Clarence Jones The Sultan of Syncopation

Posted in - Biography on July 9th 2013 0 Comments

Clarence Jones The Sultan of Syncopation

by Alex van der Tuuk

Pianist, songwriter, orchestra leader and piano teacher Clarence M. Jones (1889-1949) had a prolific career, which started in the first decade of the 20th century, but began to eclipse in the 1910s and 1920s, after he had left his hometown of Wilmington, Ohio and came, via Cincinnati, to Chicago. Here, in the mid 1910s he began to operate the Owl Theater with his Wonder Orchestra. At this time, record companies were still considered juvenile. This did not stop Jones from writing songs, which he saw published on sheet music. Some of his early songs were published via Frank K. Root & Co., including “Pauline Waltz”, “One Wonderful Night”, “Thanks For The Lobster” and “In Search Of a Husband”, around 1913-1914.

By 1916, Jones, of African-American origin, was a composer and arranger for the McKinley Music Company.

Many of his songs were recorded by others and for a variety of record companies: “Thanks For The Lobster” and “In Search Of A Husband” appeared on Crescent; “Mid The Pyramids”, by The Imperial Three, appeared on Medallion 8151.

Besides composing songs, he also started working for companies which produced piano rolls, including the Imperial Roll Company, where he got in touch with orchestra leaders Charley Straight and Roy Bargy. According to Mark Berresford’s liner notes for Jazz Oracle BDW 8010 “[Charley] Straight found lucrative work cutting piano rolls for the Imperial Roll Company of Chicago, of which he eventually became a director, and which brought him into contact with pianists of the calibre of Roy Bargy and Clarence M. Jones. The connection between these three pianists extended into the disc record field, when in late 1919 Straight replaced Arnold Johnson as pianist with Paul Biese’s Orchestra, and in early 1920 a trio of Biese on tenor sax and Straight and Bargy on pianos, billed as ‘The Imperial Trio’ recorded Jones’s ‘Mid the Pyramids’ for Emerson”. Jones cut a version of his own “‘Mid The Pyramids” for Paramount in November 1928, but it remained unissued. In December he made another cut of the song, which was issued on Pm 12716 as “Clarence Jones and His Sock Four”.

During the early 1920s Jones was hanging around in Clarence Williams’ music store on Chicago’s South State Street. As one of the many composers Jones, like Thomas A. Dorsey, tried to find an entry for his composed material. In 1922 Jones recorded Richard M. Jones’s “Jazzin’ Baby Blues” for Columbia Rolls (Columbia 457), which was issued in December of that same year. By then he got in touch with J. Mayo “Ink” Williams, who had just started as recording director for Paramount records.

The Chicago Defender of 16 December 1922 (page 3) lists a Conn Chicago Co. advertisement for “Clarence M. Jones and His ‘Wonder’ Orchestra”, including band members: J. Wright Smith-violin; R. Emerson Brown-saxophone; Harry Johnson-cornet; Arthur Hill-trombone; Archie Walls [sic: Wald]-tuba; William [sic: Elliot] Washington-banjo; Frank Briggs [sic: Biggs]-drummer and Jones as director and pianist. The advertisement continues: “They are brilliant examples of the wealth and fame which may be in store for you in the realm of music. When Clarence Jones and his aggregation of artists played ‘Wabash Blues’ they set Chicago agog and put a tingling in its toes. They made a big hit with ‘Fate’ and then with ‘Love Days’, composed by ‘Jonesie’ himself. Now they have become so popular they are playing for Paramount Records. And take this tip: Their records of ‘Downhearted Blues’ and ‘Trot Along’ will make history.”

The record indeed made history, as no copy of such a record under Jones’s name was ever found. However, Jones’ composition “Trot Along” must have been successful, as by January 30, 1923 the Benson Orchestra of Chicago recorded the song for Victor (Vi 19044) in Camden, New Jersey. That same orchestra recorded Jones’ “Wabash Blues” in 1921 for Victor (Vi 18820). By then the orchestra was still under the direction of fellow pianist Roy Bargy, whom Jones knew from his days with the Imperial Roll Company of Chicago.

