Happy Birthday Elvin Jones!

Florence Wetzel By

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Legendary drummer Elvin Jones is turning 75 on September 9th, and to celebrate the occasion Jones is performing at the Blue Note for two weeks. The celebration kicks off on Jones' birthday, and that night Jones' group, the Jazz Machine, will perform with special guest Wynton Marsalis.

Jones' relationship with Marsalis goes back many years. "Wynton's a good friend. I first saw him and his brother Branford when they were playing with Art Blakey at a jazz festival in Florida. Later I got a chance to meet them, and so we became connected in that way. Then they had their own group together, and that group broke up I think because Branford got the gig on Jay Leno’s show. Wynton came down to talk to me about that and I said, 'It's an opportunity for him, be happy for him. And by the way, why don't you come and play with me?'

"And we did, we went on several tours in Japan and Europe. Wynton is the only brass player I know that mastered his horn enough to play the Love Supreme suite written by John Coltrane. He played all four movements, and we presented that in concert form in Japan. We've been very close since then. He's just a wonderful guy, very bright, and a beautiful musician."

The first week at the Blue Note will feature the current incarnation of the Jazz Machine: saxophonist Pat LaBarbera, saxophonist Mark Sims, trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis, pianist Anthony Wonsey, and bassist Gerald Cannon. Jones' Jazz Machine has been playing for over a decade, and with many different performers including Cecil McBee, Sonny Fortune, Gene Perla, Joshua Redman, David Liebman, Michael Brecker, and Robin Eubanks. "The name itself came from my wife Keiko. She suggested it because I was always playing these engagements where the billboard would say 'The Elvin Jones Quartet', and sometimes we wouldn't even have four people! So we said 'The Jazz Machine' so everybody would understand. It's impersonal to a certain degree, but it's also a way of identifying the group, a business identity you could say.

"The group has changed over the years. First it was just a trio with a pianist and a bass, then one night when we were playing in New York Steve Grossman came down. He was going to Julliard, so he came down and wanted to sit in, and I said, 'Sure, come on up and play!' He was just learning how to play the soprano saxophone and copying some of John Coltrane's riffs, so he played that all night, over and over again. That was a lot of fun. That's what it's really all about, you know, you have to enjoy it, and I was fortunate enough to have that job at that particular club. Nobody ever came in there, but we played every night, so it was a good way to practice! "The group just moved on from there. Steve started playing with us regularly, and David Liebman started playing with us, Gene Perla was playing with us, and things developed in that way. I think a good word is 'growth', because the group grows."

The second week at the Blue Note is a tribute to John Coltrane with the Elvin Jones Quintet. The Quintet consists of trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis, pianist Carlos McKinney, bassist Reginald Veal, and Coltrane's son Ravi on saxophone. Jones of course was part of Coltrane's legendary quartet during the early and mid-’60s, and he looks back on that time fondly. "It was a wonderful experience. For six years I had probably the happiest time in my life up to that point. I learned a lot working with him: I learned how to relax, and how to support and listen to what he was doing. It's very essential to hear what another person is doing, because if you can't hear it, you can't support it; you don't really understand what it is. So I learned how to listen. I could hear everything he did, almost sometimes anticipate what he was going to do. We got so close it was almost telepathic. And playing with him certainly made me more aware of the spirituality that's inside all of us."

Jones also has a close relationship with Ravi Coltrane. "I knew Ravi when he was born, but I didn't see him again until he was 26, when he was a man. He wanted to play, but he had this idea that people catered to him because his father was John Coltrane. I said, 'That's got nothing to do with it! That's maybe a little bit of it, but when you play that's you playing that horn, that isn't your father! There's only two hands on that horn.' So Ravi came out of it, and he blossomed after that. He worked with us for four years, and he got very comfortable with himself. We talked about his dad a lot because Ravi never really knew his father; he was just a baby when John died. So he questioned me about him, what we did and what we talked about. I was sort of like a surrogate father to Ravi."

The Blue Note gigs are also a celebration of Jones' famous energy and stamina, which are still going strong at age 75. Jones credits his wife Keiko with keeping him healthy. "If it hadn't been for her, I would have been dead a long time ago. I didn't take care of myself, and I didn't eat properly. When we got married [36 years ago] she would insist, 'Sit down, eat your dinner, eat your breakfast...' I was regulated in a way; I would go to bed and go to sleep instead of carousing around all night long. She saved my life.” He still travels with his groups all over the world and it's an experience he enjoys, particularly the closeness that develops between band members.

"When you're out traveling with a group, that's your family in a sense, and if you don't love each other somebody's going to have problems or get hurt. When you're traveling you help each other carry the bags, you see if everybody's eaten breakfast, if they feel okay or need any money or whatever. You learn how to protect each other. It's the same when you're playing, when you play you have to protect each other. I know if a guy's tired or something happens to his horn, and then you step in and compensate for him. It's like that."

When not on the road, Jones likes to spend time reading. His favorites are Edgar Allen Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and westerns. He also likes poetry, particularly Paul Laurence Dunbar and T.S. Eliot. And of course he listens to music, but if you ask him what's currently on his turntable he gives the surprising answer, "I like Sam Cooke and his song 'Cupid'. That's just a very cute song, I love that. Sam Cooke has a way of delivering his music that I find very unique." The quality that Jones seeks most in music is honesty. "Music demands honesty if it's going to have any effect or any meaning or feeling to it. That kind of music comes because of the honesty of the musician that's playing the composition. The effort to be honest brings out spirituality, and it brings out all the talent that one has and probably didn't even know existed within oneself, but it's there, nevertheless. You have to just be honest and let it come out, and then your mind isn't clouded with unnecessary things; you don't have to go around lying, you can just tell the truth. That's what it's all about."

Jones is looking forward to his birthday and his upcoming gigs at the Blue Note. "We're going to be at the Blue Note for two wonderful weeks, and I've got a lot of wonderful people who're going to come in and celebrate with us. They'll come up and we'll play together and just have a good time! It's a great way to express yourself, and to celebrate the life that you've had and the future that you're contemplating."

Photo Credit
Jimmy Katz

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