Friday, January 6, 2017

Elvin Jones : 1927-2004 - Poly, Multi and Counter Rhythmic Drummer

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


Elvin Jones is one of the most important drummers in the history of Modern Jazz.

Elvin Ray Jones was born September 9, 1927 in Pontiac, Michigan, the youngest of ten children. His father, originally from Vicksburg, Mississippi, was a lumber inspector for General Motors, a deacon in the Baptist church, and a bass in the church choir. "The greatest lady in the world", as Elvin describes his mother, encouraged him and above all taught him the value of self-sufficiency; the strength to survive that "was especially valuable to me in the beginning as a musician". Music was in full flower in the Jones home. Brother Hank is known as one of the finest pianists in jazz, and brother Thad became a highly successful trumpet and flugelhorn player, arranger and band leader.

By age 13, determined to be a drummer, Elvin was practicing eight to ten hours a day. He went everywhere with drumsticks in his pocket, and would beat out rhythms on any available surface. Early influences Elvin likes to cite range from Kenny Clarke, Max Roach and Jo Jones to parade drummers and the American Legion Drum Corps! In 1946 Elvin enlisted in the Army, and toured with a Special Services show called Operation Happiness - as a stagehand. Unofficially, however, he was honing his own musical skills and gaining confidence, playing at post social affairs.

Jones was discharged in 1949, returning to a Detroit musical scene that was as vibrant as any outside New York. His first professional job was at Grand River Street, where things went well until the leader absconded with the receipts on Christmas Eve, Elvin began to frequent the Bluebird Inn, where he was sometimes asked to sit in. He always refused, thinking "it was presumptuous to sit in with these musicians, because... they were the greatest people I knew." In time, tenor saxophonist Billy Mitchell hired Elvin, and in three years at the club he backed up visiting stars including the legendary Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt, Wardell Grey, and, for six months, Miles Davis, Additionally, Elvin organized Monday night jam sessions at his home, Tuesdays featured a concert series near a local university, and Elvin and his brother Thad promoted Sunday festival-style concerts.

Elvin made his move to New York ostensibly to audition for a new Benny Goodman band. Instead, he ended up with Charles Mingus, and in subsequent years he developed his style with Bud Powell, Miles Davis, the Pepper Adams-Donald Byrd Quintet, Art Farmer and J.J. Johnson. He also had his first experiences playing with Miles, tenor man and the increasingly celebrated recording artist John Coltrane. After leaving Miles in 1960, Coltrane was touring in San Francisco with his new group when he flew back to New York to seek out Elvin. Elvin joined one of Jazz’s most celebrated alliances in, of all places, Denver, Colorado.Of his relationship with Coltrane Elvin said: "Right from the beginning to the last time we played together it was something pure. The most impressive thing was a feeling of steady, collective learning... If there is anything like perfect harmony in human relationships, that band was as close as you can come".

The Coltrane Quartet with Elvin on drums, McCoy Tyner on piano and Jimmy Garrison on bass began a five-year association in 1960 that was to become one of the most significant in jazz history. The innovative performances and recordings of this group, led by Coltrane at the height of his powers, established the standard for excellence in the modal, open-form style of this period.

During his years with Coltrane Jones emerged as the premier jazz drummer of the 1960s, and brought his unique style to a state of maturity which irrevocably altered the nature of jazz drumming.

When Coltrane decided in 1966 to add a second drummer (Rashied Ali) to his ensemble, Jones, who found the arrangement incompatible with his musical ideas, left the group and joined Duke Ellington's orchestra briefly for a tour of Europe. He worked in Europe for a short while before returning to the USA, where he formed a series of trios, quartets, and sextets, occasionally in conjunction with Coltrane's former bass player Jimmy Garrison. These groups usually dispensed with a pianist, and characteristically consisted of one and often two saxophonists, a strong bass player, and Jones on drums; among the musicians who were Jones's most frequent sidemen were Joe Farrell, Frank Foster, George Coleman, Garrison, Wilbur Little, and Gene Perla. Jones's ensembles appeared throughout the USA and Europe and conducted major tours of South America and Asia.

In 1970 Jones appeared in the film Zachariah and in 1979 he was the subject of a documentary film, Different Drummer: Elvin Jones. He continued to pursue an active performing and recording career until his death on May 18, 2004.

Jones's style is a logical extension of the bop approach established by Kenny Clarke and Max Roach and modified by Art Blakey. In bop drumming a repeated rhythmic pattern is maintained only on the ride and hi-hat cymbals, the remaining instruments being used to mark the main structural divisions of the performance, to articulate the solo improvisation, and to interject counter-rhythmic motifs against the prevailing regular pulse. Blakey, while adhering to this general style, altered it by increasing the level of activity of the accompanying drums and utilizing a greater number of cross-rhythms in his interjected patterns.

Jones built on Blakey's techniques and added new ones to the extent that the fundamental role of the drummer changed from that of an accompanist to one of an equal collaborative improviser. Jones played several metrically contrasting rhythms simultaneously, each of which was characterized by irregularly shifting accents that were independent of the basic pulse. Of particular note is Jones's ingenious mixture of playing irregularly accented half-, quarter-, eighth-, and 16th-note triplet subdivisions over an extended period as a means of generating a wide array of polyrhythms. An excellent example of this technique may be heard on Nuttin out Jones from the Illumination  Impulse LP recorded by the Jones—Garrison Sextet in 1963. In addition Jones shaped the background counter-rhythmic motifs associated with bop drumming into extended coherent musical statements with a logical internal development of their own (a classic example may be heard in Part I: Acknowledgement on Coltrane's A Love Supreme).

Jones's techniques resulted in dense percussive textures characterized by greater diversity of timbre, heightened poly-rhythmic activity, and increased intensity and volume. Moreover, as the richness of these composite textures made it difficult to discern the basic pulse, they contributed to the development of a new style of "free improvisation" which underplayed or dispensed with regular pulse altogether (as on Coltrane's Ascension, 1965). The salient aspects of Jones's style were adopted by many avant-garde drummers of the late 1960s and the 1970s.

Ultimately Jones's innovations gave the drummer a broader role in ensemble playing, as a collaborative improviser, and as the principal architect of large-scale, organically evolving percussive textures, while removing the emphasis from his function as a timekeeper.

Up to 1960, modern Jazz drummers turned to Kenny Clarke, Max Roach, Art Blakey, and Philly Joe Jones for inspiration. Ever since 1960, they’ve turned to Elvin Jones with - if they are up to it - an explosive dab of Tony Williams on the side.

Select sources:

B. Jaspar, “Elvin Jones and Philly Joe Jones,” Jazz Review, ii/2 [1959]

R. Kettle, “Re. Elvin Jones - A Technical Analysis of the Poll-Winning Drummer’s Recorded Solos, Downbeat, xxxiii/16 [1966]

F. Kofsky, “Rhythmic Displacement in the Art of Elvin Jones,” Journal of Jazz Studies, iv [1977]

H. Howland, “Elvin Jones,”  Modern Drummer, iii/4 [1979]

Olly Wilson, “Elvin Jones,” Barry Kernfeld, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz [1995]


Elvin is featured on the following video montage as he performs Nellie Lutcher’s He’s A Real Gone Guy with pianist Phineas Newborn, Jr. and bassist Ray Brown.

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