An athletic kid, he combined his love of sports with music in high school, where he led the marching band as its baton-tossing drum major. The parade ended in tenth grade, though, when Elvin dropped out and followed his father’s footsteps to GM, where he worked in the warehouse. He kept practicing, and before long he played his first gig, with a pickup band at a country club event. The bandleader’s instructions would make a lifelong impression: “Just keep the rhythm.”
In 1946 Elvin joined the U.S. Army. Throughout his hitch he kept musically active; he was still in the service when he played his first record date, with his brother Thad and saxophonist Billy Mitchell, in 1948. He also hooked up with the Army band, though because of his limited training on full drum sets he served as a stage manager rather than a performer. Even so, Elvin’s chops sharpened through freelancing to the point that he eventually auditioned for and won the drum chair with the ensemble.
This turned out to be a pivotal gig. Elvin went into it with fairly conservative ideas about jazz; his favorite bandleaders were Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington, his favorite drummers Buddy Rich and Count Basie’s Jo Jones. But other guys in the band kindled his awareness and interest in bebop. And while on leave he went to Columbus, Ohio, to hear his brother Hank perform on the famous Jazz At The Philharmonic all-star tour. Backstage he was introduced not only to Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and other mainstream giants, but also to Charlie Parker and Fats Navarro, who were challenging orthodox ideas about swing, tempo, harmony, and other fundamentals.
Elvin left that show more devoted than before to joining the jazz revolution and maybe finding ways to help lead it himself. After his discharge in 1949, he headed back to Detroit, which at that time hosted one of the most vital jazz scenes in America. Brilliant young players jammed the bandstands: Barry Harris, Paul Chambers, Kenny Burrell, Milt Jackson — future superstars sharpening their craft. Elvin picked up work immediately, though his initial experiences were rough: After playing his first civilian gig, at a place called Grand River Street, the piano player ran off with the band’s earnings. His luck improved when he joined the house band at the Blue Bird Club, which included his brother Thad and pianist Tommy Flanagan. Each week they backed some visiting headliner — Sonny Stitt, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, each one offering an incomparable education.
“As a matter of fact,” he remembers, “Miles stayed in my house for a while when he got to Detroit. Back in those days, any time a new album would hit the market, the musicians around Detroit, somebody would buy it, and everybody would go over to that guy’s house and listen to it because everybody couldn’t afford to buy albums. So the album was the property of everybody who wanted to hear it. That’s how we got so well informed about what was happening as far as music is concerned. It was like living in a music conservatory, those days in Detroit.”
But Elvin got restless. In 1955, within hours of hearing that Benny Goodman was looking for a new drummer in New York, he had packed up and headed east. His audition was a disaster; Elvin’s approach had already evolved far beyond the pulsing bass drum feel of old-style swing. “I felt bad about it,” he admits, “but then I found out that Shadow Wilson had played the day before me and he didn’t make the gig either. Well, if Benny didn’t want Shadow Wilson, who does he want? I wouldn’t even make an impression at all, because I thought Shadow Wilson was one of the greatest big band drummers in the country, no question about that.”
(Jones later had an equally unhappy and only somewhat less brief relationship with his other big band hero, Duke Ellington. He played with the legendary leader for a short time before calling it quits, reportedly due to conflict with trumpet mainstay Cootie Williams. As Jones would tell Whitney Balliett in The New Yorker, “I don’t know whether Cootie, who was giving me the fisheye, wanted me to call him Mr. Williams and shine his shoes or what.” After making his exit Jones sought some short respite in Paris, where he subbed for the proto-bebop drummer Kenny Clarke with organist Lou Bennett’s combo at the Blue Note Club.)
After the Goodman debacle, Jones decided to stay and try his luck in the jazz capital of the world. Before long he was working on trio dates with Bud Powell in the Donald Byrd/Pepper Adams quintet, and on frequent calls with Miles Davis. There was some big band work too, mainly with Johnny Richards as a substitute for Charlie Persip; it was on these gigs that Jones first covered parts for vibes, xylophone, and other percussion, learning “on the job.” “They played the Apollo Theater on a regular basis,” he recalls. “One day, during one of their engagements, Charlie had a record date and he asked me to sub for him on the show. I’d never done that [i.e., professional big band work] before, but I listened to Johnny Richards’s music. I basically knew what it was about and how to play it. For specifics, there was the score and the drum book. But to think about it is one thing,” he laughs, “and to do it is absolutely another.”
Word spread, to the point that bassist Charles Mingus called Elvin with an offer in 1953. “He wanted to form a group with Teddy Charles and J. R. Montrose,” Jones says. “He had a few jobs lined up at the Music Inn in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. After that they’d play at the Newport Festival. So we did that, and we went from there to a few jobs in Canada. What a tremendous virtuoso! He used to tell me that he hardly practiced. He would listen to Art Tatum recordings, transcribe what Art Tatum had done, and then play it on the bass; he had that kind of facility. The only bassist I ever met with that kind of ability was Scott LaFaro. Sometimes he could be difficult, but that didn’t bother me at all. I’ve been around difficult people all my life,” he adds, laughing.