He played until the very end, until he couldn’t any longer.
He never let on how sick he was, not even during his weekly phone conversations with his son. He saw it as a sacred duty, this ability to make others feel good with his music. And it didn’t matter if it was in a tiny club in Hamilton, Ont., or if it was like it had been back in the day, when he was touring as a member of James Brown's Band, spreading the gospel of funk to theaters and arenas far and wide.
He never blew a gig. It didn’t matter if 10 people showed up or 10,000.
Doyle "DJ" Jones died Nov. 23 at the age of 72, due to complications from stomach cancer. He left behind a 50-year musical legacy. And with that legacy, he left to his son, renowned Buffalo musician, band-leader and educator Eric Tyrone Crittenden-Jones, the two guitars that had taken the journey with him, from Bastrop, La., where he was one of 13 children born to the Rev. Peter Jones and the former Roselene Jackson, to honky-tonks, clubs and concert halls across the country.
For Crittenden-Jones, those guitars are more than assemblages of wood, wire and magnet; they're a reminder of the music his father bequeathed to him. And they're witnesses as well, to the implicit demand that the son keep the father's work alive. The son plans to do exactly that. He'll celebrate his father's life and music with a Feb. 8 show at the Tralf Music Hall.
"For most boys, their fathers are mythological super heroes, and it was no different for me," Crittenden-Jones recalled while seated in in his Amherst living room a few feet from the urn holding his father's ashes. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I've known Crittenden-Jones for more than 20 years, a friendship that was born in the mid-90s Buffalo music scene we both habituated.)
"There are some pictures of me on James Brown’s bus and others of me on stage pretend-holding my dad’s guitar - because I was, like, 2 at the time - and all of that was during his tenure with James. I didn’t learn of all the other cats he played with over the years - the Ink Spots, the Platters, the Dynamic Insiders, so many others - until he asked me to review his resume a few years ago. I was like, 'Dad, seriously!?' He responded very cavalierly: 'Your dad is a bad (expletive), what can I say?' And he walked off.
"He never looked back to the past. Ever. For him, playing with those cats was as everyday as washing your face. But for me, well, I was - and still am, a bit - speechless."
Jones the elder was a touring musician. Balancing family life with the demands of the road can be rough going for all involved. But Crittenden-Jones benefited from a bond forged through music. Jones may have been a man of few words, but they were the right words, and they had an impact on his son.
"One of my earliest musical memories involving my dad was when I showed up for a weekend visit with my tenor sax and a grade 6 NYSSMA (New York State School Music Association) solo I was preparing for an All County Band audition," Crittenden-Jones recalls. "He was interested in what it was I was working on, so I played it for him. And he said, 'Sounds good son, but we don’t play that classical (expletive) around here. Play lines, son, lines. Like Sam and Dave ... play lines!' "
"It was always about the pocket, about soul and about showmanship. Always. Which now, with his passing, I appreciate a lot more, because those words were a philosophy that transcended the stage and made it into the realm of life in general. He loved to live his life to serve others, in that he lived to make them feel good, no matter what. And he did so humbly. He never spoke of all his accolades. Don’t get me wrong - he never lacked for confidence. But he never touted himself."
Those lessons imparted by the father – honor the groove, let soulfulness be king, bring your A-game but be humble and serve others – took root in the son's approach to music, and are in evidence whenever his band, Critt's Juke Joint takes the stage. They're also at the core of Crittenden-Jones' approach to music education, something he has been involved with for nearly two decades.
A graduate of Sweet Home High School, he holds a bachelor's degree in music performance and a master's degree in education from SUNY Empire Sate College and SUNY Buffalo State College respectively. He has applied them to teaching stints at the Buffalo Center for Arts and Technology, Villa Maria College, the Music is Art summer music camp, his own Future Sounds of Buffalo program - which focuses on nurturing young musical talent in the region - and most recently, as a Career and Technical Education Certified Music Teacher with the Buffalo Public Schools.
I asked Crittenden-Jones when he first realized that music was it for him, that he would follow in his father's footsteps and be a musician for the rest of his life.
"It fully hit me when I was playing and touring with (Buffalo funk-jazz trio) TheWaz in the late '90s," he said. "When you roll into Anytown USA and you're welcomed by people who know your original music, your vibe and your band as well as you do - that's pretty humbling, to say the least. It really hit home when we headlined a festival out in Nevada. It was just so crazy to have all those people show up for us.
With Critt's Juke Joint, Crittenden-Jones has created a fiery gumbo marrying funk, blues, soul and R&B. Though he's an avowed fan of a broad range of musical styles, from Pink Floyd to Charlie Parker to the Gratefeul Dead to Rage Against the Machine and back, the focus of the Juke Joint became, in a sense, a celebration of his father's influence.
"In essence, yes, that's true," he says. "But the Juke Joint is also a celebration of the American roots music life. Arguably, music as we celebrate it today wouldn’t exist without the chitlin circuit sounds of those artists who crafted the roots, from the Jim Crow south to Harlem and back again. We exist to honor that experience. And my dad was definitely part of that."
Though his father's death hit him hard – "It's all still so surreal to me, man, just crazy surreal" – it's clear that music will play a major part in the healing process for Crittenden-Jones. His plan is to honor his father and celebrate his life by playing the music that is his family inheritance.
"Playing those songs now is my connection to him, to his memory. As a medium to the message of the music, I have a responsibility to pay it all forward. Every time I hit it for a gig, every song I sing and every note I play, I have always done with my parents’ love in my heart. That will never change."