The Magnificent Life Of Elvin Jones

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”