Inspired by Lisa from the The Simpsons, Rico Jones started playing the saxophone at age eleven. Soon after, he found an iPod loaded with the music of Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra. Their songs sparked what has become Jones's decade-long passion for performing jazz.
At first he played as best he could, just learning to improvise. “I wasn’t worried about wrong notes or anything like that,” he says. “I would just have fun noodling and trying to catch whatever I could from that.” But soon he was studying music at the Denver School of the Arts with band director Dave Hammond.
“He would always teach us that hard work beats talent,” Jones says of Hammond. “If talent doesn’t [cut it], work hard. For a long time, that phrase meant a lot to me, because I knew nothing. I was kind of at the bottom of the barrel. I didn’t learn very quickly, but I knew if I spent a lot of time with it and worked really hard that I could rise to the level of my peers that I admired.”
While at DSA, Jones saw some of his heroes like saxophonist Melissa Aldana and guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg, and even sat in with trombonist Curtis Fuller, who played on John Coltrane’s Blue Train.
“But the stuff that hit home the most was when we would have artists that came out of Colorado, like Ron Miles, Colin Stranahan, Shane Endsley or Javon Jackson,” Jones recalls.
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After high school, Jones moved to New York to study at the Manhattan School of Music. When he first arrived, he was intimidated by the caliber of the city's jazz musicians.
“I had trouble with my self-esteem, because you always want to perform at your best, and you’re surrounded by people with such developed skills,” Jones says. “But the longer I’ve stayed there, the more I realize that just having a positive attitude and playing the music as honestly as you can is what’s most important – and being kind to other people. I think that kind of gets rid of a lot of the nerves, when you think of it that way, of music being a community and a way to connect with others.”
At 21 years old, Jones is returning to Denver to play Dazzle on Saturday, February 1, with drummer Ari Hoenig and pianist Dave Kikoski, both highly respected New York-based jazz musicians, as well as bassist Gabe Rupe. The quartet's tour is funded by Vandoren, the saxophone reed and mouthpiece company that awarded Jones first prize in the jazz category of its Emerging Artist Competition last year.
Jones's private saxophone instructor, Adam Larson, first introduced him to Hoenig, and they eventually developed a friendship. The saxophonist got to know Kikoski through jam sessions the pianist would co-host around New York City.
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“I would always be sure to go there and listen to the opening set and then talk to him on the break and then perform a couple songs during the jam,” Jones says. “What’s really amazing about New York is that you’re surrounded by a peer group that’s at an incredibly high standard, and then you’re also surrounded by your heroes and mentors. And you’re presented with opportunities to actually get to know them in a personal way.”
Jones, who released his excellent debut album, The Search: Live at Dazzle, in 2016, has been hosting clinics and workshops at local high schools and colleges over the past week. One thing he tries to pass on to other players is the importance of passion, creativity and patience.
“I think passion leads us to explore our interests with curiosity and joy, all in the pursuit of knowledge, which is such a positive thing,” Jones says. “And creativity will guide us to learn and utilize an established concept while attempting to also leave our personality on that. So not only are you learning something new, but you’re adding to that — your personality and your own experiences. I think the most important of those three is patience, because it allows us to be thorough and deliberate and accurate in the way that we want to express our point of view in the community.”
Rico Jones Quartet featuring Dave Kikoski and Ari Hoenig plays at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, February 1, at Dazzle, 1512 Curtis Street. Tickets are $20 and available at the Dazzle website.