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Elvin Jones: Drumming Icon is Still Cooking

By Published: March 13, 2004

There's something about the instrument that you play that just demands that it be done correctly and done with as much skill and as much passion that you can possibly put into it.

The name Elvin Jones conjures up a distinct image right away. You can see him seated behind his drum set, slightly hunched, arms awhirl; cranking out a firestorm of rhythms highlighted by crackling accents that fall at unexpected moments, giving the music just the right propulsion.

He's been one of jazz music's preeminent drummers for years and years, playing with all the greats. For decades now, he's led his own bands, as well as graced the albums of numerous others, but many still see him as THE DRUMMER in the great John Coltrane quartet of the 1960s. Hell, it does look pretty good on the resume, does it not?

That's cool with Elvin. He's been through it all and isn't the least bit haughty about it. He's appreciative of his career, thankful to have made music with all his associates, unruffled if people only know his affiliation with Trane, and happy to still be creating good music that makes people feel things.

Besides, the legendary saxophonist is still an inspiration who Jones thinks about "every day. I can never not think about him. He's so much a part of my life. I think about him like I think about my mother, my father, my sisters and brothers and dear friends — people that are a part of your whole existence. There's no way I can leave him out of my thoughts. I don't think the day is ever passed that I didn't think about him."

Jones turns 75 in September, but don't warm up the rocking chair. He can still be found on the stool behind the drums, weaving his rhythmic dialog with bandmates around the world.

"I saw men older than I was in Guinea, in Africa, on a stage," he says with a quiet laugh. "Not only did they play, but they danced. And they would leap above the stage three feet in the air with the drums. And those drums are heavy, you know? For hours! They wouldn't think anything of it. Because it's what they did. They don't do anything else. That's what they live for. That's their life."

"And so it's my life. I feel the same way," his deep voice intones.

Jones, still the winner of music magazine polls for his drumming prowess, was to bring a band into New York City's Blue note just after this April interview. He was taking with him Ira Brown and Pat LaBarbera on saxophones, Carlos McKinney on piano, Delfeayo Marsalis on trombone and bassist Cecil McBee.

"I think we're going to be able to enjoy it. You always look for people who want to have some fun," he said. "Make me feel good and make other people who listen to the music feel good and feel better - - make them think it's worth coming out to sit around a club and have a drink and just enjoy the things that you appreciate, as far as your life is concerned. That's very important."

The music is what's important to Elvin Jones. He's not resting on his laurels. In fact, he' doesn't even think in those terms about his illustrious past.

"When I look back, I think in terms of what I should have done, not what I actually did. It's funny that way, but it seems to be. I've talked to painters, you know, who paint these gorgeous portraits and things and they're so self critical about it. They have all kinds of different rationalizations why they don't want to admire what they've already done. So it's something like that," he said.

He is a true soft-spoken gentleman, so it's no surprise he's not boastful. It's not that he doesn't realize what he's accomplished. It's just that modesty prevails. Besides, where he comes from — the youngest of 10 kids in Pontiac, Mich., outside of Detroit — he may not even be the best musician in his own family. Jazz fans also know his brothers, the remarkable pianist Hank Jones and the extraordinary trumpeter, writer and arranger Thad Jones, who died in 1986.

"I feel very, very gratified when people are complimentary to what I have done or appreciated it with sincerity," says Elvin in earnest. "It makes me feel that maybe I did do something that was proper and that was right. Because that's what the music is for. Like literature or anything."

He wanted to be a drummer ever since he could walk, he says — even when he didn't have anything to drum on. Times were hard and money was tight for a large family during the Depression. But the pursuit of music was paramount for Elvin. Jazz music is lucky for it.

"I always thought that great music is a challenge," he said. "I don't think there's any music greater or a lot more exciting than jazz music, because it's pure. You hear things that nobody's ever played before and you hear things that are almost impossible for anyone to duplicate. It's being done and you hear music that is so beautiful; it makes you weep; it's more than anything any classical composers have written can be. It compares equally with some of the best that's ever been done."

