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Elvin Jones 1927-2004: A True Moment In Time

Jack Gold-Molina By

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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.
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.

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