As Elvin Jones walked onto the stage to begin his PASIC 2002 clinic, he was greeted with a standing ovation that lasted for several minutes. I had witnessed the same thing a few months earlier, when Elvin performed at a jazz festival at the University of Louisville, and various acquaintances have told me of similar ovations that greeted Jones over the past few years at clubs, concerts, and clinics.
Colin Schofield, who got to know Elvin well during the time Colin worked for Zildjian, once remarked to me that in a different type of culture, Elvin would be regarded as a holy man. As I watched Elvin standing solemnly before the cheering PASIC crowd, looking both majestic and humble, I realized that to the percussion and jazz communities, that is exactly the way Elvin Jones was being regarded.
In the days following Elvin’s recent death, I read an article that contended that if Jones had never done anything other than play with John Coltrane, he would still be regarded as a jazz legend. That’s probably true, but it doesn’t completely explain those ovations Elvin was receiving. Elvin’s greatness went far beyond his tenure with Coltrane. Even after leaving Coltrane’s group in 1966, Elvin remained a force in modern jazz. Through his own bands he helped nurture the careers of countless musicians, providing them with experience and credibility. For young drummers, Elvin served as a role model, showing by example that the way to maintain a long career was by adhering to high artistic standards and by being an innovator, not an imitator.
His influence extended beyond jazz circles, and many notable rock drummers have expressed their admiration for Elvin in numerous MD interviews. The first time I met Elvin, in 1982, he was hanging out with Jaimoe from The Allman Brothers Band at the Professional Percussion Center in New York. The last time I saw him, a few hours after his PASIC 2002 clinic, he was having a spirited conversation with former Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels drummer Johnny “Bee” Badanjek. Keith Moon of The Who used to hang out with Elvin, and original Santana drummer Michael Shrieve was very close to Elvin.
Elvin had the highest respect of his peers as well. I’ll never forget a night at the Village Vanguard when Philly Joe Jones showed up to see Elvin. Between sets, the two sat in the Vanguard’s kitchen, talking and laughing like brothers. A couple of years later when Elvin was playing at the Blue Note, through sheer coincidence I ended up sharing a table with Max Roach, who watched Elvin with an expression of sheer delight, leaning over to tell me at one point, “There’s only one Elvin.”
Indeed, getting to know Elvin helped me realize one of the profound truths about the great musicians’that no amount of transcribing rhythms, pitches, or chord voicings will ever explain their artistry. You can talk all you want about Elvin’s polyrhythms, Elvin’s independence, Elvin’s “rolling and tumbling” triplets, Elvin’s power, etc. But what Elvin was really playing was his personality. Let’s face it, we’ve all heard drummers imitate the mechanics of Elvin’s playing, but have we ever been fooled for even a minute that we were hearing Elvin’ Hardly.
Elvin sometimes seemed to be doing battle with his drumset’thrashing the drums mercilessly, dueling with the cymbals. But he could also, as Adam Nussbaum once observed, play the cymbals so delicately that you would think they were made of crystal rather than metal. And he had this sort of evil way of swishing a brush across a drumhead so that it sounded like the hissing of a snake. And those vocal sounds he made – was he singing or cursing under his breath”
Speaking with Elvin was a lot like hearing him play. When he was excited about something, words poured out of him with gusto, like his solos and fills. When he felt deeply about something, he spoke in such a low tone that you often had to lean forward to hear him clearly. But then he would unexpectedly stress a word or phrase with the intensity of a rimshot. He was also famous for setting up a punchline with a delivery so deadpan that you thought he was serious, until laughter suddenly erupted from somewhere deep inside him and his face lit up with a grin that would make you laugh even when you didn’t quite understand the joke.
Elvin could be intimidating, to be sure. But anyone who knew him will attest to the warmth and love that poured out of him. Until the past couple of years, his standard way of greeting a friend was by engulfing the person in a bear hug and lifting him off the ground, often accompanied by a kiss on the cheek. One quickly learned to give Elvin a few minutes to dry off and change his shirt after a performance before getting one of those hugs. “Buddy Rich and I went to hear Elvin together in London,” Louie Bellson once told me. “After the set, we went back to the dressing room to say hello. As soon as he saw us, Elvin threw his arms around Buddy and picked him up. Elvin was dripping wet, of course, and Buddy was wearing a suede jacket,” Louie recalled, laughing. “That jacket was ruined!”
There are so many great Elvin stories, which will continued to be shared whenever people who knew him get together. One of my favorites was told to me by saxophonist Richard Torres, who had been on the Stan Kenton band with Peter Erskine in the early ’70s. As Richard and I waited for a Steely Dan concert to begin one night when Peter was touring with the group, he told me of going to see Elvin several years earlier. “I was sitting right in front of the drums,” he recalled. “During the first set, one of Elvin’s drumsticks broke, so he let the stick fall to the floor and pulled another one out of his stick bag without interrupting the flow of his drumming. When the set ended, I went over to where Elvin was standing behind the drums and said, as politely as I could, “Excuse me, Mr. Jones. I was wondering if I could have that broken drumstick.” Elvin looked at me with a fierce expression and said “NO!” I was in shock, thinking that, somehow, I had offended him. But then he reached down and pulled a good stick out of his bag, and with a big, sweet smile he said, ‘Take this one.'”