So Elvin Jones still cooks behind that drum set, even after three- quarters of a century on this planet. He scoffs at the mere idea that age has any relevance. It's not about age, he explains as calmly as can be. "Basic things don't change at all. If it did, it would be reflected in the way the music sounded. The sound of it would change. People would say, 'He looks all right, but he sounds a little different than he did before,'" he says with a chuckle.

"There's something about the music and there's something about the instrument that you play that just demands that it be done correctly and done with as much skill and as much passion that you can possibly put into it. It has nothing to do with whether you've been playing 100 years. It's the same thing."

Mr. and Mrs. Jones were not musicians, but everyone in the family appreciated music, Elvin says. "There were not many instruments around. Hank had his piano. Thad had his trumpet. It took me a little while before I was able to get some drums. We grew up during the Depression. Money was very scarce. We had plenty to eat, but we didn't have any toys. We enjoyed each other's company more than anything else."

So there was baby Elvin Jones toddling around the house. He had drums on his mind even then, from about the age of 2, he says.

"I never thought about doing anything else," he said, matter-of- factly.

"At that point in life ? 2 years old, or whatever ? I couldn't think of what I was gonna do when I was 30. That seems like a world away for anybody of that age. But I was determined to learn how to play that instrument. And that's what was important to me. And once I learned how to do it, I can take it from there."

He was fortunate to have good music teachers in school and received some formal music training there, but Jones was largely a self-taught player. Stories say he practiced 8 to 10 hours a day. Is that folklore?

"That's absolutely true," he says with a soft laugh. "Maybe more than that. Because if you count what you think about all day long, you've practiced 18 hours a day. Because I didn't think about anything else. I didn't want to play basketball. I didn't want to play baseball, football or anything like that. All I ever thought about was playing drums. I daydreamed about the time when I would finally get a set of drums and I'd be able to play them."

Detroit had a very fertile jazz scene in those days. In addition to the Jones brothers, Donald Byrd, Kenny Burrell, Paul Chambers, Tommy Flanagan, Yusef Lateef, Pepper Adams, Wardell Gray, Billy Mitchell and more all called the Motor City their musical home. And people that blew through town and played in the clubs there included Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young and a myriad of others. But Elvin's first "professional" gig isn't a romantic tale of bumping into one of these giants and being pressed into service. He laughs kindheartedly at the recollection.

"I think I was maybe 14 or so. I didn't really get any money, so I didn't think it was anything professional. Chuck White was the piano player and Dan Turner was playing saxophone, and I had drums. We all lived on the same street. So this man asked us. He had a farm about 20 miles north, between Pontiac and Flint, Mich., and he wanted to start a club for dancing. He set himself up a hamburger stand and he was gonna sell these hamburgers. We were the band to provide the entertainment. We had this big opening, and absolutely nobody there. Anyhow, the pay we received for that was one huge hamburger each. It was a lot of fun and a great experience."

The experiences got better. But World War II interrupted and into the Army went Elvin. When he returned to Detroit in 1949, things started to happen. Not like lightning, but happening nonetheless.

"After I got out of the Army Air Corps, I went back to Detroit, bought a set of drums. I started hanging out with the right people. I knew Billy Mitchell, Wardell Gray, [noted Detroit drummer] Art Mardigan from Woody Herman's band. He was sort of a mentor to me. I'd go to places where he was working and he would try to get me to sit in. I would say no. I was just coming to listen and watch first. So he finally got me to play. He said he wanted me to take his place with Wardell Gray and a quartet, so I did and he went and took another job and that's how he got me to play. I didn't have the kind of confidence I suppose I should have had. I was sort of shy."

As work picked up, Jones got the chance to play with renowned musicians who would come through town, among them Miles, Bird, Dizzy, Prez, Howard McGhee, Ben Webster and Sonny Stitt. But the burgeoning of bebop was going on in New York, where most of the great musicians would go to solidify their reputations. The Jones boys were no different.

