by Rick Mattingly
Born on September 9, 1927, in Pontiac, Michigan, Elvin Ray Jones was the younger brother of jazz pianist Hank Jones and the late trumpet player and bandleader Thad Jones. After tenth grade, Jones began gigging around Pontiac, sometimes with his brothers, using borrowed drums. At age 18 he joined the Army and spent the next three years playing in a military band.
After being discharged from the Army, Elvin returned to Michigan, acquired his first drumset, and began gigging in Detroit. He quickly landed a gig in the house band at the Bluebird Club, which was led by Billy Mitchell. Elvin recalled all-night jam sessions and getting the chance to play with prominent jazz musicians when they appeared in town. During 1955 he toured with bassist Charles Mingus and pianist Bud Powell.
Jones went to New York City in 1956 and was soon gigging and recording with a variety of artists, including J.J. Johnson, Donald Byrd, Tyree Glenn, Harry "Sweets" Edison, Miles Davis, Paul Chambers, Pepper Adams, and Stan Getz. One of Elvin's most significant recordings during this period was with Sonny Rollins on an album titled Live at the Village Vanguard . That recording remains an important document of Elvin's emerging style. The timekeeping is fairly traditional bop drumming, but when Jones and Rollins trade fours on "Sonnymoon for Two," many of the characteristics of Elvin's later style emerge, such as the thunderous tom rolls, the use of polyrhythms, a dramatic sense of color, and a dose of bombast. You also hear Jones and Rollins dispense with metric accuracy as they overlap phrases in the style of a true musical conversation.
"To me, that was a great release," Elvin explained. "The only time I was able to play with that kind of expression prior to that was when I worked with Bud Powell. When exchanging fours or eights, I was always thinking in terms of musical phrasing as far as the composition was concerned. I think the phrasing should never be confined to a rigid pattern. Why shouldn't it overlap? If everyone is paying attention, it shouldn't make any difference. You can simply pick up from where the other person left off, and he can come in where he wants in order to complete the continuity of the phrase."
The Rollins recording helped validate Elvin's emerging style, which some musicians at the time criticized. In the documentary film A Different Drummer: Elvin Jones , Elvin comments that when he first began his career, the word was out that he was hard to play with because of his unorthodox style. But Elvin remained positive--and practical.
"It's hard for a young person when you feel that what you're doing is correct, but you're not fully accepted," Elvin said in 1982. "I'm sure, though, that Monk and Miles and everybody else who ever had new ideas has had the same experience. So this was simply my turn to have that experience. But then, I wasn't stupid either. On some gigs, believe me, you just play it the way the bandleader calls it and leave it at that. Don't try to fight the system. Go ahead and make your union scale and tomorrow's another day. Look at it that way, which isn't compromising; it's simply that you're being sensible--you're being realistic."
In 1960, Elvin joined the John Coltrane Quartet. It was the perfect setting for his style, and Elvin and "Trane" were truly partners as they simultaneously explored rhythm and melody. Jones developed an original approach in which every part of the drumset contributed to the forward momentum of the music. "You can't isolate the different parts of the drumset any more than you can isolate your left leg from the rest of your body," Elvin contended. "Your body is one, even though you have two legs, two arms, ten fingers, and all of that. All of those parts add up to one human being. It's the same with the instrument. People are never going to approach the drumset correctly if they don't start thinking of it as a single musical instrument."
Through his use of multiple layers of rhythm, Jones helped free the music from the boxlike structure imposed by barlines, paving the way for a more modern style of jazz that flowed more freely. "Elvin brought a form of relaxation to the music," says saxophonist Pat La Barbera, who played with Jones frequently over the past 25 years. "When I worked with Buddy Rich, everything had that real heavy swing feel, which I enjoy playing with sometimes. But Elvin really loosened up the time, and when I played with him, the music felt so open."
