weather icon Partly Cloudy

Pianist lucked into magic secret for playing traditional jazz in Vegas

Vegas Voices is a weekly question-and-answer series featuring notable Las Vegans.

Las Vegas wasn’t working out for Mike Jones.

A Berklee College of Music-trained jazz pianist with four CDs to his name, Jones followed leads to Las Vegas that didn’t pan out. In 2001, after being “out of work for the first time since I was 16,” Jones took a gig playing background music in the Eiffel Tower Restaurant at Paris Las Vegas.

“This was a gig where I’m playing a Cole Porter melody, and a guy would come up and say, ‘Play some Billy Joel,’ ” he recalls. “I’d say, ‘That’s not really the kind of music I play,’ and they’d say, ‘Well, you suck.’ ”

But as luck would have it, there is another jazz pianist named Mike — Mike Close specifically — and he does magic. And one night he brought Penn Jillette, who later asked if Jones wanted to play piano before the “Penn & Teller” show.

Now Jones plays original music during the show as well as standards for the hour before it. The observant will notice the bassist for the first 40 minutes is Jillette himself. “He once did a bit with the Smothers Brothers and he played Dickie Smothers’ bass and said it just felt right to him,” Jones explains. “He’s now a good professional bass player; he’s not just a good bass player for a magician.”

The “Penn & Teller” gig made it possible for Jones, 53, to keep releasing albums such as his new one, “Roaring,” a set of 1920s standards played aggressively, like the jazz cats of the ’50s.

We talked to Jones about his odd world of jazz, magic and, oh yes, tattoos.

Review-Journal: Why is jazz always hailed as our most authentic American art form, and yet it’s the least commercial?

Jones: One reason is that you really do have to educate yourself to listen to jazz, otherwise you have no idea what’s going on. It’s a simple education process. You buy a few records and maybe read a book to tell you what to listen for.

It is an American art form and should be respected, but it’s a living thing too. Jazz is constantly evolving, and kids should know about it.

RJ: A lot of people will answer that question with, “You have to be a player yourself to be able to listen to it and know what’s going on.”

Jones: That’s nonsense. You can describe jazz very simply. It’s taking a song and playing it, then you play new melodies on the same chords and invent your own melodies over it. At a very basic level, that’s what jazz is: improvising on the melodies and harmonies of the original song to come up with variations.

You do have to know how to listen to that, otherwise it just sounds like noise. It takes a person willing to actively be engaged in the music rather than just having it in the background. If you want to understand it, you have to listen to it and educate yourself a little bit as opposed to it being just a passive thing.

RJ: At some point you can get a real specific taste for something and don’t care what other people listen to, but I guess that happened really young with you?

Jones: I’d say third grade. I had a piano teacher who said he never got up before 11 in the morning, and I knew that was the job for me.

We had two player pianos in the house. My dad had our basement all set up like a bar. Three slot machines, beer on tap, a jukebox and a player piano with about 800 piano rolls. This was the mid-’60s in Buffalo, and all the neighbors came over on Friday night.

My dad listened to nothing but jazz. I grew up around that. By the time I discovered Led Zeppelin in grammar school I was already a big fan of jazz. I just loved all that stuff, but I always knew I wanted to play jazz. I never wanted to not play jazz. I just knew that’s what I had to do.

RJ: When I first met you and saw all your ink and piercings (Jones is pretty much covered) I wondered if you were maybe an original-wave punk rocker who decided super-traditional jazz was the ultimate in punk expression. Even close?

Jones: That’s way too hip for me! (Laughs) I didn’t get my first tattoo until I was 38 years old. I got it as a going-away present for coming out here in 1999. That was about the time people decided, ‘We’re going to look the way we want,” and it suddenly became OK, almost overnight. But nobody saw it coming. I knew the tattoo artists around town, and none of them were saying, “This is going to be the next big thing.”

I went to an older lady on Boulder Highway named Dante, a place (Studio Tattoo) that had been there for 20 years.

I was alone, I had nobody, and they were really good friends and really good people, and I felt comfortable and trusted them. I ended up going every Friday for three hours: ‘Come up with something else.’

I know people get tattoos for a lot of reasons. I am completely superficial. I just think they look cool. Except I could say I didn’t have any tattoos that were visible. But after working at the Eiffel Tower and not enjoying it, I thought, ‘I want to make a living as a jazz musician and I don’t want these kind of things to be an option anymore.’

Not a lot of people are going to hire a cocktail pianist with horns tattooed on his hands.

RJ: Do you find new stuff to listen to today? Or does being a jazz pianist give you carte blanche to hate today’s pop music?

Jones: I was always of the mind that I’m not going to like (pop music) when I get old because it’ll be like, ‘Get off my lawn.’ But I don’t think that’s the case. I think there’s even more of a break from what we consider well-constructed, composed music than we think.

I recently heard some terrible song from the ’70s, I want to say ‘You Light Up My Life,’ even though I don’t think that’s it. But there is more arranging and skill and real musicianship on that record than anything that’s been put out on pop radio in 10 years, and that was a laughable track.

Good music’s never going to go away, it’s just that it’s no longer popular.

