Mingus’ interest in Tatum paralleled the way Jones looked at music, with a curiosity about rhythm that led him beyond the drums. “Of course I heard all of the great drummers,” he says. “Krupa, Buddy Rich, Dave Tough, Jo Jones, Kenny Clarke, Art Blakey, Big Sid Catlett. Of course, Max Roach has got to be the most influential drummer I heard at that time. But as well as drummers I listened to the piano players. I heard Art Tatum, and I could hear almost everything that the drummers were doing in his technique. He was just phenomenal. And when I finally got a chance to listen to Charlie Parker, it was so much easier to hear what he was doing because I had heard the pianists. That opened up my mind: Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, and a lot of horn players, like Dizzy Gillespie.”
When he did listen to his fellow drummers, he heard things that mirrored what horn and piano players did. “When I played a cymbal, for instance, I used to close my eyes a lot — I pretended I was blind — and I could hear all the colors that I knew were there,” he explains. “It added another dimension to what I was trying to express. A color has a sound, and a sound has a color, and that applies to all the components of a drum set. The way I hear it, there are millions of colors in sound, and I wanted to try to find another way to arrange the sounds.”
This kinesthetic sensitivity began to suggest new ways of relating to other musicians. When thinking in terms of color, Jones points out, “You try to blend with what the other instruments are doing. The sound is what I think of: What sound would not conflict with what this flute player is playing, or this clarinet player or that trumpet player? What sound can you produce that would enhance and give them support for what it is you feel that they’re doing? That’s one reason why I started to tune my drums a little bit differently. There’s nothing very specific about it, because after all they’re not timpani. It’s more about finding the natural pitch. If it’s a small tom-tom, it’s got a different natural sound than if it’s a little larger, like 13” x 9" or 12” x 8". Tuning is going to take it to where the sound coming from the instrument is clear and not distorted, so that whatever drum I use wouldn’t conflict too much with the sound that was in the group.”
The hipper players knew that Jones was onto something. Calls for gigs and record sessions accelerated; by the end of the ’50s he had played on more than 40 albums. He enjoyed long runs as well with trombonist J. J. Johnson’s band, and in 1957 recorded separately with its rhythm section, which includes his old Detroit friend Tommy Flanagan. In 1959 he played the first of a series of three albums with the Gil Evans orchestra, the most ambitious large group of its time.
Through those same years Jones also battled an increasing dependency on drugs. By his own admission, in an interview with Whitney Balliett for The New Yorker, his dalliances and addictions had compromised the quality of his work — a backhanded compliment, in a way, given the reputation he built between needle dates. When police detained him in a New York hotel lobby in ’59 and found heroin in his pockets, Jones was sent for six months to Rikers Island, where sleeping in rat-infested cells qualified as therapy. It was enough, Jones would later insist, to wean him off dope for the rest of his life.
By 1960 he was ready for Coltrane. He hadn’t been available when the saxophonist invited him to join the first version of what would become his classic quartet. But that fall he agreed to fly to Denver to replace the departing Billy Higgins. (Just before leaving New York Jones received — and turned down — another tempting offer, to join Dizzy Gillespie’s outfit.) The band invigorated Jones to the point that by 1962 he recorded his first album as a leader; titled Elvin!, it features the only collaboration on disc between all three Jones brothers.
“I’d had the opportunity to have great experiences with Harry ’Sweets’ Edison and J.J. Johnson before I came to Coltrane,” he says. “I don’t think I could have achieved anything without my experiences with those great artists, so when I finally got invited to be a part of Coltrane’s group and I accepted, I felt that I was prepared. I could say yes with some conviction because I had done my homework. It’s part of what you have to do. It’s the Boy Scout model. It’s like preparing to be a doctor: I don’t want to kill people, I want to make them well.”
In the summer of 1963 Roy Haynes subbed with the group during what Elvin would later describe as a bout with the flu, though in fact he spent that time at a drug rehab center in Lexington, Kentucky. Aside from that, he played for more than five years with Coltrane, Tyner, and Jimmy Garrison, all four members locking together in a contradictory embrace of freedom and unity, in performances marked by extremes of delicacy and volcanic intensity, peaking with the Ascension session of June 1965, which Bill Mathieu described in Downbeat as “possibly the most powerful human sound ever recorded.”
The Coltrane quartet, like the Miles Davis Kind Of Blue group, played intuitively together, even at the first stages of rehearsal. “Rehearsal” may in fact be a misleading term here: Arrangements, if not songs, would evolve without direction, even onstage. Charts and lead sheets were never part of the routine. Over time Jones, as well as pianist McCoy Tyner, would broaden and deepen his playing; their studio recording of “My Favorite Things” is far more restrained than their live renditions over the next few years, as their levels of interaction evolved. (Jones, in a Downbeat interview, made note of advice from his brother Hank to always play just a little louder and more aggressively than some people might have asked, in order to make a more enduring impression. The effect of this advice could be drawn as a gradual crescendo in the drum part from the beginning toward the end of his involvement with Coltrane.)
Working together elevated each participant to the top of his field; for Jones it meant acceptance into the most elite community of drummers specifically and jazz innovators in general. It also meant that as Coltrane followed his muse toward an enlightened but idiosyncratic synthesis of sound and spirit, Jones found himself unable to tag along. Significantly, where Coltrane had invited other musicians to join with the group on Ascension, so that there were three tenor saxes, two alto saxes, two trumpets, and even two bassists, Jones handled the drums alone, whipping the participants into a level of passion so that, according to the liner notes, witnesses were “screaming” with excitement. But that same year saw Coltrane experiment for the first time with bringing in a second drummer, Frank Butler, to one of his gigs at the It Club in Los Angeles. The combination intrigued Coltrane, who recruited both Jones and Butler for the Kulu Se Mama date in October and, the following month, Jones and Rashied Ali for Meditations.