Jones recorded extensively with Coltrane, and many consider the album A Love Supreme to be the definitive document of the group that included pianist McCoy Tyner and bassist Jimmy Garrison. Another significant Coltrane recording is Ascension , on which the Coltrane quartet was augmented by several other musicians, including trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and saxophonists Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders. The album consists of a single, 40-minute piece, during which Elvin propels the time in every way imaginable. Sometimes the music sounds very organized, with fairly traditional timekeeping coming from the drumset. Other times it sounds like a musical free-for-all, with accents exploding from the drums at random, but still with a sense of forward momentum. At other times, pulsating rolls push the music forward.
During his years with Coltrane, Elvin--who had once been considered difficult to play with--became an in-demand drummer who appeared on countless jazz albums by such artists as Grant Green, Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard, Larry Young, Kenny Burrell, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Jones also recorded several albums under his own name during that period.
Coltrane gradually began to expand his group and added a second drummer, Rashied Ali, late in 1965. Elvin played alongside Ali briefly, but then left Coltrane's group early in 1966. About a year and a half later, Coltrane died.
After leaving Coltrane, Elvin spent two weeks touring Europe with Duke Ellington's orchestra. He then spent some time in Paris subbing for Kenny Clarke at the Blue Note club. When he returned to the States, Elvin started his own trio with saxophonist/flutist Joe Farrell and former Coltrane bassist Jimmy Garrison. The group's debut album, Puttin' It Together on the Blue Note label, is regarded by many as one of Elvin's finest recordings ever, and Elvin himself ranked it as one of his personal favorites. A significant tune on that album is "Keiko's Birthday March," on which Elvin's swinging, syncopated, rudimental introduction recalls his Army band days.
Over the next few years, Jones' bands included such musicians as saxophonists Dave Liebman, Frank Foster, Steve Grossman, and George Coleman, trumpeters Hannibal Peterson and Lew Soloff, pianists Chick Corea and Jan Hammer, and bassists Wilbur Little and Gene Perla, He participated in a well-publicized "drum battle" with former Cream drummer Ginger Baker in London and appeared in the satirical western film Zachariah . He also recorded with such artists as Art Pepper, Tommy Flanagan, and Bennie Wallace.
During those years, you could often tell how familiar the other musicians were with Elvin by the way he ended his drum solos. Discussing one of his 1970s Blue Note albums in which several of the musicians had not been part of his working band, Elvin commented that even excellent musicians do not always know how to follow a drum solo. "Sometimes one has to use devices to bring the group back together. My device at that particular time was a roll and a vigorous nodding of the head," he said, laughing.
In fact, Jones always adhered to the structure of a tune while he soloed. "I hear the tune in my mind," he explained, "so I know where I am at any point in the composition. Of course, this has to be reflected in what the solo is stating, whether it be realistic or abstract, in tempo or out of tempo. It doesn't matter, as long as the time frame is accurate. Then one can pick up from any portion of the composition and reestablish the continuity."
In the early 1980s Elvin started calling his group The Jazz Machine. For a couple of years his regular working quartet included saxophonist Pat La Barbera, guitarist Jean Paul Bourelly, and bassist Chip Jackson. Between 1985 and 1989, Elvin and his wife, Keiko, spent most of their time in Japan, where they ran a restaurant and jazz club. In 1990, Elvin made New York his home base again, and over the next several years Jazz Machine members included saxophonists Pat La Barbera, Joshua Redman, Sonny Fortune, and Ravi Coltrane, pianist Kenny Kirkland, bassists Reggie Workman, George Mraz and Andy McCloud, trumpeters Wallace Roney and Nicholas Payton, and trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis. Elvin continued to be in-demand for recordings, and appeared on albums by Wynton Marsalis, Marcus Roberts, John Hicks, David Murray, Sonny Sharrock, John McLaughlin and Joe Lovano. One of his last recordings was with his brother Hank on an album titled Autumn Leaves under the name The Great Jazz Trio.
In 1991 Elvin was elected to the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame. In 1998, Jones was one of the inaugural recipients of the American Drummers Achievement Award presented by the Zildjian company. Elvin remained active until a few months before his death on May 18, 2004.