Probably based on his popularity as an orchestra leader, Jones was asked to accompany Paramount’s latest attraction Monette Moore on piano for a series of recordings during 1923. The recording studio of Homer Rodeheaver, housed in the current Pakula Building on 208 South Wabash Avenue, was used during the spring of 1923. Discographies list the sessions as to have taken place in New York City in January. However, the matrix numbers point in Rodeheaver’s direction for the Chicago studio. In an interview with Monette Moore in 1962, Moore herself stated that, around the time she recorded “Gulf Coast Blues”, she “was walking on State Street, getting myself familiarized with the city, when I passed a dimly-lit shop with a piano up front and a sign stating ‘recordings made’.”

Although she remembered Jimmy Blythe (1899-1931) as the accompanying pianist on most of her Paramount recordings, discographies list Jones, on one record listing him as “Clarence Jones and His Paramount Trio”, including Tommy Ladnier on cornet and Jimmy O’Bryant on clarinet (“I’ll Go To My Grave With The Blues” on Pm 12046). Blythe’s style of playing was influenced by Clarence Jones who was his piano teacher.

Around this same period Jones made recordings for Orlando Marsh’s Marsh Laboratories, at that time located at 306 South Wabash Avenue, on the second floor of the Kimball Building. Besides recording on his own for the company, he accompanied artists like Fannie Wise, Schooler & Potter and The Harmony Girls, the latter recording a version of his “Trot Along”.

After his recording sessions in 1923, Jones would not be back in the recording studio until 1926, when he recorded for Okeh with his “Wonder Orchestra” on 21 June. (“The Arm Breaker”, issued on OK 8404).

On 7 June 1927 Jones accompanied Laura Smith during a Chicago recording session for Victor and he would eventually return to Paramount late 1928 to record three titles, including his “’Mid The Pyramids” which was issued as Clarence Jones and His Sock Four (Pm 12716).

In between, his popularity grew like a mushroom among a white audience, after he had become an exclusive radio pianist for Chicago radio station WBCN, The Southtown Economist’s radio station. For a two-year period Jones remained one of the station’s headliners, from April 1925 to June 1927, while remaining an orchestra leader for his Wonder Orchestra.

The following is a timeline of his activities with the radio station, showing his increasing popularity, based on newspaper clippings from The Southtown Economist.

A lengthy article on Clarence Jones was written by Rick Kennedy, published in 78 Quarterly, issue 9 (pages 37-46). Newspaper clippings from The Southtown Economist 22 April 1925, page 7.

“Those who listen to WBCN late Thursday night of this week will be treated to piano-playing such as is seldom heard over the radio. Clarence Jones, the song-writer, orchestra leader and piano teacher, will make his second appearance on the air then and is expected again to take his audience by storm. His debut almost created a tornado.”

13 May, 1925, page 18
Clarence Jones On Card For Thursday
“Another name of prominence has been added to the list of exclusive WBCN artists. The latest addition is Clarence Jones, the well known songwriter, orchestra leader, pianist and piano tutor.

Jones, who played his first radio solo over WBCN three weeks ago, has agreed to appear at the Economist station every Thursday night about 11:30 o’clock to perform at intervals until 1 a.m. The last three Thursdays saw him in action during that period, and the requests that poured in almost swamped the station’s switchboard. Although he played eight or nine numbers last Thursday, Jones was able to take care of but a fraction of the requests sent in by telegraph, telephone and mail.

Due to the telephone congestion which always occurs when Jones plays, WBCN officials have requested that, as far as possible, requests should be sent in to the station in advance of the star’s appearances.”

22 September 1925, page 11
Jones, Parker To Offer One Hour Of Jazz Famous Pianist And Tenor To Be Featured Late Thursday Night “One solid hour of rapid-fire, red-hot, high-speed syncopation is classed at the biggest feature of the week at WBCN, the radio broadcasting station of The Southtown Economist.

