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Elvin Jones: Drumming Icon is Still Cooking

By Published: March 13, 2004
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.

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