Remembering Elvin Jones: A Giant Redwood Falls

Remembering Elvin Jones
A Giant Redwood Falls

by Mike Zwerin

copyright © 2004 Mike Zwerin

Elvin Jones, who died of heart failure on May 18th at the age of 76, revolutionized modern drumming with a style that was described as "surging," "multi-directional," "volcanic," and, by the critic Leonard Feather, as a "continuum in which no beat of the bar was necessarily indicated by any specific accent."

He will be missed. Jones accompanied Allen Ginsberg reading William Blake, he played the role of a gunslinger in Zachariah, a hippie western starring a young Don Johnson, his portrait was painted by Larry Rivers ("The Drummer"), and he read ee cummings and listened to Jacques Brel. "You should not judge other people's music by your values," he said. "You have to take it on its own terms."

The singer/songwriter and ex Soft Machine drummer Robert Wyatt compared Jones's passing to "a giant redwood tree falling in the forest. It will take a thousand years to grow another."

After growing up in Detroit with his brothers, the trumpeter Thad and pianist Hank, he worked for a while in a steel mill in Pontiac, Michigan, "pouring molten iron out of a Bessemer converter. It could be dangerous work, partly because it's so repetitive. The biggest risk is losing your concentration, kind of like drumming."

One rainy Tuesday night in 1964 in the Half Note club on Hudson Street in New York, the John Coltrane quartet was performing, like every band in there, on the bar next to the booze. After a set that consisted of one non-stop 50-minute version of "Afro Blue," Jones came off drenched in sweat and said: "What does he think he's doing? A 50-minute tune?!" Which was a good insight into their relationship. Jones, it must be said, had effortlessly maintained his surging and erupting continuum the entire time.

At dawn one morning 18 years later, during a European tour with the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band, the English saxophonist Alan Skidmore walked into the breakfast room of a hotel in Zurich where Jones, Howard Johnson, John Scofield, Jimmy Knepper, Woody Shaw and some of Gruntz's other musicians were sipping coffee only half awake. Skidmore walked over and put his thick eyeglasses into Jones's face and said: "Elvin, it sure is a pleasure to wake up in the morning and see you."

Elvin famously said hello to friends by picking them up from the floor with rib-threatening bear hugs. Air kisses were not his thing. It has been sad, over the past two years, to watch him weaken. When a journalist asked him where the 1,500 student drummers who enrolled in one of his percussion clinics in Japan were going to find work, his gentle and generous smile lit up his strong face, as well as the room itself, and he said: "You don't have to win the Tour de France to enjoy riding a bicycle."

Jones had a strong following in Japan. He and his Japanese wife Keiko maintained residences in New York and in Nagasaki. His manager, roadie, dietician and homemaker, Keiko is credited with having kept Elvin's negative impulses inactive for the last 15 years or so. It was her job to set up his drum kit. She was meticulous about it, deliberate, professional, in no hurry — there were precise numbers of turns of the screws anchoring the cymbals, and the hi-hat had to be a certain distance from the bass drum, which she tuned every night. Then, you could rely on it, before sitting down to perform, Jones would readjust just about all of it. It was a kind of dance they did, and it continued as she shouted her approval while playing air drums along with him behind the stage.

Two generations after he created it, his rolling pulse remains at the heart of the music — young drummers still play like Jones. When he would come off of a snare drum roll on the second instead of the first beat, he considered himself to be de-emphasizing the strong beat. But a drummer with a big band functions as a sort of orchestra conductor — making sure everyone knows where 'one' is, for instance — and when, after leaving Coltrane in 1966, Jones was hired by Duke Ellington, for reasons never explained to him but having to do with either rhythmic (multi-directional drumming) or political (new guy on the block) ambiguity, Ellington also kept his previous drummer on the payroll. Jones called it: "One of my least pleasant musical experiences."

During recent years, he played "Hello Dolly" as an encore with his band the Jazz Machine — which has included Joshua Redman, Delfeayo Marsalis and John's son Ravi Coltrane — he would construct a strict back-beat worthy of Louis Armstrong with his left hand while playing his patented, loose, across-barlines, ternary time on the ride cymbal with his right — marrying two entirely different grooves.

"I could never understand how people could have trouble comprehending my time," he said. "I never thought I was being all that complex. I just try and maintain my own perception of rhythm as support. It's all about paying attention to other people and supporting what they are doing. I'm still wrestling to control my own impulses — you know, trying to avoid hitting everything at once."

Jones recalled "a guy named Horse who worked at the mill. Horse would drink a pint of Old Grand Dad with the sandwich in his lunch pail. He said it kept the dust off his lungs. I had total confidence in him; he could handle it. Whether it's a steel mill or a jazz band, relating to human beings involves basic truths, both positive and negative. They have never changed and never will change. That's why I read poetry. It's universal. I like human beings. That's why I play music."

Mike Zwerin originally published this article in the International Herald Tribune.

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