This hour, starting at midnight Thursday, will be taken care of by two of Chicago’s best known and most popular radio artists – Clarence Jones and Jack Parker.
Jones, known as ‘The Sultan Of Syncopation’ is scheduled to offer four groups of jazzy piano numbers, each group totalling three selections, or twelve in all. Between the piano groups will be vocal solos by Parker, who is a Cameo record tenor and a veteran of two years’ radio experience.

Jones, an exclusive WBCN artist, who is the composer of ‘Way Down In Lovers’ Lane’, ‘One Wonderful Night’, one of the biggest hits of recent years, ‘Mid The Pyramids’, ‘I Didn’t Know’, ‘Trot Along’, ‘Modulations’, ‘Tom Tom Dance’, ‘Got To Have My Daddy Blues’, ‘Flower Garden Tales’ and ‘Hey, Hey’ is a feature of WBCN’s programs every Thursday night and nearly every Monday and Saturday afternoons. He makes a specialty of complying with requests, which he receives in unprecedented numbers. Having such a wide repertoire, he is able to care for more requests than the average pianist. He plays practically everything by memory, being able to learn a new song by merely playing it over once.

It is predicted by many of Jones’s admirers, that he will before long achieve popularity and fame that will closely approach that won by Harry Snodgrass, ‘The King of the Ivories’.

The consensus of opinion seems to be that [he] is second to no one as far as tempo and rhythm are concerned. His is the dance type of syncopation, long service as the head of a prominent society dance orchestra having fitted Clarence for this phase of playing. Leadership of the Owl theater orchestra for several seasons has also added much to the stellar pianist’s technique.”

Jones was scheduled to play the following songs: ‘Dizzy Fingers’, ‘St. Louis Blues’, ‘Modulations’, ‘Medley of Kinky Kids Parade and Titina’, ‘Mid The Pyramids’, ‘Collegiate’, ‘Kitten On The Keys’, ‘Maple Leaf Rag’, ‘Way Down In Lover’s Lane’, ‘Home Again Blues’.

The same newspaper also mentioned The Harmony Girls’ debut on WBCN, soon to be presented. Of the Harmony Girls, consisting of Edith Carpenter and Grace Ingram, the newspaper mentioned that they “have a type of vocal harmony which is peculiarly and pleasantly distinctive”. In March 1923, the Harmony Girls recorded for Marsh Recording Laboratories and were accompanied by Clarence Jones.

6 October, 1925, page 10
To Play Whole Hour
“The great Clarence Jones, ‘The Sultan of Syncopation’, is to get another chance to show his piano stamina Thursday night, or rather Friday morning. Starting at midnight Thursday, this exclusive WBCN artist, who has scored such a tremendous hit since he was first introduced to the radio public by WBCN a few months ago, will remain seated before the studio Ivers and Pond grand for one solid hour, playing syncopated solo after solo. It is expected Clarence will get in between fifteen and twenty numbers, and among them will be such favorites as ‘Home Again Blues’, ‘Mid The Pyramids’, ‘Dizzy Fingers’ , ‘St. Louis Blues’, ‘Way Down In Lovers’ Lane’, ‘Yes, Sir That’s My Baby , ‘Collegiate’, ‘Just A Little Drink’, ‘Titina’, ‘Maple Leaf Rag’, ‘Nola’, ‘Pearls’, ‘Modulations’, ‘Hey, Hey’, ‘Kinky Kids’ Parade’, ‘Alabamy Bound’, and ‘Tom -Tom Dance’, some of which are his own compositions.”

13 October, 1925, page 10
They’ll Make the Air Blue at midnight Thursday
“As to Clarence he, in the field, has no real competition in radio. He truly is ‘The Sultan of Syncopation’, and is a ‘request king’ as well. So popular has he become that WLS and other Chicago stations recently made him lucrative offers to join their staffs, but Clarence has become so attached to WBCN, just as WBCN and its listeners have become attached to him, that he declined every bid and signed up again with the Economist station as an exclusive artist.

