A Dream to Drum
Under the glow of purple stage lights in Duke University's Baldwin Auditorium, Jeremy Jones '02 is giving a drum lesson from his perch behind a sparkling silver drum set.
As a videographer clamps a GoPro camera near Jones' drum pedal, he jokes with her, saying, "You can sound really cool if you say, 'Can I get some of that kick drum?"
The videographer accepts the challenge, and Jones delivers, letting his drumsticks fly and crash against the drumhead, his brown ponytail bouncing to the beat. Over the next few minutes, he weaves together a string of rhythms with his sticks, moving easily from a swing jazz beat to hip-hop to bossa nova and back again.
Such impromptu musical journeys are just Jones' style. The Seattle native plays in a jazz trio called The Teaching and was a featured drummer on Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' 2014 Grammy-winning rap album The Heist. He was back on campus to play in a memorial concert for his mentor Paul Jeffrey, the longtime director of the Duke Jazz Studies program who died March 20, 2015.
But Jones' focus on the backbeat began long before he met Jeffrey. As a kid listening to music, "I would always hone in on the rhythm and the drummer and drive my family crazy — drumming on the kitchen table and pretty much everything else,” says Jones, who also has been known to drum on glass bottles, car hoods (and trunks) and people. "Whenever I would see a drum set in a shop, I had this feeling of 'Oh, if I could get a drum set, I would be set."
But Jones says he didn't always feel set.
"When I was at Duke I was worried a lot about whether or not I could be a good drummer," he says. "I felt stressed a lot of the time.” He remembers confessing his doubts while in a master class with renowned jazz drummer Winard Harper, telling Harper that while he wanted to be a professional drummer more than anything, he didn’t think he was good enough.
"No, you can do it," Harper told him. "You’ve got the talent. It's all about having the love."
Still, other paths seemed safer. A double-major in music and computer science, Jones -- along with friend Stefan Negritoiu '02 -- built Duke's first internal social media platform, a web-based system called MyDuke.com that included email, weather and a textbook exchange, and operated it out of Negritoiu's dorm room. That led to a job offer from Microsoft after graduation.
"I figured if I take that job, I can get a house, I can start paying off my loans, I can get a car, I can get the best drum set," Jones says. "And then I can leave in a few years."
Jones worked as a software engineer at Microsoft's headquarters outside of Seattle for more than four years, often spending his desk-bound days thumping his foot on a bass drum pedal hidden under his desk. He bought a house and built a soundproof practice room in his garage. He practiced yoga, searching for deeper meaning and peace in life.
"I could feel within myself a shift of the type of lifestyle I wanted to have,” he says. "Instead of thinking, 'I need the Microsoft salary in order to be safe,' it was like, 'I have a wealth of resources within myself…I can leave, and I'm still going to exist and be fine."
So he saved money for six months, and in the fall of 2006, he put in his notice at Microsoft. That night, he invited his colleagues to watch him play at a Seattle jazz club. When the band’s singer announced Jones was quitting his day job to pursue music full-time, the crowd gave Jones a standing ovation.
Shortly after, Jones' trio, The Teaching, recorded its first album. The group had been playing freewheeling weekly jam sessions with Seattle-area jazz musicians when one of them, trumpeter Ouwor Arunga, introduced them to Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, who were at work on what would become their breakthrough album. The duo wanted a jazz sound on the album, and The Teaching ended up recording an instrumental titled "BomBom" that made the final cut.
"We didn't know that the album was going to skyrocket, and that they were going to become world-famous," Jones says. "At that time we knew they were really talented and they were doing great things in Seattle, but they didn't have that national and international acclaim yet."
The next stop was at the Grammy’s in 2014, where The Heist won best rap album and was nominated for album of the year. As featured artists on the album, The Teaching walked the red carpet and watched the show live. Being in the midst of musicians who had invested so much in their music was rewarding, Jones says.
"All of these great musicians...they're people walking around in bodies just like us and just have excelled in their music," Jones says. “Being in the same space with them felt really good."
And he knew then that Winard Harper had been right: that it was all about the love. He just had to listen for its beat.