On May 18, 2004 the world lost perhaps the most influential drummer of all time, Elvin Jones
. He happened to be one of my heroes. Incredibly muscular and robust most of his life, Elvin succumbed to chronic heart failure. For those of us who knew him, it seemed inconceivable that he could become as frail as he was described near the end of life.
The youngest of ten, Elvin was born in Pontiac, Michigan, growing up in a musical household where two of his brothers, pianist Hank and trumpeter Thad, also were destined for greatness. As a child Elvin practiced prodigiously, eight to ten hours a day he told me; and was influenced by the jazz giants of the era, Kenny Clarke and especially Max Roach. After a stint in the Army he returned to a vibrant Detroit jazz scene.
As a teenage drummer, I knew Elvin well. I had a hang-out card with Elvin, meaning he let me sit near him and talk to him at his rehearsals and gigs in Detroit with Yusef Lateef, Donald Byrd, Pepper Adams, Barry Harris and others. I was impressed not only with his incredible skill, but with his intellect, good humor and generosity. I repeatedly asked him why he stayed in Detroit instead of going to New York. He said he was just waiting for the call. Meanwhile, he played with many great players passing through Detroit who used local rhythm sections, like Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt, and even Miles Davis. Finally, in 1955 he went to New York to audition for Benny Goodman's band! He did not get that job, but he found himself in immediate demand first with Charles Mingus and then with J.J. Johnson, Art Farmer, and Sonny Rollins.
When John Coltrane left Miles in 1960 he sought out Elvin forming the most celebrated alliance in music. During the years from 1960 to 1966, they contributed some of the most controversial, influential, and ultimately important music in jazz history.
Astonishingly aggressive in his playing style, Jones created a pulsating web of shifting accents that echoed the complexities of African drumming. Basically, he erased the line between foreground and background comping by elevating drum accompaniment to a continuous yet supportive solo. It was revolutionary and quite astonishing.
Elvin correctly viewed the drum set as a collection of several instruments played independently with four limbs. He believed in breaking up conventional rhythms irregularly and plugging the inevitable holes occurring in the music with scattered polyrhythmic triplets across the drums. He did this mainly with his left hand so that right hand was free to play continuous figures on the cymbals. He rejected the notion that drumming should be rigid and predictable. No more feathering of the bass drum or hi-hat unwavering on two and four. Rather, his concept was to let the entire drum set interact and flow with the soloist. The result was a visceral and loose feel; a new way to swing that created a very wide beat that his bandmates adored.
Though Jones's energy and volume became the stuff of legend, he also had masterful control over dynamics, textures and shading. His solos were often a torrent of cross-rhythms that obliterated bar lines and were very difficult to count or transcribe, yet he could swing just as hard playing at a whisper with brushes. He was the master.
There is the story about what guitarist Barney Kessel, also recently departed, said to Elvin on a gig where they played together for the first time. After a tune during which Barney and Elvin exchanged frantic solos for several chase choruses, Barney said, "Elvin, that was great man, but I had trouble counting your eights." Elvin replied,"Yeah, man, some of my eights last longer than others."
Elvin is gone and we will miss him. I only wish that more had taken notice that he left us.