and wrote and produced songs for the Malcolm Lee film Soul Men, starring Samuel L. Jackson and the late Bernie Mack in 2008.

I caught up with Ray a few years ago on YouTube and then Facebook. Ray's solo work on the other side of the millennial divide for his UEG music imprint--including the albums Naked Soul (1999), Intimate (2001), So Amazing: Songs From The Luther Vandross Songbook (2004), dedicated to the iconic vocalist and his good friend, and the thought-provoking Hillside Stories (2007)--not only exemplified the dedication to his craft, but his belief that great music will always endure. This is an ideal Ray eloquently described to a journalist back in October of 2001, in an interview for Ray even managed to flip the script on Hip Hop back in April of this year, with his mesmerizing, nouveau-vintage remix of Ella Fitzgerald's "Hooray For Love"--on his site. Ray Jones didn't sample Ella; he created a work of art by revivifying her. Be it analog or 4G, the prodigious talent and sagacious vision of Raymond Jones will last forever. Only street lights change.

And so Providence has flashed its green light of transcendent golden rest for Raymond Jones. Back in the day, I remember Ray telling me that when he and Omar Hakim booked a really lucrative gig, they would say to each other, "Meet you at BMW." Surrounded by family, friends, and loved ones, Ray went took a more luxurious ride, on his peaceful journey to his long home on Monday, 11 July 2011. That long home as described by Solomon in Ecclesiastes 12; a pastoral abode located in a magnificent state of humble grace and filled with music, stars, comfort, beauty, and light. A sanctuary devoid of tears, sorrow, worry, and condemnation. A place of rest for weary royal travelers, because Raymond Jones was not only a singular musical talent, Raymond Jones was a king. Only he never had to flaunt his sovereignty. Ray knew that real power was sourced in deep wells of humility; wells that will refresh us each time we hear his euphoric music. Thank you Ray. Your friendship will live with me forever. And brother, I hope to meet you one day in GMW: GOD's Merciful World.

Be sure to pick up my new anthology, "Hooked On The American Dream-Vol.1: New Jack City Eats Its Young," available exclusively on Kindle/Amazon. Amazon/Kindle has a free, downloadable app for all computers and mobile devices. Click here to go to the "Hooked On The American Dream-Vol.1:New Jack City Eats Its Young" Kindle store site.


Anonymous said...

Wow! Beautifully written. Thanks for connecting - I am so shocked still and sad.

Bmc said...

@Anonymous: thanks for your kind words, and I too, am shocked and sad but I find joy in the memories of the great Ray Jones. His kind spirit and powerful talent will live on through his incredible music. Thanks again.

Susan said...

That was a most thoughtful, insightful and touching tribute to your friend. Even more so having listened to his songs that you've posted recently, some of which I had no idea his stamp was on. Thanks for sharing his legacy.

Bmc said...

@Susan: Susan, thank you so much for your kind words. I really appreciate it.

Patric Nilsson aka pocat said...

Lovely tribute to Raymond, still can't believe he is lost to us.

btw: here's the link to that interview I did with him in 2001:

Bmc said...

@Patric Nilson aka pocat: thanks for the kind words and the link to the great interview you conducted with a true legend, Raymond Jones. GOD Rest his soul...

Anonymous said...

Raymond Jones West Coast Memorial will be this Saturday night (July 16th) from 7pm - 10pm at The Varsity Night Club and Sports Bar, 6311 Wilshire Boulevard (corner of Crescent Heights and Wilshire Blvd) in Los Angeles - (323) 651-5433.

Bmc said...

@Anonymous: thank you for the information on the west coast Raymond Jones Memorial.

Marta Polonska said...

Hi Barry,

*hand to chest*...I simply lack the proper words to convey how beautiful I find this particular piece, how much it has served to move me. For brevity's sake, JUST brilliant. The final paragraph rendered an overflow on the part of my lachrymal ducts. If you don't mind, I posted it on my FB page. Thank you graciously for this blessing.

Marta Polonska (from Toronto, Ontario, Canada)

Bmc said...

@Marta: Thank you for your kind and heartfelt words. Ray Jones will be missed, but his spectacular music and generously unselfish music will live on...


Having read this piece 20 times already, the tears your words invoke flow all over again. Ray would be both proud and embarrassed by such heartfelt praise, as was his humble nature. And thx for including me, unwarranted I have to admit, in your litany of Mountaintop children, a concept that touched me deeply. I look forward to meeting you personally to share memories of my high school buddy. All the best.

Bmc said...

@Geoffrey: Thank you for you kind words, and Raymond Jones was truly a great person, and his humility only underscored the power and depth of his sterling character and kind soul. He will be missed, but his music and the lives he touched so remarkably, will endure for ever. GOD Rest his brilliant soul, and GOD Bless you, my Brother.