Elvin Jones - Biography

Elvin Jones, one of the foremost percussionists of the modern jazz era, freed drums from their traditional use as a time-keeping instrument with his densely textured polyrhythmic approach. Best known for his tenure in the John Coltrane quartet, Jones build on the bebop advances of Max Roach and Kenny Clarke with a volcanic attack and phenomenal energy that made him a role model for a generation of players. Jazz critic Leonard Feather summed it up by saying that Jones’ “main achievement was the creation of what might be called a circle of sound, a continuum in which no beat of the bar was necessarily indicated by any specific accent, yet the overall feeling became a tremendously dynamic and rhythmically important part of the whole group.''

Elvin Ray Jones was born in Pontiac, Michigan, on September 9, 1927. He was the youngest of ten children and the third Jones brother to become a professional musician. Hank Jones is a widely esteemed jazz pianist, still active today. Thad Jones, an acclaimed cornetist, composer, arranger and bandleader, died in 1986. Elvin settled on the drums early in life, later telling an interviewer that ''I never wanted to play anything else since I was two. I would get these wooden spoons from my mother and beat on the pots and pans in the kitchen.'' As a young teenager, he practiced eight to ten hours a day, always with sticks in his pocket, ready to beat out rhythms on any available surface. With his sister’s financial support, he bought his first drum set at fourteen and quickly picked up the rudiments of drumming from a method book while in junior high. "Being able to read music," he later told Herb Nolan in Down Beat, "opened up a whole world of possibilities.” Influenced by such players as Jo Jones of the Basie band, Shadow Wilson, Kenny Clarke and Max Roach, Jones also learned from his high school band instructor before he dropped out of school to become a professional.

When things didn’t click immediately, Jones enlisted in the Army in 1946, at the age of nineteen. He toured as a stagehand with a Special Services show and performed in various military bands during his three years of service. Discharged in 1949, he went back to Detroit and its thriving music scene. He and brother, Thad, were hired by tenor saxophonist Billy Mitchell, who led the house band at the Bluebird Club. During the drummer’s three years with Mitchell, the band accompanied such national stars as saxophonists Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt, Wardell Grey and, for six months, trumpeter Miles Davis. Jones also played with everyone on the local scene, including such stars-to-be as guitarist Kenny Burrell, saxophonists Yusef Lateef and Pepper Adams, and pianists Tommy Flanagan and Barry Harris.

Jones traveled to New York in 1955 to audition for a new Benny Goodman band. He didn’t get that gig but within two weeks he was on the bandstand with bassist Charles Mingus, who later proclaimed, "I never swing so much or rather lived so much in my life." The only documentation of their work together is on Jones’ first New York recording, Blue Moods by Miles Davis, recorded for Debut — the label co-owned by Mingus and Roach. Jones also worked with piano master Bud Powell. By 1956 and 1957, he began to appear on record more frequently, often in groups led by trombone master J.J. Johnson. He also appeared with old friends from Detroit like Flanagan, Adams and Burrell as they all worked alongside such established artists as bassist Paul Chambers and trumpeter Art Farmer. One of Jones’s most celebrated recordings of the period was with the Sonny Rollins trio on two volumes of A Night at the Village Vanguard (1957-Blue Note). Jones was also a favorite of influential arranger Gil Evans, who first used the drummer for his World Pacific sessions in early 1959.

Jones would sometimes sit in with the Miles Davis group. That’s where he met and first played with Coltrane, who promised to hire Jones for the quartet he was thinking about putting together. When the call came in 1960, Jones was on the road with trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison. Jones finally became available that September and Coltrane flew him to Denver where the quartet was appearing. Bassist Steve Davis later recalled, "That first night Elvin was in the band, he was playing so strong and so loud you could hear him outside and down the block. Trane wanted it that way. He wanted a drummer who could really kick, and Elvin was one of the strongest, wildest drummers in the world.” The Coltrane quartet (with Jones, Davis and pianist McCoy Tyner) was in New York the next month to work on a trio of albums for Atlantic: My Favorite Things, Coltrane Plays the Blues, and Coltrane's Sound, the initial documentation of one of the most important extended collaborations in modern jazz.

