Remembering Elvin Jones

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By Eddie Becton

Max Roach once suggested that "jazz recordings are the textbooks of history." What, then, can you say about a musician who's assiduously contributed to the development of jazz for over six decades? Using Roach's parallel, a musician with decades-long stamina and recording experience would surely be akin to a musical scribe who has captured the artistic and intellectual landscape all with mere strokes of his drum sticks; stories within stories, recorded textbooks aplenty. Who is more deserving of accolades than esteemed, ancestor drummer Elvin Ray Jones, who has recorded with masters of their crafts such as John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, J.J. Johnson, Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, McCoy Tyner?

Born in Pontiac, Michigan in '27, Elvin grew-up in a large family of 10. Equally significant is the fact that Elvin was one of three children who would grow-up and become professional musicians, each carving his niche in the jazz world: Hank, who still performs and Thad, who made the passage in '86. Elvin taught himself to play drums at the tender age of 13. From that time on, he taught the world more than we would ever know alone about the power of the drum, rhythm and their intricate relationship. To Elvin, the drum set was not a collage of individual pieces (i.e., cymbal, tom-tom, snare, bass, etc.). Instead, the drum set was one instrument, one voice, much like a trumpet has its own voice.

From an early age, it was obvious Elvin would be pivotal in the jazz world, beginning with his stint as a key member of Billy Mitchell's Quintet. It was '60, however, that proved to be the most significant musical year for Elvin, as that was the year he joined the John Coltrane Quartet. For six years, Elvin was the audible backbone of one of the most influential jazz groups ever assembled, musically and spiritually. It was Elvin who contributed to Coltrane's most influential recording, A Love Supreme. It was also Elvin who was influential, along with master drummer Art Blakey, in changing the perception of the drummer's role from an accompanist to a major voice just as the other instruments.

From '70 until his physical passage, Elvin was seminal in developing a cadre of successful, but relatively short-lived bands. Of particular note are his bands that consisted of alumni such as George Coleman, Joe Farrell, Frank Foster, Jimmy Garrison and many others. While his group Elvin Jones Jazz Machine did not receive the acclaim and notoriety of Coltrane's quartet, it certainly left its mark in the form of musical offspring such as trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, saxophonist Joshua Redman, and, ironically, Coltrane's son, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane.

All About Jazz: Los Angeles express our heartfelt well-wishes to Elvin's widow, Keiko Jones, and the entire Jones family for sharing Elvin with us and thousands of other fans worldwide. We were blessed to have experienced his last performances in Oakland at Yoshi's this year and Los Angeles at The Jazz Bakery in 2003 and his passion, energy, enthusiasm and sheer love for his craft were as fresh and evident as always before. We do know that Elvin may not be with us physically, but like his thunderous, rhythmic sound, his spirit will remain with us forever. For, like Roach suggested, Elvin has given us many textbooks to relish. Thank you EJ.

By George Harris

Those who saw, worked with and met Elvin Jones knew that there was much more to this man than simply being the greatest drummer of his time. It's a sad fact that artistic talent does not always equate with virtue, but in Elvin's case there is universal praise for him as a man, band leader and symbol of professionalism.

Joe LaBarbera remembers, "In 1996, Cal Arts awarded Elvin an honorary doctorate of music. The award was presented to Elvin during our graduation ceremony before a huge crowd made up of students, parents and faculty. When Elvin's name was announced, the crowd erupted with cheers and applause as he came forward to receive his due honor. After a short speech of very heartfelt gratitude and humility, he looked to his left and said, 'I see there's a set of drums here. Would you like me to play?' Again, the crowd erupted and Elvin proceeded to treat us to an incredible solo on a drum set he had never before seen or touched. It's hard to describe the good feeling that overcame us that day."

I personally made it a point to see Elvin every time he was in town. The last time he played here, I brought along my friend Perry, who doesn't get out much because he's suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease. Joining us for the evening was Perry's son, 14-year-old Ryan, to finally watch his drumming idol. After the show, Ryan and I walked up to Elvin's wife, Keiko and asked if we could meet him and get an autograph. She brought all of us, with Perry hobbling along, through the crowd to meet Elvin. He was still shaking, and was trying to wind down after having given his all from playing so intensly. However, Elvin patiently and warmly greeted Perry and Ryan, posed for pictures and signed a set of sticks to give to young Ryan. It was a golden moment for father and son.

When Elvin came to town, The Jazz Bakery was his home.

Founder Ruth Price reminded me, "Elvin was a very generous spirit. If there were young people at the Bakery, he'd stop and talk to them on the way off stage. The last time at the Bakery, he was weaker, and it was obvious. I could see he was fatigued and fragile, but the moment he sat on his drum throne and started to play, there was no difference between that Elvin and a 27-year-old Elvin, except this one played better and more mature. He was a magical presence and easy to care about. He didn't talk a lot, but he sure made sense."

Elvin made sense and without him, the days seem just a bit more confusing

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