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Elvin Jones: Drumming Icon is Still Cooking

By Published: March 13, 2004
"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."

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