"My brother Hank was working with Benny Goodman's band that he reorganized. He had made this film called "The Benny Goodman Story," and he reactivated his band to prepare for a world tour. So he was giving auditions for different instruments. So Hank told him about me, and I got a call from Benny Goodman one night at a club where I was working. The owner of the place was so choked up, he could hardly speak. He said, 'Elvin... guess who's on the phone!' He was so excited, he couldn't talk. Anyway, it was Benny Goodman, so he asked if I would come to do an audition. So that's how I happened to go to New York.

"The audition didn't turn out so well, but at least I was in New York. I started to get contacts with Miles Davis, Charlie Mingus and the Sauter-Finnegan band. I met Kenny Clarke and Art Blakey, Philly Jo Jones. I got a call eventually from Charlie Mingus, because he had a band that was just starting. Charlie Mingus and Teddy Charles. A saxophonist named J.R. Montrose. That was my buddy. Anyway, he got that band together. In 1953, we played the Newport Jazz Festival. Everybody was up there."

Elvin also worked with the likes of Bud Powell and Tyree Glenn. He also spent time checking out the great drummers in town, and great bands. Inevitably, he had his initial meeting with John Coltrane when he checked out the Five Spot, where the Thelonious Monk quartet frequently worked. This version of the band had the young saxophonist from North Carolina. Elvin lived nearby and sauntered in.

"It wasn't anything fancy," he said of the famous nightclub, "but John Coltrane was working there. He was working in Thelonious Monk's band, with Wilbur Ware on bass and Shadow Wilson was playing the drums. And there was Coltrane and Thelonious Monk. So every night I would go over there and sit as close as I could to Shadow Wilson, cause he was one of my heroes. Just to watch him play. And he introduced me to all of them. I knew Wilbur Ware, but I didn't know Coltrane. I'd never seen Monk before. Everybody'd heard about him, but of course that's the first time I had a chance to see him in person and to shake his hand."

He may have been checking out Shadow Wilson, but he met the man who would mean so much to his life a few years later.

"Miles Davis called me one day. He said that Philly Joe Jones could not go to Philadelphia for a week and he asked if I would substitute for him. So that's how I really got a chance to play with Coltrane. During that week, he said he was thinking about getting his own group. He asked if I would be willing to come and work with him. I couldn't say anything but yes," Jones says with a grin. "That's how I really started, as far as our relationship is concerned."

Coltrane went on to play in Miles' "first great quintet," a band that shook up the music world in the 1950s. But eventually, the quiet Coltrane would move on, looking to explore more of his own voice and pursue his unique musical vision. In 1960, he remembered the drummer from Detroit and what became known as Trane's classic quartet came into being, with bassist Jimmy Garrison and young piano firebrand McCoy Tyner.

Jones had been diligently working and developing over the years and he was ready. His varied background to that point "gave me a great deal of experience, the kind of experience I think I needed to fit in with the kind of music that John Coltrane was playing and to be able to learn it and to understand and be a part of all that. I felt very fortunate. I thought I was a lucky man."

The group's influence was massive in the 1960s, but its power still remains today. The legions who listen to Trane and are affected by his profound ideas can't help but acknowledge the driving rhythm and lifeblood pulse supplied by the great Elvin Jones — A Love Supreme , My Favorite Things , Afro Blue and on, and on and on.

The late Leonard Feather said in his "The Encyclopedia of Jazz" that Jones provided "a continuum in which no beat of the bar was necessarily indicated by any specific accent, yet the overall feeling became a tremendously dynamic and rhythmically important part of the whole group. Jones moved away from the old concept of swinging toward a newer freedom."

Jones' assessment is much simpler.

