Elvin Jones: Hall of Fame Drummer

Elvin Jones: Hall of Fame Drummer

Written by Anne E. Johnson

There must have been some great music at home when drummer Elvin Jones was growing up in Pontiac, Michigan. He and his brothers, trumpeter Thad and pianist Hank, all turned out to be first-rate jazz virtuosos.

As a child, Elvin Jones was thrilled by the sound of drums when parades came through his neighborhood, especially for the circus. In high school he got a chance to play in the marching band on borrowed drums, but it was when he got out of the Army in 1949 that he bought his own set and started getting serious about a music career. Soon he had a gig playing drums at a club in Detroit.

Then it was time for the inevitable move to New York. He showed up with the dream of playing for Benny Goodman. Goodman listened and said no thanks. But that blow may have been a blessing in disguise. By the mid-1950s, Jones was landing live and studio work with some heavy hitters, including Charles Mingus and Sonny Rollins. And the biggest opportunity of his career came in 1962: the role of drummer in the John Coltrane Quartet.

Although he split from the Coltrane group in 1966, Jones never lacked for work. Always happy to provide rhythm for friends’ projects, he made over 100 albums. In the early 1980s he started his own orchestra, the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine, which he kept going with often-changing personnel for nearly two decades. Hoping to pay his success forward, especially to the Black community, Jones often performed or taught in schools and prisons. He died in 2004 at the age of 76.

Enjoy these eight great tracks by Elvin Jones.

  1. Track: “Four and Six”
    Album: Elvin!
    Label: Riverside
    Year: 1962

Jones was backed by his brothers plus a handful of other solid sidemen on the Elvin! album. By this point he was well established in New York. By 1962, Riverside was reaching the end of its run as an influential jazz label. It went bankrupt in 1964. Co-founder Orrin Keepnews produced for Jones.

“Four and Six” is a tune by Oliver Nelson, a composer who played saxophone and clarinet. When Elvin! was in the works, Nelson was a particularly hot name on the jazz scene, thanks to his groundbreaking 1961 album The Blues and the Abstract Truth, on the Impulse! label. The sultry bassline on this track is provided by Art Davis.


  1. Track: “Tintiyana”
    Album: Midnight Walk
    Label: Atlantic
    Year: 1966

The Midnight Walk album finds Jones in a septet, including his brother Thad on trumpet. The tracks are mostly original material composed by individual members of the ensemble. Pianist Dollar Brand (later Abdullah Ibrahim) wrote “Tintiyana.”

Jones was noted for his love of polyrhythms. Brand’s piano introduction sets up at least two meters at once for the drummer to play with when he enters at 1:40, in what seems to be a third rhythmic pattern, while the horns deliver a melody in 6/8. The density of the resulting syncopation is dizzying.


  1. Track: “Shinjitu”
    Album: Coalition
    Label: “Blue Note”
    Year: 1970

In 1966 Jones married his second wife, Keiko Jones. The Japanese pianist would remain at his side, even touring with him, for the rest of Elvin’s life. Although her training was in classical music, she absorbed the jazz that surrounded her marriage and turned it into compositions for her husband.

One example is “Shinjitu,” the opening track on Coalition. Jones recorded this multiple times and performed it often, including at John Coltrane’s memorial service in 1967. The Asian-influenced melody is pentatonic, leaving out the second and sixth notes of the scale. Cuban percussionist Candido Camero provides the atmospheric tambourine.


  1. Track: “What’s Up? – That’s It”
    Album: Mr. Jones
    Label: Blue Note
    Year: 1973

Of the many records Jones made for Blue Note, Mr. Jones is one of the best. It’s produced by Blue Note regulars Francis Wolff (who also functioned as the label’s photographer) and George Butler. It’s a typically high-quality collection of musicians. This track is heavy on the saxophones: Pepper Adams plays baritone, Steve Grossman plays tenor, and Dave Liebman is on soprano. Jones’ drum set is enhanced by the percussion of Carlos Valdes and Frank Ippolito.

Gene Perla, who covers acoustic and electric bass for this album, composed the bebop tune “What’s Up? – That’s It.” Even if it’s  just to be amazed at Jones’ rhythm and volume control on the opening roll alone, this great piece is worth a listen.


  1. Track: “Inner Space”
    Album: The Prime Element
    Label: Blue Note
    Year: 1976

Blue Note rifled through its archives of unreleased material to put together The Prime Element, which consisted of studio tracks from 1969 and 1973. Given that the two-LP set featured only a couple of tracks per side, one wonders if these were tunes that spun out too long during sessions and wouldn’t fit on standard albums.

From the 1973 sessions comes Chick Corea’s “Inner Space.” It’s a dissonant post-bop exploration punctuated by Jones’ hi-hat work. George Coleman and Steve Farrell trade off tenor sax solos, and Lee Morgan makes a gorgeous appearance on trumpet. Starting around 4:40, Jones takes a solo, finding timbres and registers most people don’t even know are available on a drum kit.


  1. Track: “Moon Dance”
    Album: Time Capsule
    Label: Vanguard
    Year: 1977

For Time Capsule, Jones and company went for a funk vibe, a choice very much of its time in 1977.

Jones brushes the cymbals like they’re fairy wings on “Moon Dance.” This is not the Van Morrison song, but a bossa nova by alto saxophonist Bunky Green, who also plays here. There are also notable solos on electric piano by Kenny Barron and, perhaps the track’s highlight, by guitarist Ryo Kawasaki.


  1. Track: “Sweet Mama”
    Album: Very R.A.R.E.
    Label: Trio
    Year: 1980

Although the tracks for Very R.A.R.E. were recorded at the Van Gelder Studios in New Jersey where Jones often played, the album was first released on the Japanese Trio label. It represents a change from the many septet and octet albums of the 1970s, featuring only a traditional jazz quartet comprising Jones, Art Pepper on alto sax, Roland Hanna on piano, and Richard Davis on bass.

“Sweet Mama” is another Gene Perla tune. It’s designed like a rondo, with a recurring chorus in which the saxophone melody is divided into clear statements, laid against a rhythmically spidering drum part. Each time we hear that chorus, it’s followed by new, contrasting material.


  1. Track: “Bekei”
    Album: Momentum Space
    Label: Verve
    Year: 1998

Blue Note, Vanguard, Verve – Jones played for many of jazz’s top labels. Momentum Space, on Verve, is a trio effort co-starring Dewey Redman on saxophone and Cecil Taylor on piano. It is from very late in Jones’ career, when he was 70.

Most of the tracks are credited to Taylor, but Jones wrote the drums-only “Bekei.” This is mesmerizing, experimental stuff. The drums seem to become a living creature wandering, walking, running, crashing through a forest. The technique involved is truly astonishing.

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