In memoriam: Yawn Jones, talented multi-instrumentalist and dedicated teacher

In memoriam: Yawn Jones, talented multi-instrumentalist and dedicated teacher

Yawn Jones, of blessed memory, passed away on Feb. 22, 2021, at age 48. The memoriam below is written by his student and musical collaborator Mitch Mirkin, a member of the BJA editorial committee.

I first met Yawn Jones in 2015 at The Music Workshop in Baltimore. At age 53, I was getting back into music after a long hiatus, renewing a passion I had pursued earlier in life but had set aside for many years.

Initially, I hoped that Yawn would help me get back some chops on the alto sax. When I saw he also taught piano and guitar, among other instruments, I wondered, was this a case of jack of all trades, master of none? Shouldn’t I be working with someone who specialized in the sax, or at least woodwinds in general?

I soon saw that Yawn not only could masterfully play multiple instruments but he could also effectively teach them all. In one session, he’d coach me on producing a better tone on the sax; in the next, he help me with extended chord voicings on the piano.

In any case, our focus soon became my composing. I was going through a prolific period, churning out a new jazz tune every week or two. I was aware of my limitations as a player, so my goal became to make audio demos of all my new tunes so that other, better, musicians might record or perform them.

Fortunately, Yawn was adept at digital audio production. He would quickly put together a custom drum track in Logic Pro, using a MIDI keyboard, and then a bass line. I would add the keyboard comping and melody line. This was my first up-close exposure to digital music mixing. I would watch, almost mystified, as Yawn would navigate through various screens, adjust virtual sliders up and down, nudge virtual knobs, and scan through hundreds of instrument voices or percussion kits to find just the right one.

All the while, Yawn looked for every opportunity for me to “get my hands dirty,” as it were, and do more on my own. As a teacher, he was easy-going, adaptable, and encouraging. He was there to help me pursue my musical dreams. He nurtured those dreams, to the point where one day I suggested we collaborate on a CD of my tunes, and in an instant he was brainstorming with me about which musician friends of his we could bring into the project.

Here I am in 2021 with two CDs produced—featuring Yawn on guitar, as part of a group I assembled with Yawn’s help and called The Common Roots Jazz Ensemble—and a third on the way, with Yawn having recorded two of the tracks with us before his untimely passing.

I still listen to the first two CDs in my car. When I hear Yawn’s solos, and his comping, the word that always comes to my mind is “tasteful.” Yawn always had the perfect touch. Every note was well-placed, and just right.

Yawn had just the right touch with people, too. Here’s a sampling of the tender remembrances posted in the funeral guest book by some of his friends and family :

Special person with a beautiful, gentle spirit

Loving, supportive, dedicated person

Amazing person, teacher, mentor

Gentle and loving person

Wonderful, compassionate teacher

Gentle soul who left a lasting impression on everyone he met

A few months before his passing, Yawn had shared with me a jazz fusion piece he was working on. He had laid down a few tracks—drums, bass, keyboards, guitar.  The music was complex, and very engaging. “Wow, there’s a lot going on there!” I said to him. I urged him to pursue the project, to try and bring it to fruition.

Yawn never had the opportunity to finish that piece. He was taken from us too soon. I wish he had been able to bring this, and all his other professional and personal dreams, to fruition.

I feel blessed to have known Yawn, and to have made music with him. His creative genius and gentle spirit will live on in my heart. I will always remember his unwavering support and encouragement, and his enthusiastic collaboration.

Perhaps there were some projects Yawn left undone. But if his mission on earth was to spread love and good feelings through music—to increase the light, warmth, and joy in what often seems like a dark and cold world—he accomplished it, in a big way.

–By Mitch Mirkin

Mitch Mirkin is acting director of communications for the Office of Research and Development of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. He is a longtime jazz lover and in recent years has devoted his musical talents to jazz composing. His original compositions are featured on two CDs—Dance of the DNA (2019) and The Madison Avenue Shul (2020)—with a third in the works for 2021.