Jazz Legend Elvin Jones
Jones, who died on Tuesday aged 76, was among the handful of truly
great jazz drummers and a member of the John Coltrane Quartet
in the early 1960s; indeed, it is impossible to imagine the music
of Coltrane at the peak of his career without the surging energy
of Jones's drums - the interaction between them was so intense
that there were times when Jones dictated the course of the performance.
In both style and technique Jones owed virtually nothing to his
predecessors. Before him, jazz drumming had developed on the basis
of regular, interlocking patterns; with Jones there was no discernible
pattern, yet out of his apparently random assault on the kit emerged
an irresistible, rolling pulse. Again, whereas previous drummers
had worked from a basis of four crotchets to the bar, Jones built
his style on triplets, which gave a dense texture to his playing.
Despite the energy which he radiated, his body remained so relaxed
that he seemed almost to be playing in slow motion. This relaxation
extended to his personality: he had effortless charm and a warm,
self-deprecating sense of humour; he always wore a broad smile
Elvin Ray Jones was born at Pontiac, Michigan, on September 9
1927, the youngest of three brothers all of whom grew up to become
prominent jazz musicians - the other two were the trumpeter and
bandleader Thad Jones and the pianist Hank Jones. Elvin took up
the drums when he was 13 and began playing professionally while
still at high school. From 1946 to 1949 he served in the US Army,
playing in military bands.
On his return to civilian life, Jones joined his brother Thad
in a series of local bands, and this culminated in a residency
at the Bluebird Club, Detroit, where he had the opportunity to
accompany a series of visiting jazz stars. From there he joined
a quartet led by the bassist Charles Mingus, which appeared at
the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival. Moving to New York the following
year, Jones began playing and recording with many of the leading
jazz figures of the day, including J J Johnson, Bud Powell and
Harry "Sweets" Edison.
In 1960 he joined the John Coltrane Quartet, making his first
record with the band, the album My Favorite Things.
This marked the debut of the partnership between Jones and Coltrane's
new pianist, McCoy Tyner. With the addition of the bassist Jimmy
Garrison the following year, the classic quartet was complete.
Over the next five years it recorded the series of albums which
were to make it one of the most influential ensembles in jazz
history. These included Africa: Brass; Live At The Village
Vanguard; Afro-Blue Impressions;
Ballads; Crescent; and Coltrane's acknowledged
masterpiece, A Love Supreme.
It has been said that "even extreme familiarity fails to
tarnish A Love Supreme", and that it is "without precedent
or parallel". It is certainly a great work of almost frightening
concentration and intensity. It was recorded at the end of 1964,
after which Coltrane began to show signs of restlessness with
the format he had created. He started adding other musicians and
experimenting with form until, in late 1965, Jones felt he had
no further role to play and left the group.
He briefly worked with Duke Ellington, joining his orchestra in
early 1966 for a European tour, and those who heard Jones maintain
that he made a substantial contribution to Ellington's music.
He did not, however, feel happy with the idea of constant touring
with a large organization, and elected to stay on in Europe when
the tour finished.
On returning to America, Jones formed the first of the series
of small bands which he would lead for the rest of his career.
He soon abandoned the idea of employing a pianist, because of
the woeful state of the pianos in most jazz clubs. Accordingly,
his bands often consisted of himself, a bass player and one or
two wind players. He took on many young musicians early in their
careers and gave them valuable exposure. Among these were the
saxophonists Dave Liebman, Pat LaBarbera and Joe Farrell, and
the trumpeters Wallace Roney and Nicholas Payton.
With his bands, sometimes known as the Jazz Machine, Jones toured
worldwide, always accompanied by his Japanese wife, Keiko, whom
he met while touring Japan in the 1970s. Every performance was
preceded by the arrival of Keiko on stage to tune the drums. She
was the only person he trusted to perform this task. Wherever
he appeared, Jones was always closely followed by aspiring drummers.
He set the highest standards of technique and uncovered possibilities
in multi-layered rhythms which are still being explored.
Elvin Jones had suffered from ill health for several months. He
continued to perform until only a few weeks ago, often taking
an oxygen tank on to the bandstand.