His new schedule of broadcasting calls for appearance every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday afternoon from 3 to 5 o’clock and every Thursday from midnight until 1 a.m. Occasionally, he will be heard on The Pirate Ship, shortly after midnight Tuesdays.

Jones is the composer of such song hits as ‘One Wonderful Night’, which swept the country in 1917, ‘Trot Along’, ‘I Didn’t Know’, ‘Way Down In Lover’s Lane’ and ‘Mid The Pyramids’. Also, he wrote ‘Musical Sparks’, ‘Modulations’ and other piano pieces. He has been writing songs for ten or twelve years and has had twenty-five or thirty published.

He is a Vocal Style piano-roll artist and has made records for Paramount and Autograph. Formerly, he recorded for Imperial and U.S. Rolls. While with the Imperial company, he played piano duets with Roy Bargy and Charlie [sic: Charley] Straight, both famous orchestra leaders. Bargy and Straight have nothing on Clarence though, for he, too, is the leader of a high class orchestra, his Wonder orchestra having been for some time a feature of a large theater orchestra. What little time he has left after taking care of these tasks, he devotes to teaching piano.”

24 November 1925, page 15.
“Aside from classical, the week holds not a little in the way of popular entertainment, for late Thursday, starting at midnight, Clarence Jones, ‘The Sultan of Syncopation’, is going to stage a one-hour show he calls an ‘Ethiopian Revue’. This bill will feature, so present plans indicate, Erskine Tate and his 14-piece theatre orchestra. George Randoll, baritone, and one or two other colored performers of the first rank will likewise ‘do their stuff’. It is assumed, of course, that Jones, too, will offer at least a number or two.”

19 January, 1926, page 13.
“Negro entertainers, appearing under the direction of Clarence Jones, ‘The Sultan of Syncopation’, will cavort in song, instrumental numbers and monologues late Thursday night, starting about midnight. This hour has been termed an ‘Ethiopian Revue’ and is expected to include some of Chicago’s foremost colored café singers.”

11 May, 1926, page 17.
“A program requested by popular demand is one featuring Clarence Jones and his favorite piano numbers, which will be put on the air Thursday night from 12 to 1 o’clock. This special hour will feature the compositions of the ‘Sultan of Syncopation’, who will be at the piano the full hour.

‘Flower Garden Tales’, a number of Clarence’s own origination, has been used as a musical theme for some of the largest motion pictures and was endorsed by H.J. Mintz, big New York City publisher of motion picture music. With this classical numbers will be heard another: ‘The Tom-Tom Dance’, which has proved a great favorite, and ‘One Wonderful Night’, a popular number which swept the country about ten years ago. Other features of this hour will be ‘Mid The Pyramids’, ‘Fragrance Of Spring’ and ‘I Didn’t Know’, as well as compositions by other originators.”

28 September, 1926, page 14.
“ ‘All by Himself’ should be the title of the hour from 12 to 1 Friday morning, for during that time Clarence Jones will give a series of piano solos from WBCN.
Clarence is acknowledged the Sultan of Syncopation and is a genius on the ivories. He has the soul of an artist, composing many of the pieces that he plays, and interpreting the rhythm and cadence of the compositions of other artists with an unusual finesse.

WBCN had the stage at the national radio convention last night, presenting a program with some of its best artists, and Clarence Jones was one of these much applauded entertainers who helped to amuse the large audience at the Hotel Sherman. Jones is a well-known music teacher and has a large group of pupils from the Chicago high schools. He has a special system that makes it easy for them to remember the notes to read the music in a short time. He also gives instruction in organ playing and has a number of well-known theater organists on his student roll. Miss Hazel Hirsch, who plays at the State and Lake theater, is one of his protégés.

