Chester Jones, a traditional jazz and brass band drummer, was a lifelong resident and community leader of the Treme neighborhood in New Orleans.
A lifelong resident of the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans, Ralph “Chester” Jones was a traditional jazz and brass band drummer. Jones left a musical dynasty that includes his son Benny Jones, snare drummer and founder of the Tremé Brass Band, and grandson Corey Henry, trombonist for the Lil Rascals Brass Band. Throughout his life, Jones was a much sought-after brass band drummer and performed extensively with the Eureka, Allman, Onward, and Tuxedo brass bands. A prolific recording artist, Jones can often be found listed alongside Cié Frazier and Louis Barbarin on jazz aficionados’ lists of favored local percussionists of the era.
Jones was born in New Orleans on March 3, 1913. When he was very young, his cornetist father moved the family to Tremé, the community that would be Jones’s chosen home for the rest of his life. Jones began to show musical promise at an early age, with a particular interest in percussion. The family home was located near Hopes and Economy dance halls on Ursulines Street, and the young Jones would carry instruments for the musicians in exchange for being allowed to stay and listen to the bands perform. In this way he heard Chris Kelly, Kid Rena, Eddie “Face-O” Woods, and many other greats of the era play. A self-taught musician who did not read music, Jones grew up playing drums in kid bands. Starting on bass drum before taking up snare, he would become an adept melodeon player as well. Drummer Edgar Mosley was known to let Jones sit in with him from time to time. A well-known story tells of Jones performing on Mardi Gras with a band composed of two drums and eight kazoos.
Jones’s first professional gig was with “Face-O” Woods. He then worked with Joe Nicholas and Willie Parker in a band that he later described as a forerunner of the Eureka Brass Band (Eureka was formed in 1920). Jones also did trio work on trap drums with Homer Eugene (guitar) and Harrison Verret (piano).
Throughout the 1930s, Jones played with Kid Howard’s ten-piece band. In the years that followed, Jones would also work with George Lewis, Sidney Desvigne, Papa Celestin, and many others. After Alfred Williams’s death, Jones became a regular member of the Eureka Brass Band.
While first and foremost a brass band drummer, Jones was also a gifted performer on the drum set, as can be heard in the many recording sessions he left behind. Alvin Alcorn’s Southland Sessions album is often considered Jones’s definitive set of recordings. The album includes four sessions recorded between 1952 and 1954 and features trumpet virtuoso Alcorn with Octave Crosby’s band on one session and Jack Delaney’s New Orleans Jazz Band on the other. Jones made a six-week trip to Los Angeles with Crosby’s band and recorded for Joe Mares’s Southland label during this time as well.
A highly respected musician and Tremé community leader, Jones played an instrumental role in the lives of many in his community. Beloved New Orleans musician Lionel Batiste recalled that it was Jones who gave him his first gig at a club called the Pepper Pot, when Batiste was only twelve or thirteen.
Jones performed at Preservation Hall with a number of groups in the last decades of his life, including “Sweet” Emma Barrett’s band and Kid Sheik, with whom he toured Japan in 1967.
Jones died in September 1984 in New Orleans.