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Encounters with Elvin

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Elvin was the engine of the rhythm section around Coltrane, A V-8 sometimes running on four cylinders, sometimes on six.
As I mentioned in Coltrane's Music, in 1962, I had the good fortune to see and hear the classic John Coltrane Quartet in live performance five nights running, at Birdland in New York City. After Trane, Elvin Jones was the most exciting member of the group. For me then, however, Coltrane was enough, he would do. Elvin, McCoy and Jimmy Garrison were secondary for me. It wasn't until later, when deepening perception or maturity, enabled me to look beyond Coltrane that the others got my full appreciation. And for sure, they all had a great stake in the success of the group and the evolution of Coltrane. Elvin was perhaps the most important of them, and his way of playing resembled Coltrane's the most. The power, the rhythm (or what was initially marked 'lack of rhythm'), the glow, the attack, to widen and blow those imaginary boundaries so strong except for pioneers, with then unsurpassed intensity.

It was a grand era for jazz. In the late fifties and in the sixties a leap was taken from a tied-up, restrained swing and be-bop to a music today still utterly modern and contemporary. But atonality, intensity, crossover influences, free form, almost emptied an entire musical genre of its means of expression. It is a fact that the level of music reached by the classic John Coltrane Quartet became a terminal station for jazz that no one else has managed to pass through. Many have tried. This is not to diminish the jazz musicians "A.T." (after Trane) [perhaps a reference to Trane's spiritual message, as in B.C./A.D.- eds], who in their own way are creating fantastic music. But none has been able to lift and transform jazz into a new dimension like the J.C.Q. There hasn't been enough space, it seems. The sixties and early seventies became a peak and a turning point for others than Coltrane and his men. Ellington ceased, Miles' music found its final shape in the sixties, and every important actor of the art form today has his roots in the music of this era. An art form that stops developing runs the risk of dying, becoming a relic. The living field of force between the audience and the musician decreases and the music transforms into a phenomenon of recollection, which has its primary justification as a review and a nostalgia mediator. [We at AAJ believe and hope this is not the whole truth. For example, our own "Coltrane Page Adviser," saxophonist David Liebman is keeping the soul of jazz creativity alive and well, and there are others like him who are pushing the limits.- eds.]

But let's go back to Elvin Jones. He who has ears to hear cannot avoid being lifted to a higher, more beautiful, world by his music. At Birdland in June '62, we all flew (like birds!) some 2.5 meters over the floor surface (the room didn't allow more). Some facts about the old Birdland might be in place. A rather small club, maybe 150 square meters- after descending down the stairs from 52nd Street, which is a side street to Broadway at Times Square, the room opened up with the band-stand right in front and with a bar along the left wall. To the right, on the opposite side from the bar, as well as just in front of it, there were rows of chairs reserved for listeners only, and in the middle a number, maybe 10-15, of tables were placed where certain solid and liquid nourishments could be taken. On the tables were nothing but white and red chequered cloths and black plastic ashtrays carrying the words 'Birdland- The Jazz Corner of the World' in white. One of them became a souvenir, which my wife unbelievably dispatched to into the garbage some time in the eighties (my second irreplaceable collectible from the New York jazz scene was a black T-shirt from the Village Vanguard which disappeared at a rapids-shooting event in the south of France a few years ago). Since the drinking age limit was 21, how I, younger than that, managed entrance belongs to the secrets you learn when you are desperate to gain admission! Initially I would be sitting as far from the bar as possible (an imperative requirement by the door guard) but eventually I would slowly move forward and by the time Trane started set no.2, I'd have him one meter in front of me, the McCoy piano to the left, Garrison to the right and a steam boiler called Elvin further back. This felt to me a bit like being in the middle of the engine room on the Titanic, or in an iron ore mill in Kiruna brim-filled with hip black brothers and foxy sisters. At this period in time, Trane was apparently mainly attractive to the black community of New York. I believe they started playing at around 9 p.m., in forty-five minute sets interrupted by half hour intermissions, and the place closed at 5 a.m. Lots of sleeplessness collected during the five nights there, for sure. I'd be the last to leave on most nights, kicking waste paper on desolate streets on my stroll back to the hotel room.


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