"Well, I had to keep the time," he says softly in his unassuming manner. "And I like to listen too. Sometimes the only way you could listen properly was to be synchronized with whatever else was going on. Especially with those time signatures. It was easier to hear. While he was playing those 35-40 minute solos, I was playing too. I didn't notice it anymore than he did.

"Different things inspire. I didn't do it by myself. I don't think I would have ever done it if I hadn't had the kind of experiences that I did have with different musicians, different great soloists like that. Otherwise I wouldn't be able to play it."

Often in clubs like the Village Vanguard, it would be a marvelous duet, with bass and piano laying out, and sheets of sound would pour not only from Trane's sax, but from the thundering Jones as well. Playing through Coltrane's ferocious, and particularly long, solos didn't phase Elvin.

"I played with my brother, Thad. He could stand up and play for an hour and never play the same thing twice. It wasn't anything unusual to me," he says. "When I played in Detroit with Sonny Stitt, he could play for what seemed like hours and he wouldn't even break a sweat. And it seemed so relaxed. People would just stand up and improvise like that all night long. That was amazing. I was so proud and happy to be in that atmosphere. It didn't bother me that John Coltrane took long solos. Most people did if they got a chance to. In loose, informal groups it wasn't anything unusual for an artist to play for 25 or 30 minutes."

The music they played will stand for all time. "I heard a commentator in Washington, D.C., at Blues Alley in Georgetown, introduce the music the group was playing as American classical music and I thought that was quite appropriate," Jones reflects with satisfaction.

The Coltrane period for Elvin Jones lasted from about 1960 to 1966 before it became time for the drummer to move on. Parting wasn't a difficult decision.

"I didn't think I was leaving anything. I was just going to another phase of my life. Just like he left Miles. I didn't think there was much more that I could contribute there. I was at that age where you have to think about yourself too. It's not an insurance policy. You still have to work. That's the reality. It's like going to school. You go to Oxford, you get your degree and it's time to go make use of it. That's what I think is more important."

The two remained strong friends forever, their paths crossing even when least expected, the drummer noted. "Once I was playing in a little club on Hudson Street and I look up and there's Coltrane sitting down there. It was a tiny little place across the street from the Half Note, called Tookie's Pub. I wasn't paying much attention to people coming in and out, but I look up and there's Coltrane sitting there. He's having a good time. We come off the stage and sit down and talk for a while. He asked me how I was doing. 'Do you need anything?' He'd always say that, 'Do you need anything?'" Jones says, chuckling lightly.

"There's a lot of spiritualism in music. And with our backgrounds — John Coltrane's grandfather was a gospel minister and my father was a deacon in a Baptist church — we grew up like that. It was a peaceful existence, I thought. I learned a lot just sitting around listening to people talk."

The Coltrane connection didn't actually end there. In the 1990s, Jones employed for a time tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, the son of his remarkable friend.

"He's such a shy young man. He's a tremendous musician. He was embarrassed not to be recognized for his own talent. He thought people would just cater to him because he was the son of John Coltrane. I had to get him out of that way of thinking. I said, 'You can't control what somebody else thinks. You can control what you think. What you do is because you want to do it. And it's you doing it. Nobody else could play that but you. That mouthpiece is in your mouth [laughter] not somebody else's. You're the one that has to exert the breath control.' So he sort of came around and got so he could enjoy himself."

Jones admits it was special to have an extension of John Coltrane on the bandstand, adding, "He looks exactly like him! It's uncanny. You say, my god, it's deja vu!"

Since the Coltrane years, Jones has mostly led his own bands, touring and recording steadily with his own thing. But he's still called upon by others, as evidenced by the recent CD Bill Frisell with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones and recordings like John McLaughlin's After the Rain and Momentum Space with Cecil Taylor and Dewey Redman, the latter two known for their work in the "free jazz" realm.

Who does Jones like on the drums? "I like almost everybody I ever heard. Because I know what it takes to play that instrument. It isn't casually done. It takes a great deal of understanding, thought, practice and study, to be able to sustain any kind of development of talent on that instrument. So my hat is off to all the drummers. You have to play through those blisters and cramps and all of those things."

