Those who contribute the most to local music scenes often make the least amount of noise. This was certainly true of the late Dennis Jones, an unassuming sound engineer who could regularly be seen operating the sound board for Iowa City’s Friday Night Concert Series, as well as at hundreds of club shows, benefits and other local events over the past three decades, until his death at the age of 68 on Feb. 9.
Jones, who some friends call DJ, got his start mixing live shows when he helped run the Sanctuary Pub — where he met roots musician Greg Brown, who regularly performed there at the beginning of his career.
“Dennis offered to do sound for us,” Brown said, “but to tell you the truth, he was terrible. We ended up calling him ‘Screech,’ because the noise, but he got better at it very quickly. It was like a kid who couldn’t handle a ball, but then suddenly became a star athlete. He became a first-class soundman, and he had a lot to do with music around town for many years.”
“Dennis was just a very sweet, humble guy,” Brown continued. “He was very patient, and really loved the music.” Guitarist Bo Ramsey observed, “Dennis Jones was a warrior. He worked hard to do what he could do to help bring the music to the people.”
For these reasons and more, many in the local music scene are lobbying to have the Weatherdance Fountain Stage in the Pedestrian Mall named after him. As Katie Roche pointed out, “Naming this stage for Dennis would not only honor him, but also honor all of the hard-working production folks who make it possible for us all to enjoy concerts.”
Roche, vocalist for the Awful Purdies and the Dandelion Stompers, became acquainted with Jones in 1995 when she first moved to Iowa City and immersed herself in the local music scene, where she saw him working his magic.
“When he started doing sound for my various music projects, he let me hang out with him at the sound board, because he saw that I was hungry to understand how it all worked,” Roche recalled. “He often roped me into running cords to set up. He was the kind of sound person you wanted behind the board, and as a young woman new to performance, I really appreciated his egalitarian treatment of musicians.”
“In spite of all my shyness,” fellow musician Pieta Brown said, “DJ was so kind and encouraging to me as a musician when I first came back to Iowa City and started doing shows. I always liked and related to his restlessness.” She recalled how this quiet man with dark-rimmed glasses always seemed to be moving — setting up microphones, connecting cables and leaning over the soundboard tweaking sound levels.
Roche has similar memories: “It wasn’t unusual to see Dennis Macgyver-ing his sound system together from his emergency repair kit during setup. His sound system was the Frankenstein of systems and he knew how to make it sing.”
Solo artist Kelly Pardekooper remembered how Jones was always kind and generous to him from his earliest days playing in bands, something that was also true for Dave Zollo, who got his start fronting High and Lonesome in the early 1990s.
“From the very beginning of my career,” Zollo said, “when I was literally a snot-nosed punk, Dennis always treated me with absolute kindness.”
In short, Jones had a good handle on the technical aspects of the job and he had the right interpersonal touch.
Big Wooden Radio bassist and vocalist Dan Brown helped start the Friday Night Concert Series and was involved in booking and staging the event for several years. The original intent of the series was to feature the best of local artists, and Jones was their sound engineer of choice for the same homegrown reasons. Jones would lug amplifiers, soundboards and lighting rigs before and after those shows every week with a smile on his face and without a complaint in the world.
“As often is the case,” said Dirk Keller, the current stage manager and PA announcer for the series, “things can and do go wrong with the equipment from time to time. But Dennis never got flustered and was always able to figure out the problem and correct it. Because the Iowa City Summer of the Arts organization is a true non-profit, funds are extremely limited. We needed someone competent to run the lights and sound who didn’t require a lot of money for the effort. Dennis gave more of his time, talent and treasures than anyone in order to ensure that the show would go on.”
Zollo, who has played the live music series about 20 times since the early 1990s, can’t even walk around that part of the Ped Mall without thinking of Jones.
“The memories of him scrambling to find a balky microphone cable or loading up his speaker stacks at the end of another long night still make me smile,” he said.
People like Jones are never in the spotlight (even though it is they who often set up the lighting rigs that let the performers shine). He lacked all egotistical trappings and was always on-hand to donate his equipment and time for a benefit, or another community event.
Jones loved Iowa City, and his satisfaction came from knowing that the musicians had what they needed and the audience left happy.
“For more than two decades,” said Dan Brown, “Dennis showed up early every Friday to set up the stage, and he would be there packing equipment long after the crowd of listeners had moved off into the night. Anyone who enjoyed one of those beautiful evenings of music on our Ped Mall owes something to Dennis Jones. I know I do. I am a musician and I want things to sound right. The Dennis Jones Stage sounds ‘right’ to me.”
Blues musician Kevin Burt added to the chorus of endorsements with his assertion that “there’s not one musician in this area who wouldn’t be honored” to perform on a stage named after Jones.
“Naming the Ped Mall stage after Dennis is the right thing to do,” Zollo said. “And, frankly, it would be a nice way to make official something that many of us in the Iowa City music scene already consider a done deal.”
As Pieta Brown put it, “I’m calling the Ped Mall stage ‘the Dennis Jones stage’ from here on out!”
Kembrew McLeod encourages folks to contact the Iowa City Council at firstname.lastname@example.org if they are interested in lending their voice to this effort.