In memoriam

Apr 9, 2003 at 12:00 am

If you’re a blues musician and you’ve never heard of DeVonne Jones, then you owe it to yourself to read this woman’s story. In fact, it really doesn’t matter what style of music you perform — or if you play at all. If you’ve been around the Detroit scene for any time, that’s really all that matters.

DeVonne Jones died on March 22, due largely to complications from diabetes, a relentless disease that had been stalking her for years. A week later, she was cremated. The time has come to honor her.

True musicians recognize one of their own, and DeVonne Jones was truly one of our own. She was one of those precious few who represented a level of musical purity, talent, and commitment to which the vast majority of us may aspire but rarely, if ever, reach. In short, Jones had it, and she had it in spades.

Born Oct. 14, 1960, DeVonne was both a superior drummer and vocalist who in recent years worked mostly on the blues circuit, although her true love was jazz. Truth be told, Jones had the ability to handle any number of styles with ease. During her relatively brief career, she worked with organist Brother Jack McDuff, the Temptations, Eddie Kendricks, Alberta Adams, Norma Jean Bell and Robert Penn, just to name a few. She was also a member of Famous Coachman’s All-Female Band that performed regularly at his blues festivals, and included keyboardist Eileen Orr and bassist Beverly Yancy.

But none of that really gets to the heart of the woman who was such a close friend of both “Sweet Claudette” Harrell, a longtime Detroit blues vocalist, and Milton “Heavyfoot” Austin, another well-known drummer on the local scene who had been a friend of Jones for years. Austin is hosting a going home celebration in Jones’ memory Wednesday, April 9 at The Attic Bar in Hamtramck at 8 p.m. There will be plenty of food served, and no collection will be taken.

“That was my hangin’ buddy, that was my pal, that was my best friend,” says Harrell, who adds that Jones was an essential part of her sound; responsible not only for arranging, but for playing the drums on Harrell’s first CD, Liniment and Collard Greens.

Harrell speculates that some of Jones’ more serious troubles actually began several years ago, when she was the victim of a beating.

At the time, DeVonne lived in an apartment house near Seward and Third in Detroit. When she entered the building, “She walked in on someone else’s argument,” explains Harrell. At that time, Jones was already walking on a cane.

“They took her four-foot cane and beat her with it,” Harrell says.

Jones was beaten so severely that the doctors were certain she’d never walk again, let alone play the drums. Her “bass leg,” the one used for the kick drum and which sustained much of the injury, was, for whatever reason, never X-rayed.

Eventually, Jones was walking again. Then she was playing drums again. Then, one night, she was playing a gig at Al’s Olympia. When she stood up from behind her drum set during an intermission, her leg suddenly collapsed. It snapped in three places.

Harrell says the break was “probably from her pounding on that bass drum.”

But the real cause was the beating she had suffered several years earlier, which created hairline fractures in the leg. Still, someone made the mistake of underestimating the heart and iron will of DeVonne Jones.

Did this second tragedy end Jones’ career? Nope. When attempts to repair the leg failed, Jones requested that her leg be amputated and replaced with a prosthesis so that she could continue to play drums — even though the diabetes had by now robbed her hands of nearly all feeling.

“So if you wanna hear about stamina, strength, and courage, she was the man,” says Harrell. “She never let anything stop her.”

Milton Austin agrees.

“She wouldn’t let nothin’ slow her down. Even when she had that artificial leg she kept playin’. And I mean she could play with it too!” Austin says. “She was a diehard. I take my hat off to her.”

And Austin doesn’t take his hat off to many people.

“Oh, man, that girl was mean!” he continues. “And she had a voice like a bird. She could have stopped playing the drums and just sang. DeVonne was a sweet person.”

Jones was a frequent visitor at Austin’s Thursday jam session at Nancy Whiskey’s, as well as at his regular Sunday night sessions at the Downriver Lounge.

Adds Austin, “She would say, ‘Milton, you gonna let me play them drums?’ I’d say, ‘Help yourself, baby.’”

It’s true, a crown jewel of Detroit blues is gone. And some of the local haunts will never be the same.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-area writer and musician. E-mail [email protected]