Thad Jones was born in Pontiac, Michigan to a musical family of ten (an older brother was pianist Hank Jones and a younger brother was drummer Elvin Jones). Thad Jones was a self taught musician, performing professionally by the age of sixteen. He served in U.S. Army bands during World War II (1943–46).
After Army service including an association with the U.S. Military School of Music and working with area bands in Des Moines and Oklahoma City, Thad became a member of the Count Basie Orchestra in May 1954. He was featured as a soloist on such well-known tunes as April in Paris, Shiny Stockings and Corner Pocket. However, his main contribution was his nearly two dozen arrangements and compositions for the Basie Orchestra, including The Deacon, H.R.H. (Her Royal Highness, in honor of the band’s command performance in London), Counter Block, and lesser known gems such as Speaking of Sounds. His hymn-like ballad To You was performed by the Basie band combined with the Duke Ellington Orchestra in their only recording together, and the recording Dance Along With Basie contains nearly an entire album of Jones’ uncredited arrangements of standard tunes.
Jones left the Basie Orchestra in 1963 to become a freelance arranger and studio player in New York. In 1965, he and drummer Mel Lewis formed The Thad Jones / Mel Lewis Orchestra. The group initially began with informal late night jam sessions amongst New York's top studio musicians. The group eventually began performing at the Village Vanguard in February 1966, to wide acclaim, and continued with Jones in the lead for twelve years. They won a 1978 Grammy Award for their album Live in Munich. Jones also taught at William Paterson College in New Jersey, which is now the site of the Thad Jones Archive, containing pencil scores and vintage photos as part of the Living Jazz Archives.
In 1978, Thad suddenly moved to Copenhagen, Denmark, (to the great surprise of his New York band mates), where several other American jazz musicians had gone to live. Upon Thad’s 1978 departure to live in Europe, the band continued as the Mel Lewis Orchestra until Lewis’ death in February 1990, and thrives to this day as the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, still including several Thad Jones alumni, continuing the extraordinary Monday night tradition into its fifth decade.