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Elvin Jones: Drumming Icon is Still Cooking

R.J. DeLuke By

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"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.

The late Leonard Feather said in his "The Encyclopedia of Jazz" that Jones provided "a continuum in which no beat of the bar was necessarily indicated by any specific accent, yet the overall feeling became a tremendously dynamic and rhythmically important part of the whole group. Jones moved away from the old concept of swinging toward a newer freedom."

Jones' assessment is much simpler.

"Well, I had to keep the time," he says softly in his unassuming manner. "And I like to listen too. Sometimes the only way you could listen properly was to be synchronized with whatever else was going on. Especially with those time signatures. It was easier to hear. While he was playing those 35-40 minute solos, I was playing too. I didn't notice it anymore than he did.

"Different things inspire. I didn't do it by myself. I don't think I would have ever done it if I hadn't had the kind of experiences that I did have with different musicians, different great soloists like that. Otherwise I wouldn't be able to play it."

Often in clubs like the Village Vanguard, it would be a marvelous duet, with bass and piano laying out, and sheets of sound would pour not only from Trane's sax, but from the thundering Jones as well. Playing through Coltrane's ferocious, and particularly long, solos didn't phase Elvin.

"I played with my brother, Thad. He could stand up and play for an hour and never play the same thing twice. It wasn't anything unusual to me," he says. "When I played in Detroit with Sonny Stitt, he could play for what seemed like hours and he wouldn't even break a sweat. And it seemed so relaxed. People would just stand up and improvise like that all night long. That was amazing. I was so proud and happy to be in that atmosphere. It didn't bother me that John Coltrane took long solos. Most people did if they got a chance to. In loose, informal groups it wasn't anything unusual for an artist to play for 25 or 30 minutes."

The music they played will stand for all time. "I heard a commentator in Washington, D.C., at Blues Alley in Georgetown, introduce the music the group was playing as American classical music and I thought that was quite appropriate," Jones reflects with satisfaction.

The Coltrane period for Elvin Jones lasted from about 1960 to 1966 before it became time for the drummer to move on. Parting wasn't a difficult decision.

"I didn't think I was leaving anything. I was just going to another phase of my life. Just like he left Miles. I didn't think there was much more that I could contribute there. I was at that age where you have to think about yourself too. It's not an insurance policy. You still have to work. That's the reality. It's like going to school. You go to Oxford, you get your degree and it's time to go make use of it. That's what I think is more important."

The two remained strong friends forever, their paths crossing even when least expected, the drummer noted. "Once I was playing in a little club on Hudson Street and I look up and there's Coltrane sitting down there. It was a tiny little place across the street from the Half Note, called Tookie's Pub. I wasn't paying much attention to people coming in and out, but I look up and there's Coltrane sitting there. He's having a good time. We come off the stage and sit down and talk for a while. He asked me how I was doing. 'Do you need anything?' He'd always say that, 'Do you need anything?'" Jones says, chuckling lightly.

"There's a lot of spiritualism in music. And with our backgrounds —John Coltrane's grandfather was a gospel minister and my father was a deacon in a Baptist church —we grew up like that. It was a peaceful existence, I thought. I learned a lot just sitting around listening to people talk."

The Coltrane connection didn't actually end there. In the 1990s, Jones employed for a time tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, the son of his remarkable friend.

"He's such a shy young man. He's a tremendous musician. He was embarrassed not to be recognized for his own talent. He thought people would just cater to him because he was the son of John Coltrane. I had to get him out of that way of thinking. I said, 'You can't control what somebody else thinks. You can control what you think. What you do is because you want to do it. And it's you doing it. Nobody else could play that but you. That mouthpiece is in your mouth [laughter] not somebody else's. You're the one that has to exert the breath control.' So he sort of came around and got so he could enjoy himself."

Jones admits it was special to have an extension of John Coltrane on the bandstand, adding, "He looks exactly like him! It's uncanny. You say, my god, it's deja vu!"

Since the Coltrane years, Jones has mostly led his own bands, touring and recording steadily with his own thing. But he's still called upon by others, as evidenced by the recent CD Bill Frisell with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones and recordings like John McLaughlin's After the Rain and Momentum Space with Cecil Taylor and Dewey Redman, the latter two known for their work in the "free jazz" realm.

Who does Jones like on the drums? "I like almost everybody I ever heard. Because I know what it takes to play that instrument. It isn't casually done. It takes a great deal of understanding, thought, practice and study, to be able to sustain any kind of development of talent on that instrument. So my hat is off to all the drummers. You have to play through those blisters and cramps and all of those things."

Names like Tony Williams, Roy Haynes, Buddy Rich come to his mind, but he's serious about his appreciation of all of them. Drumming is an essential part of music, and each brings something to the table.

"There's a lot of misconception about time keeping. All it is, is a tempo. Old drummers, like Jo Jones, Jimmy Crawford, Cozy Cole, Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, all those guys, they all had the same attitude about it. They kept time like metronomes. A clock within themselves that gave them that innate ability to stay on an even keel, no matter what the tempo happens to be. They could do it. It takes strength to do that. It isn't something that's just casual. They're doing a lot of things. They're reading a score. They're playing in a theater. They have to follow tap dancers and singers and comedians. They're doing all of that. It's not just to sit down and play a five-minute solo and your finished. It's your life, in that sense.

"That's what I respected about all these men. Tony Williams included. I thought he was a great drummer. You know Miles was crazy about him. He said, 'Wow, I got this little kid!' What was he, 16 years old or something? And he was amazing! He left his mark, as young as he was. [Williams died at age 51] He was a bright star."

Reminded that drummers like Williams evolved by listening, watching and taking things from the great Elvin Jones and Roy Haynes (another septagenarian), the kindly drummer deflected the praise. "I can only say thank you. I appreciate that. It's nice someone can recognize what you've done, that you've done something that's significant or important, even if it's just important to one or two people [laughter]. That you've made a contribution to the life of somebody."
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