This talented pianist plays at the Owl theater and is the leader of an orchestra he organized, known as the Clarence Jones Wonder orchestra. He is also connected with the William Rossiter Publishing Company, writing pieces for them and introducing many of their new numbers. Mr. Jones has also composed several classical numbers, among which are ‘The Tom Tom Dance’ and ‘The Flower Garden Tale’. The latter number has been the musical theme for several motion picture features which were produced by A. J. Mintz of New York. During the Thursday evening program Mr. Jones will introduce two surprise numbers.”

4 January, 1927, page 7.
Clarence Jones To Play Another Program Of Show Hits
“Clarence Jones, the Sultan of Syncopation, will present another of his popular ‘show’ programs Thursday evening for one hour starting at midnight. The last time Clarence gave an hour of show numbers the broadcast was so well received that he has been forced to repeat the program. This time he will use an entirely new group of numbers, and he will be assisted by Selecta Morris, a talented blues singer.

Among the shows to be represented will be ‘Yes, Yes, Yvette’, ‘The Ziegfield Follies’, ‘Irene’, ‘Wildflower’ and ‘The Sweetheart Shop’. Some of the numbers will be played by Jones and some sung by Miss Morris, with Clarence at the piano. The last hour of the Thursday night broadcast each week is Clarence Jones’s hour and is made up almost entirely of piano selections with an occasional group by the orchestra and a few vocal selections to add variety to the program.”

21 June 1927, page 13.
Clarence Jones Plays For Victor And OKeh Records
“Clarence Jones is known to the many thousands of listeners of WBCN as the Sultan Of Syncopation. How many knew, however, that he has made records for not only one, but two of the best and largest of record manufacturers?

Clarence, as he is known in the studio, has made records for OKeh and for Victor. He has been with the station since shortly after it went on the air and has a host of followers. He is known, not alone for his rendition of the ever popular tunes, but through his own compositions. Clarence has written some of the ‘hottest’ of blues numbers and not being satisfied with the ‘hot numbers’ he has written some very beautiful ballads.”

28 June 1927, page 10.
Signing Off Thursday From WBCN
“These four members of the stall will be heard for the last time from WBCN, the radio station of the Southtown Economist, Thursday evening, when the station changes ownership to the Great Lakes Broadcasting Company.” Included was Clarence Jones.

As soon as his contract ended with the radio station, his name disappeared from the newspapers. In 1932, due to the Depression, Jones and his family moved to new York, where he became an arranger, composer and pianist for The Southernaires, composing their signature song “My Old Swanee Home” in 1936.

Consulted Works:

Dixon, Robert M. W.; Godrich, John; Rye, Howard W.: Blues And Gospel Records 1890-1943, fourth edition. Oxford University Press (1997)
Hague, Douglas: The Story of Monette Moore. Jazz Journal, 1962
Hoffman, Franz: Jazz Advertised 1910-1967; Volume 4: Out Of The Chicago Defender, 1910-1934.
Kennedy, Rick: Clarence M. Jones (1889-1949)-Almost Forgotten [But Not Quite].
78 Quarterly, issue 9 (1996).
Rust, Brian: Jazz And Ragtime Records (1897-1942). Mainspring Press (2002).
Vreede, Max E: Paramount 12000/13000 Series. Storyville Publications (1971).
Wright, Laurie: OKeh Race Records 8000 Series. Storyville Publications (2001).

Internet Newspaper Archives

Thanks to Guido van Rijn.

Clarence M. Jones piano solos :

1) Modulation(s)( or Stepping on the keys ) (Chicago c. Jan, 1923) – Autograph 202

2) Hula Lou (Chicago c. Feb, 1924) – Autograph 402

3) Maybe (She’ll write me, she’ll phone me)(Chicago c. Feb, 1924) – Autograph 409

Clarence M. Jones w/Monette Moore :

1) I Just Want A Daddy (New York Jan, 1923) – Paramount 12028

2) Down Hearted Blues (New York Jan, 1923) – Paramount 12030

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