Elvin Jones, one of the most influential and accomplished drummers in history, passed away Tuesday May 18 due to heart failure. Most notable for his work with John Coltrane, he helped to revolutionize the way jazz and contemporary music are heard and played. Described by Louie Bellson as "Mother Earth coming alive with syncopation," there isn't a drummer today in the world of jazz and contemporary music that hasn't felt his influence.
Born on September 9, 1927, the youngest of ten children, Jones came from a musical family that included brothers Hank and Thad, pianist and trumpet player respectively. He grew up in Pontiac, Michigan in the midst of the many jam sessions held at the house owned by his parents and by the age of 13, Jones was determined to be a drummer. Often practicing 8-10 hours a day, some of his earliest influences were Jo Jones and Shadow Wilson.
From 1946-1949, Jones was enlisted in the US Army during which time he worked to hone his musical skills and, after being discharged, returned to the thriving musical scene in Detroit. Hired by Billy Mitchell he worked for three years at the Bluebird Inn backing visiting musicians such as Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt, and Miles Davis whom he spent six months working with. In 1955 he relocated to New York City where he spent time working with Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Davis, and with Davis's then tenor player, John Coltrane.
In 1960, Jones joined Coltrane full-time in forming his great Quartet. Jones was Coltrane's first choice as drummer for his newly formed group, but at first this was not to be. Jones was touring and recording with veteran trumpeter Harry Edison and was therefore unavailable when Coltrane first approached him, and so Pete La Roca was given the gig. La Roca, who tended to play slightly behind the beat, wasn't right for Coltrane's driving, pushing rhythms, so Billy Higgins was brought in. While Higgins could play anything from free jazz to a semi-boogaloo, for Coltrane he lacked that edge conducive to innovation and fresh ideas.
When Jones finally became available, Coltrane flew him out to where his quartet was playing in Denver on September 27. According to bassist Steve Davis, "That first night Elvin was in the band, he was playing so strong and so loud you could hear him outside and down the block. Trane wanted it that way. He wanted a drummer who could really kick, and Elvin was one of the strongest, wildest drummers in the world. After the gig, Trane put his arm around Elvin, took him to a barbecue place around the corner, and bought him some ribs. Trane and Elvin were tight from then on."
Jones's focus was on rhythmic flow versus keeping time with the bass drum and accents with just the left hand on the snare while playing the ride cymbal with the right. As pianist Eric Lewis put it, "Elvin is a master of accents...accents and umbrellas of accents." Often compared to West African drum batteries, Jones's playing was rich in polyrhythms and he shared Coltrane's extraordinary physical stamina. "I especially like his ability to mix and juggle rhythms," Coltrane said of him. "He's always aware of everything else that's happening. I guess you could say he has the ability to be in three places at the same time."
During the course of one week in October 1960, the newly formed John Coltrane Quartet with Jones, McCoy Tyner playing piano, and Steve Davis playing bass, recorded all of the material for the albums My Favorite Things, Coltrane Plays the Blues,
and Coltrane's Sound,
issued on the Atlantic label. In May 1961, the quartet, with Reggie Workman now playing bass, began recording for Impulse. In November, Impulse recorded their performances at the Village Vanguard in New York City that also included reeds player and flautist Eric Dolphy, and several concerts in Europe were recorded and later released on the Pablo label. In December, Workman left the quartet due to personal issues and was replaced by Jimmy Garrison, thus forming what has become known as the John Coltrane Classic Quartet .
From their first recordings on December 21, 1960 through the fall of 1965, the quartet recorded what is arguably some of the most important music that has ever been put to disk including the classics Crescent
and A Love Supreme.
In 1965, Coltrane also recorded several ensemble albums including Ascension, Live In Seattle,
and Kulu Se Mama
with the quartet and additional musicians including trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, and drummer Rashied Ali. Starting in November Coltrane began adding Rashied Ali as a second drummer on frequent performance dates as he pursued a freer approach to his music. As a result, Tyner and Jones became frustrated with the increased volume level and the moving away from a steady rhythmic pulse.
Following Tyner's departure from the quartet in December 1965, Jones left in January 1966 to pursue work with Duke Ellington, returned for a few gigs in March and April, then, after announcing his intentions to freelance, left the group for good. "It was like a perfect blend, a joy," Jones described his tenure with Coltrane years later. "It was always a joy to play, in a recording studio or in a nightclub. It was the same feeling, in front of a large audience or no one at all. Music was our sole purpose."
Already having done a significant amount of recording as a side musician, Jones began recording as a leader for the Blue Note label in 1968 with a trio that included Garrison playing bass and Joe Farrell playing saxophone and flute. This trio recorded two albums, Puttin' It Together
and The Ultimate Elvin Jones,
before Garrison left the group. Jones continued to record for Blue Note as a leader through July 1973, recording such monumental releases as "Poly Currents," "Genesis," and "Live at the Lighthouse." Material consisted of covering tunes by other artists such as Tadd Dameron and Jimmy Heath, original compositions written by musicians who were involved in the Blue Note sessions such as Garrison, Farrell, and pianist Chick Corea, and compositions written by his wife, Keiko Jones, such as "Shinjitsu," and "One's Native Place." While continuing to work with Farrell through December 1971, Jones also recorded with several other saxophonists including George Coleman, Frank Foster, and Dave Liebman with whom he would also record the album Earth Jones
Jones continued recording and touring worldwide and his live performances were known for their power and intensity. Not only had he gained recognition for his performances with Coltrane, but he was becoming reputable as a leader of his own groups. For the next thirty years until his passing, Jones remained vital, touring constantly and recording with such luminaries as Dewey Redman and Cecil Taylor for the 1999 release Momentum Space,
and continuing to innovate as a musician. Each tour Jones introduced young musicians into his group, the Jazz Machine, and brought such musicians as saxophonist Antoine Roney and pianist Carlos McKinney from being relatively inexperienced into full maturity, putting on stellar performances for week-long nightclub engagements and at the most prestigious jazz festivals the world over. As well as performing classic pieces such as Duke Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood" and Coltrane's "Wise One," he continued to add new material to his set list with his wife, Keiko, often drawing from her rich heritage of Japanese folk music to write such pieces as "Doll of the Bride."
Unlike many musicians who approach their retirement when they get to a certain age, Jones continued to grow and to better himself, to transcend in his performances, showing his audience that he had earned his reputation as one of the most accomplished musicians in history. His professionalism always at the highest level, to see and hear Elvin Jones perform was to experience a true moment in time.
References: Nisenson, Eric. Ascension: John Coltrane and His Quest.
St. Martins Press, 1993; reprinted by Da Capo Press, 1995. Porter, Lewis. John Coltrane:His Life and Music.
University of Michigan Press, 1998. Photo Credit
"Live" by Jack Gold