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NEW YORK — Even before you enter the jazz section of Tower Records in lower Manhattan, the thunder of Elvin Jones commands the staircase. Listening to a Jones drum solo, the staff and patrons appear transfixed. “That’s one of my favorite solos,” salesman Carl Jefferson tells his colleague Duane Eubanks, as Jones rages with Trane on “Out of This World.”
“We’ve been playing Elvin all day, ever since we heard of his transition,” Jefferson continues. After months of failing health, Jones, 76, died last week — on May 18 — in Englewood, N.J.
“He was as strong as an ox,” says Eubanks, a part-time store employee and a trumpeter who recently concluded a year-long stint with Jones. “It all started in Tokyo where he spent two months in the hospital. But by the top of April he was playing again.”
Jones was performing, but often with the assistance of an oxygen tank on the stage. “That he was willing to continue to perform is a testament to both his strength and will,” Eubanks adds.
Strength, will and endurance were evident almost from the start of Jones’ remarkable career. “I started beating on pots and pans when I was about 3 years old,” Jones said in an interview several years ago. As a teenager he began performing with his older brothers, trumpeter Thad (who died in 1986) and pianist Hank, in their hometown of Pontiac and in Detroit.
From 1946 to 1949, Jones honed his skills in the Army as a member of military bands. Home from the service, he resumed playing with his brother Thad. In the early 1950s he replaced Art Mardigan in tenor saxophonist Billy Mitchell’s ensemble, which was the house band at the Bluebird Inn, located on Detroit’s West Side.
“Elvin was a formidable musician with a full comprehension of various drum styles,” recalls Yusef Lateef, now a professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, back then one of the notables who often performed at the inn with Jones. “All of the top artists who visited the club and sat in were amazed by his prowess.”
It wasn’t long before Jones’ reputation had spread beyond Detroit, and by the mid-’50s he was in that exodus of musicians who left the city for the Big Apple. Given the growing community of former Detroiters in New York City — including his brothers, Donald Byrd, Paul Chambers and Doug Watkins — his connections made gigs easy to come by. Soon he was a regular with such jazz immortals as Charles Mingus, Bud Powell and Stan Getz.
When Jones became a member of John Coltrane’s quartet in the fall of 1960, he was but a few concerts and recording dates from the pinnacle of his artistic and commercial popularity. As the propulsive force on Trane’s My Favorite Things, Jones soared to the top of the jazz polls, which he commanded for several years. “I especially like his ability to mix and juggle rhythms,” Coltrane told jazz writer Nat Hentoff. “He’s always aware of everything else that’s happening. I guess you could say he has the ability to be in three places at the same time.”
“It was basically a matter of rapport with the quartet,” Jones remembered of the group, which included bassist Jimmy Garrison and pianist McCoy Tyner, now the only surviving member of the band. “Things came together in a physical, intellectual and emotional way that surpassed anything that ever happened to me. It felt like a perfect blend, a joy. It was always a joy to play, in a recording studio or a nightclub. It was the same feeling, in front of a large audience or no one at all. Music was our sole purpose.”
Despite the group’s musical affinity, there were times when Jones either arrived late or didn’t show at all for a performance. An instance of his tardiness occurred in the early 1960s at the Minor Key, one of Detroit’s legendary clubs on the West Side. “I was there with Freddie Waits just to hear them,” George Goldsmith, a local drummer, recalls. “When Elvin didn’t show on time, I sat in, though I was plenty scared playing with Trane. It went all right, but soon Elvin showed up, took his seat behind the drums, and proceeded to burn.”
But sometimes Jones arrived late with a purpose. “I was performing with Nina Simone one time in Chicago and she shared the bill with trumpet master Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison,” drummer Ben Riley tells the Metro Times. “Jones was Sweets’ drummer and he deliberately showed up late one evening so that I could play with Sweets. He was that kind of a guy.”
After his tenure ended with Trane in 1966, not long before the leader’s death in the summer of 1967, Jones continued his explosive, take-no-prisoners approach with an assortment of Trane-like tenormen. Steve Grossman, Joe Farrell, Sonny Fortune and George Coleman were some of the players caught in the eye of his storm.
“But he was capable of playing very tenderly and expressively with brushes,” says jazz aficionado Jefferson. “Listen to him on ‘My Ship,’ which was one of his favorite tunes, or some of Duke’s ballads.”
Through the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, Jones maintained a rigorous schedule of recording and concert dates, touring with his Jazz Machine band, with the assistance of his muse, general manager and wife Keiko, a native of Japan. “In Japan they worship Elvin,” says former Detroiter and New York-based pianist Rod Williams. “They have named a school after him in Nagasaki, where he has a home. Most of the drummers in Japan try to emulate him. I know one who carries Elvin’s picture around with him in his wallet.”
“They may try to copy him, but that will be very difficult because Elvin’s style is organic and so deeply personal that it’s hard to capture,” Goldsmith explains. “His polyrhythms were uniquely his.”
While many of his peers agree that he reached his peak during his years with Coltrane, others said he was actually a more mature and consistent player in his later years. “Listen to him with his brother Hank and bassist Richard Davis on The Great Jazz Trio’s Autumn Leaves,” Eubanks suggests, referring to a 2002 session recently released on the 441 Records label. “This is the quintessential Elvin.”
Commenting on his age and longevity, Jones told a reporter a year ago that while in Africa, “I saw men older than I was ... on a stage. Not only did they play, but they danced. And they would leap above the stage 3 feet in the air with the drums. And those drums are heavy, you know? For hours! They wouldn’t think anything of it. Because it’s what they did. They don’t do anything else. That’s what they live for. That’s their life.”
And the drums were Elvin Jones’ life.
Herb Boyd's biography of Sugar Ray Robinson will be published in the winter. He's collaborating with Yusef Lateef on a book of Lateef’s memoirs for University of Michigan Press. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.