Elvin Jones: Drumming Icon is Still Cooking

R.J. DeLuke By

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"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.

"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.
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