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We’re playing jazz music. All right, maybe we don’t make a lot of money. We don’t get thirty thousand pounds a year for a concert, or something like that. But this fulfils one, as far as one’s mental capacities are concerned and it brings out the creative ability that exists in a musician. It makes it possible to say: “This is what I CAN do.”
— Elvin Jones
Elvin Jones was what those of us who, in our weaker moments, are prone to idealize musicians yearn for a drummer to be: a force of nature with a sense of mission. Jones was constantly telling interviewers how proud he was to be a jazz musician, and he made the role of drummer — arguably the least appreciated and easiest to mock player on the bandstand — a position worthy of pride. The critic Francis Davis often likened Jones to “an African chieftain,” and that aura of power and nobility was the end result of a lifetime spent working to be the best at something he cared about deeply.
You can get a glimpse of what it was like to see Jones in action in the forgotten (and forgettable) 1970 movie, Zachariah. In the middle of this misguided attempt to create a counterculture musical Western, Elvin Jones, a towering, massive, frozen-faced figure, strides into the saloon in an O. K. Corral outfit, settles in behind an enormous drum kit, and proceeds to spend 10 minutes exploring its possibilities. It’s a thrilling, classic few minutes of film, like the snippets from early talkies that preserve some of the performance style of Louis Armstrong or Bessie Smith, and it was performed at a time when rock stars with a tenth of Jones’s gifts were making the term “drum solo” synonymous with “death by boredom.” In a famous blind taste test of then-hot rockers that Albert Goldman wrote up for Life, Jones expressed satisfaction with the work of Keith Moon with the simple words, “The man is a drummer.” That must have been like having God part the clouds, look down at you and nod, “This one I like.” (On the other hand, exposed to some jackass — i.e., Cream’s Ginger Baker — dishonoring his beloved instrument of choice, Jones shifted about painfully before offering the lost soul some much-needed career advice: “They should make him an astronaut and lose his ass.”)
Because people trying to use an inadequate set of signifiers like the English language to convey something of Elvin Jones invariably fall back on evocations of his power and personal majesty, it might be easy for the benighted to get the idea that he was some kind of showboater. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Although Jones’ own records as a bandleader were often less original and adventurous than the greatest records on which he served as a sideman, he had a complex and sophisticated sense of the whole picture, adapting himself to the needs of an awesome array of leaders: Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Sonny Rollins, Art Pepper, Ornette Coleman, Kenny Burrell, Stan Getz, Bill Evans, Chico Freeman, Wayne Shorter, Jaki Byard, David Murray, Wynton Marsalis, Sonny Sharrock, Bill Frisell and others. As Paul Rogers recently put it, “His special ability was to hear a group and maximize its impact.” Of course, it was the five years that he spent with John Coltrane’s classic 1960s quartet that nailed Jones’ name into music history and dared The Fates to wipe it away.
Born in Pontiac, Michigan, he was the younger brother of the pianist Hank Jones and the trumpeter Thad Jones. By his own account, the self-taught Elvin decided to devote himself to the drums when he was 13. After dropping out of high school after the 10th grade and serving a stint in the army, Elvin marinated in the lively Detroit jazz scene of the time until he was summoned to New York in 1955 for an audition with Benny Goodman’s band. He flunked it, which left him free to explore the wider possibilities of New York, including a stint with Charles Mingus, J. J. Johnson, and Harry “Sweets” Edison. By the time he hooked up with Coltrane in 1960, he had acquired a hard-won mastery that only asked for challenges worth rising to and an arena where this demonstration might take place. Coltrane was happy to comply.
Coltrane spent their years together straining at the boundaries of his music, always working to extend his reach. It must have been a source of great comfort to him to know that he could be as cerebral and experimental as he liked in that period, secure in the knowledge that he could count on Jones to supply the warmth — and the heat — that would connect the music to the listener emotionally. “If there is anything like perfect harmony in a human relationship,” Jones later said of his collaboration with Coltrane, “that was as close as you could come.” Without ever calling undue attention to himself, Jones powered the band, grounding the pieces with the flooring of a solid beat. And on a number like “Body and Soul,” his gentle, varied percussion work bathes the music in a dazzling spring rain of sound.
After leaving Coltrane, Jones positioned himself at the head of the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine, an ever-shifting rep company that gave him something to do between tours and appearances on other masters’ records, including Rollins’ Night at the Village Vanguard and Sharrock’s Ask the Ages. (He also enlivened such offbeat enterprises as Hoboken Saturday Night, the legendary cult record by rock critic Robert Palmer’s avant-rock outfit The Insect Trust, Allen Ginsberg’s spoken-word-with-jazz tribute record to William Blake, and Hal Wilner’s tribute to Thelonious Monk, where he backed up another recently deceased master, Steve Lacy, on “Evidence.” He also made a single record date with both his brothers, inevitably titled Keepin’ Up with the Joneses.)
He didn’t chase trends or court Hollywood or, from the looks of it, do much of anything besides work; he was a man who early in life had discovered his passion, and his determination to prove worthy of it tells us that he knew he’d lucked out in this. He had been ailing from heart disease for a while when he died, but he had dates booked through July. There are reports that he played a few recent dates with the aid of an oxygen mask and sometimes had to be helped on and off the stage by his wife Keiko, but the people I know who’d had the good fortune to see him play recently expressed surprise at his death; they hadn’t been able to see that he was sick. Doing what you born to, and doing it well — it keeps you young. At the very least, it gives you a special reason for being alive.