MCAN Reflections 2010 - Les Jones '76


Les Jones, ’76, a math major from Chicago (via the Stevenson School as an A Better Chance (“ABC”) Scholar), revealed at Carleton magic fingers as composer/ keyboardist for notorious rock & soul band CONQUEST (reunited for a 2008 MCAN Gathering performance) with winged feet to match as an MIAC track star and in his perpetual pace about campus (Les ran everywhere!).  As a leading actuary/MBA in a thirty year auto industry career, he’s provided the cryptic calculus of price-setting and determinations of capital, surplus, and reserves for numerous GM insurance businesses and other critical financial operations, and equally has been a go-to problem-solver on the front lines of the constant upheavals in Detroit, including round the clock UAW negotiations and the contentious TARP bailout.  He’s never missed a beat creatively either, composing and performing nationally as part of his rich and varied “other life” as a self-taught professional musician.  Outside of these pursuits, when not kayaking Michigan’s majestic lakes, he tries to be in as many classical yoga postures as possible.  We checked in with him on a recent east coast swing for a rich and refreshing MCAN exclusive.

A black guy from Detroit shows up at a yoga studio one day . . .

I’ve seen this black man showing up at the yoga studio.  The question, ‘Why is he here?’ is not that same as ‘What drove him here in the first place, what is he seeking?’  I was being challenged; in the madness of life, teen-aged kids, work, it’s hard to find a place of solitude, a place to go inward, not necessarily for the physical self, but for the whole psychological and emotional self.  I had been in an intense career thirty years and was looking for new life, to wind down the working guy, and to ramp up focus on self.  Having lived a life of what’s best for the job, best for the family, yoga was an hour a day where ‘This is mine, this is me.’  Yeah, a black guy walks into a yoga studio, where it’s filled with young white people, which made it all the more challenging, because race is something you’re always aware of.  I carried it in there with me but over time it became less of an issue, less of a thought.  Because I was finding some things I wanted to achieve, finding some peace, an opportunity to be reflective, in a non-judgmental capacity.  I was finding what I’d hoped to find.


Favorite lost or unavailable musical instrument.

My voice.  People who know me will probably disagree.  On a mental level, I can sing anything.  But physically, to actually sing what I think, to sing what I feel, that instrument has not been available to me.  I regret it.  In youth, you do stupid things, you neglect a lot.  That was the instrument I neglected; I abused it, I had opportunities to hone it, to make it what it could be.  But I passed on the opportunities.  Over the years as the physical body changes that piece of it changes as well.  I fear that it may be lost, not completely because you still can do many things, but lost because that was what probably could have been my best instrument.  Above any piano work I do, above any other instrument I’ve approached - guitar, drums, bass, flute, cornet, harmonica  - it’s my voice I feel is the instrument I really, really wanted, but lost my opportunity to get it, to capture it.

Paul McCartney sang, “You’d think that people would/ Have had enough of silly love songs . . .”

Those are the best kind.  The simple, silly love song you can never get enough of it. I’m kind of a technical musician, I like complicated chord structures and progressions and I like being taken where I’m not expecting to go, those kinds of things intrigue me about music.  It’s when I hear that simple melody, that very simple two chord song with a melody that has four notes in it that I stop and say, how ingenious is that, and I really stand in awe of the simplicity as opposed to the complexity.  There’s this one song by Diane Reeves that George Duke produced (sings), “Silver grey hair/ Neatly combed in place/ There were four generations/ Of love on her face . . .”  You know the song I’m talking about? “Better Days” – “You can't get to no/ Better days/ Unless you make it/ Through the night.”  And that’s probably one of my favorite songs because it’s so technically complex yet it’s got such a simple line – “You can't get to no/ Better days/ Unless you make it/ Through the night.”  Or there’s Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Loved You.  So simple, but so powerful.  You can never get enough of them.  The real challenge is to write the simple one.  Silly love songs . . .  One of the things I’m glad to see is a lot of the music is coming back to love songs, because, you know, for the past 20 - 25 years it’s not been love songs, it’s been mostly sex songs, kind of devoid of any romance or any real passion, and so it’s good to see music coming back to that.  A silly love song of mine ?  How about “You Can’t Beat It”?  (see mp3 on page)


Why are you CHI (“shy”) as in CHIcago?

Why am I CHI? That’s a question I’ve never asked myself because for a long time I’ve tried to disassociate myself from being CHI as in Chicago.  I was born and raised in Southside Chicago, in the streets, had the strong single mom, and when I turned fourteen, I left, and I left with a promise to myself that I’d never go back because that was a CHI that I didn’t believe was me, that I was not happy with.  Not saying that I didn’t have a happy childhood, but it was something about the world out there that I wanted more than I wanted CHI. 

Why am I CHI?  One of the things that has never left me from there is my music.  I think my music is CHI.  My interpretations of music are CHI.  The way that I play, the way I sing, the way I write are CHI.  If you would take any of my original stuff and put it in front of a music aficionado or musical historian they would probably say, ‘That’s CHI.’ (laughter)  I grew up young; I had my first job at eight years old; from a big family, back in the sixties, growing up in Chicago, it was nothing for an eight year old to be taking the El and buses back and forth across the city, it was just what I was doing, selling newspapers and shining shoes and doing all sorts of crazy stuff like that.  That kind of thing never left me, that adventuresome spirit, not staying still, going.  That’s the CHI-ness in me.  Liking girls is the CHI in me.  Dancing’s a big thing, stepping’s a big thing, was back in the sixties, even if they used to call it something different.  It wasn’t get out on the dance floor and do your own thing, you get out on the dance floor with a girl, and y’all do your own thang. That’s the CHI in me.  Mama, my dear Geneva, that’s the CHI in me.  Thinking about that stuff makes me smile a little bit, because it was good, and it is a big part of who I am today, those fourteen short years I spent as a resident of Chicago.