Coltrane and Jones formed an immediate mutual admiration society. The saxophonist commented, "I especially like his ability to mix and juggle rhythms. He's always aware of everything else that's happening.” Jones, for his part, later noted that “Things came together in a physical, intellectual and emotional way that surpassed anything that had ever happened to me...Music was our sole purpose.”

Over the next several years, the Coltrane band transformed the way small groups interacted in the heat of performance. Peter Keepnews wrote in The New York Times that the rhythm section “did not accompany Coltrane so much as engage him in an open-ended four-way conversation.” When bassist Jimmy Garrison replaced Reggie Workman in the Coltrane group at the start of 1962, the lineup of the “classic quartet” was set. Jones was the drummer on such influential Coltrane recordings as Impressions (1961 Impulse), recorded live at the Village Vanguard with an extended group including Eric Dolphy, Ballads (1962 Impulse), Duke Ellington and John Coltrane (1962-Impulse), A Love Supreme (1964-Impulse), and Ascension (1965 Impulse), to name a few. As busy and successful as the Coltrane quartet was, Jones continued to make himself available for work as a sideman, appearing on record with such disparate artists as vocalist Bill Henderson, saxophonists Clifford Jordan, Lee Konitz, and Wayne Shorter, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, guitarist Grant Green, and pianist Andrew Hill. He also made his own debut as a leader on Elvin! (1961-Riverside), with contributions by brother Hank and Thad.

Dissatisfied with the addition of second drummer Rashied Ali to the Coltrane group, Jones left the band in early 1966 to join the Ellington orchestra for a European tour. Back in New York, he freelanced for a few years, working with saxophonist Ornette Coleman, pianist Jaki Byard and guitarist Larry Coryell in addition to Rollins, Tyner, and Evans. The drummer debuted his new trio with Garrison on bass and saxophonist Joe Farrell on Puttin’ It Together (1968 Blue Note). Alternating in the late sixties and early seventies between working with his own group and popping up in other leaders’ rhythm sections, Jones established the pattern of the reminder of his career. His own bands, usually known as the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine, recorded extensively for a variety of labels as the ensembles gave performances around the globe. He often employed saxophonists in the Coltrane style such as Dave Liebman, Sonny Fortune, Frank Foster, Andrew White and Pat LaBarbera. His wife, Keiko Jones, acted as his manager and also composed for the band.

Like Art Blakey, as a drum-playing bandleader, Jones was a significant nurturer of new talent. He felt that one of his missions was to bring along a younger generation of musicians by offering guidance and experience in his groups. To that end, he gave early exposure to such younger stars as saxophonist Joshua Redman, trumpeter Nicholas Payton and trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis. It must have been especially gratifying to Jones when a young Ravi Coltrane joined the band on saxophone in the early nineties. That commitment to youth was also manifested at the many drum clinics and high schools at which he performed during his tours. “Giving someone a chance is the greatest gift that you can give to another person," was how he described it to Ken Franckling in Down Beat.

Jones never stopped playing as a sideman. Some of his significant projects include work with acclaimed¬† saxophonists like Chico Freeman on Beyond The Rain (1977 Contemporary) and The Pied Piper (1984 Black Hawk), Art Pepper in a multi-night 1977 live session collected in the 9-CD box The Complete Village Vanguard Sessions (1995 Contemporary), a Bennie Wallace trio with bassist Dave Holland on Big Jim’s Tango (1982 Enja), David Murray’s Special Quartet with McCoy Tyner (DIW 1990), and the Trio Fascination (1997 Blue Note) with Holland and Joe Lovano. In 1998, Jones played with pianist Cecil Taylor and saxophonist Dewey Redman on Momentum Space (1998 Verve). The drummer also recorded with three electric guitar heroes: Sonny Sharrock on Ask the Ages (1991 Antilles) in a quartet with Pharaoh Sanders and Charnett Moffett; John McLaughlin and Joey DeFrancesco on After The Rain (1994 Verve), and a trio with Bill Frisell and the ubiquitous Holland (2001 Nonesuch). Fittingly enough, his final appearances on record were as part of the Great Jazz Trio with brother Hank and bassist Richard Davis. With the occasional aid of an on-stage oxygen tank, Jones continued to perform until a few weeks before he passed away in Englewood, New Jersey on May 18, 2004.

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