Names like Tony Williams, Roy Haynes, Buddy Rich come to his mind, but he's serious about his appreciation of all of them. Drumming is an essential part of music, and each brings something to the table.

"There's a lot of misconception about time keeping. All it is, is a tempo. Old drummers, like Jo Jones, Jimmy Crawford, Cozy Cole, Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, all those guys, they all had the same attitude about it. They kept time like metronomes. A clock within themselves that gave them that innate ability to stay on an even keel, no matter what the tempo happens to be. They could do it. It takes strength to do that. It isn't something that's just casual. They're doing a lot of things. They're reading a score. They're playing in a theater. They have to follow tap dancers and singers and comedians. They're doing all of that. It's not just to sit down and play a five-minute solo and your finished. It's your life, in that sense.

"That's what I respected about all these men. Tony Williams included. I thought he was a great drummer. You know Miles was crazy about him. He said, 'Wow, I got this little kid!' What was he, 16 years old or something? And he was amazing! He left his mark, as young as he was. [Williams died at age 51] He was a bright star."

Reminded that drummers like Williams evolved by listening, watching and taking things from the great Elvin Jones and Roy Haynes (another septagenarian), the kindly drummer deflected the praise. "I can only say thank you. I appreciate that. It's nice someone can recognize what you've done, that you've done something that's significant or important, even if it's just important to one or two people [laughter]. That you've made a contribution to the life of somebody."

For Jones and Haynes, playing at an age when many people find it hard to walk to the grocery store, Elvin has no secret. It's just work. "Well, if you play drums, that's a workout in itself. Just hauling them around and getting them set up. Playin' a job. It's a lot of work involved. It's a lot of movement."

He's played with some of the legendary artists of his day, and says he finds one common thread that runs through them. "They all have a deep sense of spirituality. It's a catalyst that's involved in each individual that excels in whatever his chosen field." And his experiences with people like Miles and Mingus are not unpleasant.

"I was with them for long periods of time. I never noticed anything volatile about them. No more than anybody else," says Jones. "Mingus liked to argue. He loved a debate. And I suppose it could be construed as volatile, but I don't think he just did that. He had to have something to talk about. I don't think anybody could match wits with him, on a daily basis. And he didn't really go around looking for things. He had his own opinions and he wasn't afraid to say them. Just speak up. Ands Miles was a very quiet guy. I've never seen him raise his voice."

So Jones keeps working and keeps being inspired. He's comfortable with his place, and yet still eager to explore new ground and find new musical experiences.

"I haven't seen the future yet, but I think it's gonna be all right. I don't feel gloomy about anything. It has nothing to do with what people like," he says. "It's what people have an opportunity to hear. Nowadays what people hear, they really don't have any control over it. And that's the problem. I don't think it's the music. The music is beautiful. I like to listen to any kind of music. I like banjos, guitars, all kinds. But if I can't have a choice, if I turn on my radio or television or go in a record store and there's nothing there but 'bam-bam-bam-bam,' or cussin' or calling everybody a mutha- something — that's not to my taste. The music doesn't have anything to do with that. I don't think the art form of jazz has anything at all to do with that."

The downturn in jazz record sales and gigs for many musicians, says Jones, "is a cycle. It isn't the first time. It happens every now and then. It just so happens that we're experiencing it again. But it will fade away because there's no substance to most of today's music. The problem is, who's doing it? I turn the radio off. I don't want to listen to this crap. I turn the television off. I'm looking at a movie and I hear a soundtrack and I hear this idiotic thing. I think — Listen, I'm not 2 years old.

Visit Elvin Jones on the web at www.elvinjones.com .

"But I just don't believe that people who perpetrate that kind of fraud will last. Just like EnRon has come tumbling down. Everybody gets found out sooner or later."

Photo Credit
Jos Knaepen



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