Produced by International Jazz Day AZ Foundation in Partnership with The Bentley Scottsdale Polo Championships

How Scottsdale Jazz Festival’s Founder, Doc Jones, Found Joy In Jazz After Tragedy​

Founder of Intl Jazz Day AZ says the death of his daughter inspired him to pursue jazz

“I realized that she was an angel sent to me to bless me and the work that I do and the passion that I have.” – Doc Jones, Founder of the International Jazz Day Az Foundation

If someone told William “Doc” Jones 50 years ago that his career would span the globe, playing jazz alongside artists like Otis Williams and Aretha Franklin, he would have laughed, especially since his only inclination for music was being a “pretty good” tap dancer at the age of seven.

Before he found his passion advocating for, playing and teaching jazz, tragedy struck Jones’ family which had a profound impact on his life, ultimately leading him to pursue a life of service to the youth and preserving jazz as a medium for the soul’s expression and a universal language of love.

Jones was performing saxophone on tour when he got the news that his two-year-old daughter Niambi Jones was fatally struck by an impaired driver.

He rushed home to the hospital, vowing that day to continue her spirit through jazz expression.

Two years earlier, on a warm Chicago summer night, Jones sat at his living room piano with his cousin Edwin Winston, plunking out a melody for the daughter he would soon meet.

“Niambi,” or “beautiful melody” in Swahili, begins with Jones’ dreamy soprano saxophone that bookended the song as Winston’s piano forms a syncopated, haunting rhythm like Yusef Lateef’s, “Love Theme from Spartacus.”

After her birth, Jones remembers how happy Niambi was, watching and listening to her father speak to her without words.

“I don’t remember her having a sad day,” Jones said.

On Saturday, October 2, 1976, Niambi waited in the car with her two older siblings while her mother went across the street to the store.

Niambi began to cry for her mother and got out.

She ran toward her mother but never made it across the street.

“My grandfather made me promise him that I wouldn’t go through the trouble of trying…of finding out who or why,” Jones said. “He made me promise not to blame my wife for the accident. I can only imagine to this day the trauma and the shock that she went through to be there and to see that. It’s just amazing that it didn’t destroy her.”

Jones and his wife Shirley have been married for 55 years.

When Niambi was buried, Jones and his 18-piece jazz band performed at the funeral.

“I realized that she was an angel sent to me to bless me and the work that I do and the passion that I have,” Jones said. “Not just playing music but utilizing this music to change the lives of young people.”

Following Niambi’s death, Jones revisited his daughter’s song. Winston’s pastor gave the song its first verse:

“A seed that is planted may soon have its blossoms,

That shines so bright the whole world can see.

Like trees that bloom branches bear fruit in the autumn,

She gave to my life an answer for me.

Her warmth is like pillows that soothe the mind.

I feel her presence all the time.”

Finding Meaning in Jazz

Renewed with a deep passion for the power of jazz coupled with the strong emotions of losing Niambi, Jones founded the Niambi School of Arts in 1980, teaching jazz music to Chicago youth.

“I was trading guns for instruments,” Jones said of his venture that turned several young gang members into budding musicians.

Wanting to build a new life for his family, they moved to Arizona in 1986, and he began teaching at a charter school music program, Black Family Services, which he ran for nearly a decade before going on a world tour, playing tenor saxophone for The Temptations.

Jones came home to establish Quicks Academy, a non-profit organization that provided free music lessons to at-risk youth and soon after developed a nonprofit organization called NextStudent Academy to expand its reach.

The 2008 recession upended Jones’ business, who soon after opened Doc’s Place, a jazz club at the corner of Central and Camelback in Phoenix, welcoming young and veteran jazz artists from around the country.

For four years, Doc’s Place was a jazz powerhouse in Phoenix, but profits were slim, and jazz had been a declining genre for decades, Jones said.

“We’re about two, three percent of the marketplace here,” he said, who sought out new ways to keep jazz alive.

Jones closed Doc’s Place in 2012 and moved to New Orleans to start an online jazz publication, 504MAG.

In the jazz capital of the world, Jones found a renewed passion for teaching the youth when he met jazz legend Herbie Hancock who was performing at the inaugural International Jazz Day celebration.

“Herbie said to me, ‘Listen, Doc, if you’re a musician and you’ve got a publishing company, you’ve gotta bring attention to this art form called jazz,” Jones said. “He told me I need to get involved. So, I came back to Arizona and had our first Jazz Day celebration in 2013.”

Uniting Arizona through Jazz

For the past 12 years, Jones has been promoting jazz throughout Arizona, establishing the International Jazz Day AZ Foundation which has expanded into an annual state-wide celebration.

Jones was instrumental in passing an Arizona bill (HCR2017) declaring April as Jazz Appreciation Month and April 30 as International Jazz Day. He’s currently working to pass another bill (HB2513) declaring April 30 as a non-official holiday celebrating International Jazz Day.

“What I’m doing now is utilizing this Scottsdale Jazz Festival to bring attention to the need for affordable housing for creative artists and the importance of arts in education,” Jones says, who works closely with his daughter and accomplished jazz vocalist, Nayo Jones.

Jones’ foundation is producing the upcoming Scottsdale Jazz Festival on Saturday, April 27, where Nayo Jones will perform.

By Aug. 10 of this year, Niambi would celebrate her 50th birthday. Jones keeps a photo of her as the wallpaper of his cellphone.

“I learned that Niambi was brought into my life for me to do the work that I’ve been doing now for over 40 years,” Jones said.

For more information about the International Jazz Day AZ Foundation, visit jazzdayaz.com.

To attend this Saturday’s Scottsdale Jazz Festival, visit scottsdalejazzfest.org.