Honouring Headley - Veteran musician receives Musgrave Gold medal

Friday, October 14, 2011

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The audience inside the main lecture hall at the Institute of Jamaica on East Street in downtown Kingston spontaneously rose to its feet on Wednesday afternoon — a standing ovation for 94-year-old Headley Jones who was about to receive the Musgrave gold medal for distinguished eminence in the field of music.

Many Jamaicans know of Headley Jones for his work in the field of music, partcularly as head of the Jamaica Federation of Musicians, but many are unaware of his multiple talents including work in the field of astronomy or that, along with his cousin, he built and demonstrated Jamaica's first traffic lights and served in the second World War as a member of the Royal Air Force. But it is his accomplishments in music, particularly the inspiring story of Jones making the first every solid body electric guitar, which was most generated the greatest buzz in the room on Wednesday.

Below is the full text of the citation for Jones, as delivered by UWI pro vice chancellor, Professor Ronald Young.

Headley Jones was born in the district of Wakefield, St Catherine in 1917. After elementary school, he earned a Jamaica Pupil Teacher's Third Year certificate. When Jones was 14, he built a cello, a very popular instrument in the playing of quadrille and mento. At 18, he set out to Kingston looking for work. His initial efforts to join the Police Force and later, to find a civil service job, went for naught, so he turned to tailoring — a trade he had learnt from his father. He also studied the fundamentals of mechanics and started repairing sewing machines and gramophones, announcing himself unequivocally as a man of many talents.

Jones found work at Times Printery on Temple Lane in February 1936 training as a proofreader. Six months later, the Daily Gleaner gave him a junior proofreading post which he held until 1937, when he joined the staff at the Times newspaper.

He also studied electronics and began repairing radios. Jones's primary love, however, was always music and he began his career as a banjo player in the mid-1930s with the Hawaiian jazz band of Hol Foster and Isaac Elliot. In 1939, he heard recordings of Charlie Christian playing a hollow body electric guitar. These records not only inspired him to change instruments, they put him on the path to innovation.

Jones loved Christian's sound, but could not afford to import such an instrument. Not one to be easily deterred, Jones decided to make an electric guitar of his own. He began experimenting in 1939, and by mid-1940 he built a solid body electric guitar, which was pictured in the September 2, 1940 issue of the Daily Gleaner. He then built several such instruments for other guitarists in Jamaica, including some for members of the USA war services band stationed at the army base in Vernam Field, Clarendon. Jones continued to experiment and built what is widely considered to be one of the first double-necked, solid body guitars in 1961.

The solid body electric guitar is one of the most important developments in the history of modern music and has had an incalculable influence on rock and roll. The invention of the solid body electric guitar is typically attributed to American guitarist and inventor Les Paul, who, according to research by Gibson Guitars, the New York Times and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, built a similar kind of guitar for Gibson in 1941, one year after Jones built his.

Although Jones's similar invention prefigures the design of many of the most famous of the electric solid bodies, he has never received the recognition he so richly deserves.

On May 8, 1943, Jones volunteered for the British Royal Air Force. In early 1944 he received training in England as a radar engineer and served until the end of hostilities in Europe, on May 8, 1945. After the War, he served in the British post-War clean up campaign, was called for disbandment in March 1946 and returned to Jamaica in May 1946.

Back home, Jones applied his RAF technical training and started a radio service business on King Street in Kingston. In 1947, he expanded his business becoming one of the first independent small businessmen to sell imported jazz records.

His training enabled him to produce sound amplifiers that met a growing need in musical entertainment. This attracted the attention of Tom Wong, a hardware store owner who asked Jones to build him a sound system. Tom The Great Sebastian's dance parties were immensely popular and became the basis for the sound system tradition that still flourishes today. Others, including legends Arthur 'Duke' Reid and Clement 'Sir Coxsone' Dodd, not to be outdone, asked Jones for sound systems of their own. Today, the sound system is a recognised symbol of Jamaican music and has had an inestimable influence on music worldwide.

One of Jones' most significant contributions came in 1963 when Clement Dodd asked him to built all the equipment for the now world famous Sir Coxsone Dodd's Studio One on Brentford Road.

In 1965, Jones moved to Montego Bay to work as a bandleader in the rapidly expanding tourist industry. He became involved in the musicians' union there and fought for musician's rights. His leadership led to a 10-year stint as president of the Jamaica Federation of Musicians. On retirement, the JFM celebrated his contribution by giving him a Jamaica Popular Music Award and a Platinum Award for Meritorious Service in Unionism in the field of Music. In 1996, the Jamaica Government gave him the Order of Distinction in the field of Music.

As unique as his contributions are in the field of music, so too are his achievements in other areas. Along with his cousin they built and demonstrated Jamaica's first traffic lights in 1952. The prototypes were installed at the corner of King and North streets and Geffrard Place and Orange Street. He is also an inveterate astronomer. He ground his own lenses in building several telescopes and was one of the first Jamaicans to see Halley's Comet on its last return to our solar system.

In recognition of his work in astronomy, Jones received a Certificate of Merit from the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission in 1987.

Throughout his life and in his unique, influential and very often pioneering contributions to Jamaican culture, Hedley Jones has embodied the spirit of humility, motivation and excellence, which defines the best this country, has offered.

For his contribution to Music the Council of the Institute of Jamaica is pleased to award Mr. Hedley Jones, OD the Gold Musgrave Medal for distinguished eminence in the field.

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