No one can prove that Elvin Jones — or Buddy or Max or anyone else — was the greatest jazz drummer. But making the case for Elvin wielding a more profound influence than any rhythm master is a snap.
Take him out of the history of this music and suddenly you have nobody there to prove that drummers could play in rhythm and out of meter at the same time. You have nobody making the case that the drums could play with rather than behind a soloist. You have nobody pushing way beyond the beat, into texture and dynamic interaction, where drummers once scarcely roamed.
Without Elvin Jones, mainstream drummers may never have evolved beyond the role of timekeeper. Yet Jones never forgot that keeping time was the Prime Directive — a lesson that’s still lost on players too dazzled by their own virtuosity to remember that they have to swing.
Whenever someone changes history, musical or otherwise, there’s more than talent involved, though talent — genius isn’t too strong a word — is essential. In Elvin’s case, there was also a clarity of mind, an awareness that you can’t affect the future without beginning in the past, with those elements of tradition that will help rather than impede change. There was the enormous luck of his association with John Coltrane’s quartet, in which the two nurtured a rare telepathy, evident in the time they devoted at their concerts to unaccompanied drum/saxophone explorations.
Finally, Elvin benefited from being born into the most brilliant brood of musical brothers until Ellis Marsalis began getting busy down in New Orleans. But unlike Ellis, a respected pianist whose love for music flowed freely to his sons Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo, and Jason, Elvin’s father was not a professional musician. Like many in the Detroit area, he worked for General Motors, as a lumber inspector. He appreciated music, though, and served his Baptist Church as deacon of its choir. He and his wife knew that their sons Thad and Hank were born with a gift for music, and so they found room in their budget to pay for their lessons — a first step for both on their way toward distinguished careers as a jazz trumpeter and pianist, respectively.
But with the birth of their last child, Elvin, on September 9, 1927, there were ten children to care for, and luxuries such as music instruction were no longer affordable. It became Elvin’s challenge to fend for himself, to pick and learn his instrument on his own. Fortunately, where money was short, there was an abundance of support from parents and siblings, particularly from Thad and Hank, to help him get started — though getting it sometimes meant having to deal with the hassles little brothers face in every family.
“You get told to keep quiet a lot,” Elvin explains, his voice a laughing rasp, “because I was the youngest in the family. I’d start asking questions, and they’d say, ’Don’t you know how to do anything but ask questions? Shut up for a while and listen!’ I used to bug them until they were exhausted. But I was their younger brother, so they didn’t mind too much, I guess.”
By the time he reached age 13 Elvin knew — knew — that he had no choice but to play the drums, lessons or not. And already he sensed that he would play them in a different way than Thad and Hank expressed themselves through their music. “There was more to it than just being conventional,” he remembers. “I just thought that being confined to a certain static form was unrealistic for me. I always wanted to do something else, but I didn’t know how. It took a long time to figure out how to do things another way without disrupting what the fundamental art form was all about.”
Significantly, Thad and Hank both left home around that same time. “From 13 to maybe 21 I didn’t even see them,” Elvin says. “Hank would go out with his trios and with Ella Fitzgerald, Jazz At The Philharmonic, and all of that. Thad was out in the Southwest, in Oklahoma and Missouri and Kansas, places like that, working with what they used to term ’territory bands.’ When he came home, of course, I thought he was an accomplished musician. He could do a lot of things that I’d heard Dizzy Gillespie do and all the things I’d heard Miles Davis do — and I thought he did them twice as good. He knew a lot about harmony, so he was a great arranger. When he was with Basie, for instance, he could do arrangements on the bus without benefit of a piano or anything else, and all of his music was extremely accurate — hardly any corrections. He was able to unleash his talent and do what he desired.
“That’s something that he always wanted to do, and he made his own opportunity to do that. And I was thinking that I’d like to get that same kind of opportunity myself.”
The first step was obviously to start playing the drums. Fred Weist, the leader of the band at Elvin’s junior high school in Pontiac, Michigan, helped him get started. Elvin got hold of Paul Yoder’s Elementary Method For Drums, sat down with a pair of sticks and a practice pad, and in two days, he would later claim, had mastered every exercise in the book. When Weist lined up a snare drum for him to take home from school, he ramped up his practice schedule to a minimum of eight hours, and often up to ten, each day. It became his habit to carry a set of sticks in his pocket; whenever there wasn’t a drum within reach, he’d work out his rudiments on tables, walls — any hard surface that was standing still. Quickly he moved up to first chair in the band’s percussion section.