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Legendary drummer and bandleaderby Todd S. Jenkins
Copyright © 2004 Todd S. Jenkins
Despite all of his accomplishments in life -- and there were so many -- Elvin Jones is most likely to be remembered for his family ties and his service in John Coltrane's celebrated quartet. His passing at the age of 76 leaves brother Hank as the last musical Jones sibling, and pianist McCoy Tyner as the sole survivor of the Coltrane band.
Born in Pontiac, Michigan on September 9, 1927, Elvin Ray Jones was the youngest of ten children, and one of three brothers who helped change the face of jazz. Hank, the eldest, is one of the music's most beloved pianists; Thad, who died in 1986, was a renowned cornetist, composer and co-leader of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. Elvin, who used to bang on kitchenware as a child, taught himself to play the drums at thirteen. He learned about music at his brothers' feet, so to speak.
Jones served in the U.S. Army from 1946 to '49. Upon his discharge he returned to Michigan and began gigging around Detroit with his brothers. His drum skills, inspired by bop pioneers Max Roach and Kenny Clarke, landed him a regular job at the Bluebird Inn, where he backed up visiting artists like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. As his experience grew, so did his technical facility; soon Jones was able to maintain a steady pulse even as his sticks flew all over the drum kit. Tommy Flanagan, Milt Jackson and Stan Getz were among the early beneficiaries of Jones' skills.
In 1955 Jones toured with Charles Mingus (including Newport) and Bud Powell, ending up in New York. He remained there and worked with J.J. Johnson, Donald Byrd, Tyree Glenn, Harry Edison, and Miles Davis, who introduced the young drummer to John Coltrane. In 1960 Trane formally asked Jones to join his quartet, which went on to become one of the most popular bands in jazz history. The unity, precision and intensity generated between the leader, Jones, McCoy Tyner and bassist Jimmy Garrison gave their music an unparalleled air of excitement. Jazz critic Leonard Feather characterized Jones' technique as a "circle of sound", echoing the "walls of sound" appellation bestowed upon Coltrane's style. For all his relentless energy, Jones steadfastly maintained that drums were proper musical instruments, not mere noisemakers as many people viewed them.
Jones recorded several times with brothers Hank (Here's Love, 1963, Argo) and Thad (The Magnificent Thad Jones, 1956, Blue Note). In 1961 he cut his own Elvin! (Riverside) with Hank, Thad, Frank Foster, Frank Wess and Art Davis. While he relished and shone in the role of leader, he remained loyal to Coltrane for several years. As the saxophonist's interests leaned more towards free jazz, Jones followed his lead. When critic John Tynan finally labeled the quartet's music "anti-jazz", Jones' volcanic drumming was one of the principal reasons. Their association continued until late 1965, when Coltrane added Rashied Ali as a second drummer. Jones felt the two men were incompatible musically so he departed the fold in 1966, one year before Coltrane's death from liver disease.
Jones joined the Duke Ellington band for a European tour while he weighed his options. In 1968 he ended a contract with Impulse Records and moved to Blue Note, which resulted in several good albums (Puttin' It Together, Mr. Jones, Coalition, etc.) Later he recorded for smaller labels like Storyville, Muse and Enja before returning to Blue Note in 1998 (At This Point in Time).
Jones selected the cream of performers, young and old, to accompany him on his musical journey: Garrison, Richard Davis, Frank Foster, Lew Soloff, Pepper Adams, Joe Farrell, Dollar Brand, Dave Liebman, and younger up-and-comers like Ravi Coltrane (son of John), Delfeayo Marsalis, Joshua Redman and Nicholas Payton. He also worked regularly as a sideman for leaders like Adams, Tyner, Kenny Burrell, Art Pepper, Joe Henderson, Grant Green, Gil Evans, Frank Foster's Loud Minority, Roland Kirk, Wayne Shorter, Phineas Newborn Jr., Earl Hines, Freddie Hubbard, Albert Mangelsdorff, even Allen Ginsberg and Tony Bennett.
In the 1990s Jones' revolving aggregation became known as the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine. His Japanese wife, Keiko, acted as his business manager and even helped tune the drum kit. The couple maintained a home in Nagasaki, Japan, as well as New York. In 1994 Elvin and Hank Jones collaborated on Upon Reflection: The Music of Thad Jones (Verve) in honor of their late brother.
In April, reports of his poor health led to rumors that Jones had died. Despite his heart condition he continued to perform almost until the end, often bringing an oxygen tank onstage. Elvin Jones passed away on May 18, 2004. His survivors include his wife, Keiko, and brother Hank.
Todd S. Jenkins
Todd S. Jenkins is a member of the JJA, author of Free Jazz and Free Improvisation: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2004) and I Know What I Know: The Music of Charles Mingus (Praeger, 2006), and a contributor to Down Beat, All About Jazz, American Songwriter and Route 66 Magazine.