I want to have a long walk with -

At risk of sounding trivial I would like to have a very, very, very long walk with President Obama.  I would like to really understand what’s going on in that guy’s head, what his ideas are, what his plans and dreams are, what he really truly wants to accomplish.  You have a guy as powerful as he is and you really get a distorted view of who he is through the media, which is admittedly where I get my information about him.  I question a lot of what I hear and frankly I don’t believe a lot of what I hear.  But here’s a guy I would like to talk about what his thoughts and sense are about what he wants to do for our country, for our people.  I’ll take a long ride with him too, we can walk and ride.

There are a couple of other people I’d want to take a walk with.  Mind if I discuss them?

I would like to take a walk with my father.  He died in 1973, which was the year I got to Carleton.  I never remember living with him, although my mom tells me at some point they were going to get married but never did.  The times that I did see him he’d come pick us up in his Ford Mustang, always had his bottle of Christian brothers under the front seat, and he’d take us to the park, take us to hang out with our other brothers and sisters, wherever they were.  Although we had little concept of what that meant, he would take us someplace and say ‘These are your brothers and sisters,’ and we’d say ‘Okay,’ and we’d play because that’s what kids do.  But I would like to understand him better, I would like to know if I’m like him at all.  I never had a relationship with him really; his family was down in Kentucky, and because of the whole ABC thing I missed out on being able to really form that connection.  Although my other brothers and sisters had an opportunity to go down there and hang out with Gran and the cousins, when my turn came  - he took us down there one at a time – I was at ABC and after that it just never happened.  During my high school years I don’t recall any relationship with him, none at all, and it was freshman year at Carleton when he died.  And it was kind of weird because he had had a long illness that I didn’t know about, a heavy smoker.  I can’t say I have a lot of pointed questions for him, but more than anything to see if I’m anything like he was.

The other long walk would be with my Aunt Rose.  She was the matriarch of the family on my father’s side until she died in 1980, at 80.  I didn’t spend a lot of time with her growing up.  But we had summers with her when were little kids and she’d come to Chicago, and whenever we were with her we’d have to have Black Draught and castor oil every day; that was the thing with her, keep us healthy.  She was the repository of all the history of our family and I get bits and pieces of it from my mother and my older sisters but I think it would be very interesting to have that conversation with her, to find out who our people were, what we did, what it was like for her growing up in her situation because she lived in one of four households maintained by my great grandfather.  It would be interesting to get that history of our family.

Mathematicians do it better.

And it’s not because we have longer rulers.  (laughter)  Mathematicians are the real problem-solvers of this physical world.  You’re going to find math everywhere, I don’t care where you turn or look.  In poetry, music, history, science, politics, it permeates every piece of our existence.  Some people don’t recognize it as math.  Mathematicians take the limitations of the physical world and solve problems, puzzles, and come to conclusions, whether we do it in pure math, in the physics arena, we’re dealing with absolutes; there is really no room for opinion or subjectivity in math; once you introduce that you move from math to theory.  You have a fixed set of input, you’re going to get a fixed set of outcomes.  If there’s some desired outcome, math is how you determine what your inputs should be.  Those are the kinds of problems we solve every day in the business world; the mathematicians are looked to as to what should be done, whether we’re talking about return on equity, expected loss ratios, or profit margins, math is what’s called into play.  I need to resolve a musical problem, math comes into play.  Whether I’m talking about fourths or fifths or octaves, or thirds or diminished sevenths, or if I’m talking about transitions from a 3-6-2-5-1 progression in blues.  You go to any blues guy and say ‘Give me a 3-6-2-5-1,’ and he knows exactly what you’re talking about.  You have musical technicians who may not realize how much of technicians they are, and they just do it, and they do it better, and not necessarily because they’re musicians, but because they’re mathematicians.  My daughter Steph went to Berklee (School of Music); you meet all these kids who are so passionate about what they’re doing, and every once in a while you’ll run into this guy who is just a master technician, with scales up and down the keyboard, and yet have absolutely no music in him, none, and yet can rely purely on the mathematician in himself to be as skilled a technician as he is on a piano. 

Actuaries such as me are mathematicians first.  In larger insurance companies actuaries have moved to every area of the company, from the traditional pricing and reserving roles to tax, policy, operations, all other aspects of the company, because those mathematical skills solve problems.  Everybody’s got a little mathematician in her.  You get on your bike everyday, you’re putting your own mathematics to work as you establish cadence and examine the terrain you’re going to ride as a complex series of calculations to deal with the grade, the curves, the wind.  People look at me and say he’s so good at math, at sitting down with a bunch of numbers and making sense of it, but that’s not the only way you apply mathematics, and it’s not the most common way to apply mathematics.  Mathematicians do it better, but everybody does it.