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Elvin Jones: Drumming Icon is Still Cooking

R.J. DeLuke By

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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."

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