Read more from Mike Weatherford at reviewjournal.com. Contact him at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com and follow @Mikeweatherford on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
Entertainment Videos
What it's like to skip the lines and fly by helicopter to EDC
What it's like to skip the lines and fly by helicopter to EDC. (Janna Karel Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas Smith & Wollensky opens at The Venetian
After 18 years, the Smith & Wollensky location on Las Vegas’ south Strip closed in 2017, to be re-born two years later with a rib-cutting — instead of a ribbon-cutting — in The Grand Canal Shoppes at The Venetian. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Review-Journal)
Colin Cantwell, Creator Of Iconic Star Wars Ships Visits Vegas
Colin Cantwell, who created and designed such "Star Wars" ships as the X-Wing fighter, and Death Star, met fans at Rogue Toys in Las Vegas today. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Beauty & Essex in Las Vegas makes an EDC Wonder Wheel
In honor of the Electric Daisy Carnival, Beauty & Essex at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas makes its Wonder Wheel party-worthy. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Giada talks Vegas Uncork’d
Giada De Laurentiis talks during Aperitivo Hour, a Vegas Uncork'd event, at her Caesars Palace restaurant, Pronto, May 10, 2019. (Al Mancini/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Scenes from Vegas Uncork’d 2019 on the Las Vegas Strip
The 13th edition of Vegas Uncork’d by Bon Appetit brought four days of food, wine, celebrity chefs and parties to town, May 9-12. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Three ingredients Gordon Ramsay can’t live without
Bon Appetit's Andy Baraghani interviews the "Hell's Kitchen" chef during a Vegas Uncork'd event at Caesars Palace, May 11, 2019. (Al Mancini/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Vegas Uncork’d launches wiith bubbles and a blade
Dozens of chefs representing some of the Strip’s top restaurants gathered Thursday at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas to launch the 2019 edition of Vegas Uncork’d by Bon Appetit. (Al Mancini/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Bunky the Clown at the clown convention
Bob "Bunky the Clown" Gretton talks about his life as a clown and the Clown Convention which was in Las Vegas at Texas Station this week. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Frying soft-shell crab at Lola’s in Las Vegas
At Lola’s: A Louisiana Kitchen in Las Vegas, soft-shell crab is breaded and fried and served either as an appetizer, po’boy or platter. Heidi Knapp Rinella/Review-Journal
The Stove in Henderson makes Pecan Pie Pancakes
At The Stove in Henderson, chef/partner Antonio Nunez stacks buttermilk pancakes with pecans and dulce de leche and tops them pie crust crumbs. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Vinnie Paul remembered at Count's Vamp'd
The late rocker's favorite table at one of his favorite clubs in Las Vegas. (Jason Bracelin/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
4DX movie experience at Red Rock
4DX movie experience during a demo reel at Red Rock. (Christopher Lawrence/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
What To Do On May The 4th
There are plenty of events going on May the 4th this year around Las Vegas. Celebrate Star Wars and Comic Book Day all at once. The Rogue Toys, the 501st, Rebel Legion and Millennium Fandom Bar are all hosting fun events to help celebrate your geek-dom. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Las Vegas Water Sports Introduces New Attraction At Lake Las Vegas
Las Vegas Water Sports will debut its new aqua park attraction at Lake Las Vegas Days this weekend. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Making the Space Invader at Greene St. Kitchen in Las Vegas
Lysa Huerta, pastry cook at Greene St. Kitchen at the Palms in Las Vegas, starts with angel food cake, Fruity Pebbles ice cream and strawberry sorbet to create a space creature engulfed in flashing lights and swirling mists. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas Pools
The M, Park MGM and NoMad are just a few great pools in Las Vegas. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Jose Andres explains Iberico pork
(Al Mancini/Las Vega Review-Journal)
Inside Life is Beautiful
Craig Asher Nyman explains how Life is Beautiful festival is booked and talks about this year's line-up. (Jason Bracelin/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Tattoo'd America Pops Up In Vegas
Tattoo'd America, a new pop-up attraction on the Linq Promenade, had their grand opening Friday. The attraction is dedicate to the culture of tattoos. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Jose Andres gets key to the Strip
Chef Jose Andres was presented with a Key to the Las Vegas Strip and a proclamation declaring April 26 Jose Andres Day in Clark County by County Commissioner Tick Segerblom on Friday. The ceremony took place at his restaurant Bazaar Meat in the SLS Las Vegas. (Al Mancini/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Sadelle’s in Las Vegas makes a grilled cheese with an inverted bagel
Michael Vargas, executive sous chef at Sadelle’s at Bellagio in Las Vegas, inverts an everything bagel and grills it with Swiss, cheddar and Muenster cheeses to make the Inverted Bagel Grilled Cheese. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Learn how to make China Poblano's Salt Air Margarita
Learn how to make China Poblano's Salt Air Margarita (Janna Karel Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Tattoo'd America invites you to have fun and take pictures
Kassandra Lopez at Tattoo'd America invites you to have fun and take pictures. (Janna Karel/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Prime rib is carved tableside at Lawry’s The Prime Rib in Las Vegas
Dave Simmons, executive chef of Lawry’s The Prime in Las Vegas, which plans special cuts for National Prime Rib Day, demonstrates the restaurant’s service from rolling tableside carving carts. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Making gluten-free pizza at Good Pie in Las Vegas
Good Pie owner/pizzaiola Vincent Rotolo makes his gluten-free pizza.
Rockabilly fans enjoy Las Vegas weather poolside
Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekender runs Thursday, April 18th through Sunday, April 21st with a huge car show on Saturday featuring The Reverend Horton Heat, The Delta Bombers and The Coasters. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Brownie sundae at VegeNation in Las Vegas is completely vegan
Donald Lemperle, chef/owner of VegeNation in Las Vegas and nearby Henderson, NV, makes his sundae with ice cream made with coconut and almond milks, a brownie made with coconut flour and oil and organic sugar and cacao, and fresh fruit. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Taste of the Town: Henderson Booze District
Those who like to support local businesses and sample local products will find the best concentration in an unlikely spot: a Henderson industrial park.
Founder of Las Vegas theater talks about a favorite play
Ann Marie Pereth, founder of A Public Fit Theatre Company, speaks to the Review-Journal about which play she would see every day if only given one option. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)