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The Magnificent Life Of Elvin Jones

Ali’s music and personality rubbed Jones the wrong way. The younger drummer was cocky, even abrasive; in recalling his first appearance with Coltrane to Valerie Wilmer in As Serious As Your Life, he said, “I’m starting to think now, ’Goddamn, I must really be a bitch with the drums, because Elvin Jones is the number one drummer on the scene.’ This was my feeling, my ego … and here I am, upsetting this cat [Jones] every night.” And when he began insisting that his drums be planted at the center of the stage, with Jones relegated to the side, that was it: In January 1966 Elvin submitted his resignation.

The Coltrane group changed jazz sax playing, the role of the piano, and drumming forever. Over the next few years, though, Coltrane would pass away and Tyner would become a revered but less compelling presence. Only Jones kept rolling, kept pushing himself and surprising his listeners. In the decades to come his work challenged convention even while staying rooted in tradition. He loved working with his peers in the drumming community; in 1964 at the Newport Jazz Festival, he was so exultant at sharing the stage with Jo Jones, Louis Bellson, Roy Haynes, Art Blakey, and Buddy Rich that he impulsively grabbed Rich after his set and lifted him off the ground in a bear hug. Two years after that he took off on a “three drummer” tour alongside Blakey and Tony Williams, this time with less amiability; Williams was busted for possession in a hotel. When asked for his source, the young drummer fingered Jones for reasons that were never made clear. Despite the bad vibes, Jones continued to hang with his brothers in rhythm: In 1974 he took part in a four-way drum “battle” at Radio City Music Hall, with Blakey, Roach, and Rich.

Other projects demonstrated Jones’ restlessness and wide reach. His collaborators would range from early jazz giants Earl Hines and Pee Wee Russell to later innovators such as Wayne Shorter and, later still, Wynton Marsalis. He even participated with an unlikely gaggle of musicians, ranging from the archival jazz pianist Dick Hyman through the swing era veterans Clark Terry and Illinois Jacquet to the progressive bassist Charlie Haden and a young Joshua Redman, at a White House concert presided over by Bill and Hillary Clinton in 1993; Whitney Balliett, squinting through the murky mix of vintage and modern aesthetics, discerned that “Elvin Jones, taming his style for the music at hand, took a slashing, startling eight-bar solo in the final chorus.”

Perhaps because any pianist would find Tyner a tough act to follow, Jones also experimented with non-piano groups, beginning with a trio that included Garrison on bass and Joe Farrell on woodwinds; the format also allowed him greater space to interact with soloists and suggest harmonic texture. In 1988 he took part in A Love Supreme, a Coltrane tribute that featured Tyner, Hubbard, and Sonny Fortune, in a series of international dates; bass parts were handled in Europe by Reggie Workman and in Japan by Richard Davis. Jones also put his own band together, the Jazz Machine, in which he mentored Delfeayo Marsalis, Carlos McKinney, Javon Jackson, and other “young lions.” They launched their first tour of the U.S., Europe, and Japan in 1990. Typically, up to his very last years, Jones was on the road ten months out of every year.

Elvin and his Japanese-born wife Keiko traveled together on those long treks and shared their rare time off at their two homes, in New York and Nagasaki, where they had met. Keiko contributed to almost every facet of his career, as his manager, stage director, valet, secretary, and even as composer; his set list included a number of pieces she had written for him. Anyone who came into contact with Jones knew how much he came to care and rely on her, and how fully she reciprocated his love and trust, especially in their later years together. At his last performances, when he was clearly ill, Keiko would stand behind him as he played, her arms wrapped around him to keep him from falling off his throne.

On May 18, 2004, within a month of playing his last show, at Yoshi’s in Oakland, California, Jones died of heart failure at age 76. In addition to a catalog of more than 500 albums and a deep reservoir of affection earned from musicians and fans through half a century on the job, Jones left more than enough wisdom to enlighten drummers for generations to come.

Yet, as Jones was quick to admit, there was no magic in his message. “There’s only one way to achieve this thing,” he explained, “and that’s hard work. You’ve got to do it. You can’t just dream that something is going to happen; you’ve got to make it happen. And the way to do that is to prepare. And preparing requires a lot of discipline. They used to say, ’Go into the woodshed and practice.’ That’s what it’s all about. You have to get into the shed. A lot of young cats have the wrong idea. They forget there’s a lot of hard work involved. I try to keep them aware of the fact that hard work is necessary to accomplish that. They have to get in the habit of self-discipline, and not just when you think somebody’s looking. You have to do it all the time. It has to be part of what your life is all about. You commit to music in a way that you commit to yourself. If you can’t do that, you might as well forget it.”

To make the point as clear as possible, Jones drew from what he had learned on his travels. “It’s all about character. For instance, take an example of a young boy in Cuba: They’ll cut down a tree and make their own drum. Their fathers will help them do it. The whole family is involved in encouraging this young man to practice and study. They’ll all dance and sing together. That’s how great artists develop, with that kind of concentration. These humble examples show us more than anything else: You have almost a compulsion — but you’ve also got to have some fun with it.”

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