Saxophonist Jesse Jones was only 17 when he first lit out of Atlanta with blues screamer Jimmy Witherspoon on a one-year romp. A high school dropout who’d talked his way into the David T. Howard High band with only minimal experience, Jones soon found himself directing Witherspoon’s horn section, going so far as to hire a young Ornette Coleman for what must have been his first gig. The two couldn’t have been going in more diametrically opposed directions. Jones formed the J.J. Jones Band in 1949 to work the same overcrowded pop-jazz clubs he’d been knocking around in. Chicago’s fledgling Mercury label caught wind of the group, prompting Norman Granz to sign them to a two-78 deal. “Bad John” and “Poinciana Rock” were both cut at a radio station, but that was as close as either tune would get to airplay. Hit record or otherwise, Jones was the bandleader in Atlanta in the mid-1950s. Between the Poinciana Club and the Peacock, he could write his own ticket to anywhere a black band could perform. With a young family and cash in his pocket, Jones appeared to be living out the quintessential American dream.
It wasn’t ambition that spurred Jesse Jones’ 1956 move to the West Coast but rather an after-set culture of high stakes card games that were setting fire to his pockets and keeping his mortgage unpaid. Los Angeles might seem a poor choice for a man looking to escape trouble, but for Jones the combination of pleasant weather and near-anonymity did the trick. A stranger in a strange land, he set about starting anew, finding work with bandleader Earl Grant and a day job at the Boeing factory building jet engines. Gigs were loose and lucrative, and it wasn’t long before he found himself in the stable of Robert “Bumps” Blackwell at Specialty Records.
Something of a legend in his own time, Blackwell had discovered Quincy Jones, Ray Charles, and Little Richard by the time he took Jones under his wing at Art Rupe’s Los Angeles concern. Blackwell quickly promoted him from player to arranger, allowing Jones the opportunity to sit in on one of Specialty’s enduring moments as Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” was committed to tape. That session was significant for more than the #1 single it produced; a dispute between Bumps and Rupe concerning the use of strings on the session forced them to sever their ties. Blackwell received ownership of “You Send Me” as his severance pay, and the rest is chart history.
Jones would go on to start a number of record labels, most notably Tragar and Note, over the subsequent decades. Tragar got its name by sharing syllables with Jones’ wife Tracy and his eldest son Gary. Jones opened an office at 799½ Hunter St. N.W. in the West End—the cultural core of Black Atlanta—surrounded by Morris Brown, Morehouse, Clark, and Spelman Colleges. Down the street from the best nightclubs and smack dab in the middle of four major black colleges, the location couldn’t have been better for recruiting talent. For the next 15 years—despite many economic setbacks—Jones would produce one 45 after another for his labels, with sultry southwest talent like Eula Cooper and the Young Divines.