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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."

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 pianist 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.

"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.
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