Elvin Jones

by Harold Howland

Elvin JonesWhen one thinks of jazz, inevitably the name John Coltrane comes to mind. As a member of the John Coltrane Quartet, drummer Elvin Jones emerged as a prominent contributor to jazz drumming. Jones’ significance as a drummer stemmed from his unprecedented complexity of rhythmic independence, phrasing and tone color, synonymous with the Coltrane style.

Jones is noted for his continuous stream of evolving patterns and implied accents. His solos are masterfully constructed, laying to rest any lingering doubts regarding the musical integrity of the drum.

Born in Pontiac, Michigan on September 9, 1927, Jones played in Detroit bands with his brother Thad and Billy Milchell. He appeared at Newport in 1955 with Teddy Charles and Charlie Mingus. In the spring of ’56, Jones moved to NY to work with the Pepper Adams / Donald Byrd Quartet, Tyree Glenn, Bud Powell, etc.

Eventually, after playing with Coltrane for 6 years, in 1966, Jones became a leader of his own band. Always a small ensemble, his band has featured at various times, saxophonists Joe Farrell, Frank Foster, Steve Grossman, Dave Liebman; guitarists Ryo Kawasaki, Roland Prince: bassists Jimmy Garrision, Wilbur Little, Andv McCloud and David Williams. Although the typical Jones group is a pianoless quartet, sometimes featuring two reedmen, recent years have included performances by keyboardists Kenny Barron, Al Dailey, Jan Hammer and Masagumi Kikuchi.

Elvin’s set-up, which has not changed in over a decade, consists of a 5 1/2″ X 14″ wood snare drum, a 14″ X 18″ bass drum. 8″ X 12″, 9″ X 13″, 16″ X 16″ and 16″ X 18″ tom-toms; 14″ hi-hat cymbals (thin top, heavy bottom); a 20″ heavy cymbal and two 20″ medium cymbals, each with rivets. Jones periodically changes the sequence of his 20″ cymbals in order to allow each instrument to speak differently in various patterns and contexts.

HH: It’s said that you’re a self-taught drummer. What was your early study like?

EJ: I wasn’t given any private instruction while going through school. I went to the public schools. All the kids in the class who didn’t have private instruction relied on wit and effort. We could have taken lessons from the high school drummers for 50 cents an hour, but most didn’t have the 50 cents. We had a good band instructor, Fred N. Weist. He was a fine teacher. He’s still teaching in the public schools in Oakland, California.

Our standards in southern Michigan were quite a bit higher than the average junior high or high school. The things we did were equivalent to the second year of a conservatory. Competition raged throughout the Midwest area. In the Midwest they considered music one of the more important subjects. During the Depression it was quite an accomplishment just to get through school. When you got out of high school, what the hell did you do but go to work for General Motors in a factory. That was the kind of life you expected.

HH: You’re a prime contributor to the development of a wider concept of time-keeping. How do you view the drummer’s traditional role in this respect?

EJ: None of the essential things about being a drummer has changed. The drummer should be a time-keeper, and be conscious of his role as an accompanist.

Time exists for me the same as it does for everyone else. The difference is the way time is utilized. I’m not doing anything different from anyone else. I just do it my way. Jazz is a personalized art form and can be applied to individuals. This is what makes it such a great form of expression.

A drummer can also have aspirations towards being a soloist. Throughout the world percussion is coming to the fore and being accepted as a highly sophisticated field. We can all get our heads down and start thinking about the kinds of solos that we’re going to play. This is something that is going to occupy our thoughts for the next two or three generations. When one says “solo” that’s quite a big word. You think about all the other solo instruments and what can be accomplished with them. This challenge is something that we can accept with gratitude and a deep sense of responsibility.

HH: Your solos have distinct, poetic qualities. The turning points and moments of reflection, tension, and release flow together to create a clear impression of you as a storyteller.

EJ: When I was a young man, my parents and their peers had ways of encouraging the young people, and there was an expression they would use: “Tell your story.” What the people meant was, “Do it your way and make it for all of us.” This is the way I believe a song is supposed to be rendered, whether it is a drum song or a saxophone song or any other. The composition should be expressed in a form that can be recognized as a story. If that’s what people are hearing, then that means I’m doing it!

HH: You sing to yourself much of the time when you play. Do you sing anything in particular?

EJ: I think it started when I would go through my exercises late at night on the drum pad. Instead of hitting a cymbal or reading a rest, I would sometimes make a noise with my mouth. This would create a kind of continuity for me. It was a habit I got into way back then and it’s never left. I sometimes make these sounds, but can’t sit down and relate them to the piece.

HH: What are your ideas on tuning the drum set?

EJ: Playing, as I do, in a small-group format most of the time, it’s better to set up a very basic tone pattern. What that pattern is depends on the individual. It should be your foundation, something that you can recognize. If you’re going to build a pattern around these pitches and you recognize them, you can use them more intelligently. The whole time I’ve been doing it the bass drum is around a G. I try to get the tom-toms a third or a fourth from that. That’s the formula. This is something very fundamental and I don’t think that it requires a great deal of fine-tuning. It happens without your thinking about it.

You want to get all of the tone-quality, richness, depth and fiber that you possibly can generate out of the drum. But lately, I’ve been running across drum sets belonging to young people where it feels as though that’s the opposite of what they want to get. All these fine qualities of sound have been sacrificed for a sort of uniformity they get when the front head is cut off. All the drums sound very dead, which is conducive to that very simple pattern that they use for a rock beat. It doesn’t require any tone quality — that’s interesting.

HH: Your set-up is somewhat unusual in that your bass drum is smaller than your largest tom-tom. How did you arrive at this?

EJ: I think Max Roach and Art Blakey first came out with that 18″ bass drum. The drum I was using before was a 22″. I went from a 22″ to the 18″ 17 years ago. It’s less boomy and very practical, it packs up and fits right into the trunk of your car. For small groups traveling around, it takes off a little of the dreariness of hauling the stuff. The difference in sound is insignificant.

I used to carry the 14″ X 14″ tom-tom, but I stopped. By using the 16″ and the 18″ I get the same sound pattern with more timbre.

HH: You selected your cymbals at the warehouse, but there are those who say that one isn’t much more likely to get great cymbals that way than by going to a drum shop. How do you feel about this?

EJ: My reason for going through the warehouse was more for the purpose of identification than anything else. I wanted to be able to say with a degree of certainty that this dimension would give you this sound. I don’t think it’s possible for everybody to go through a warehouse full of cymbals, but I can assure you that there are certain dimensions of cymbals that give certain specific sounds. I can use this knowledge in my own set-up. I know what to expect from certain dynamic intensities and mallet responses, and I can vary the tone-quality of the room tremendously by having that underlying knowledge.

HH: I’ve known that you do drum clinics, and yet I don’t believe that you’re especially well-known in America as a clinician. What are your activities in this area?

EJ: I always let people know that I’m available and that I want to involve myself in it, but in this country they never really organize them properly.

In April 1977, when I was in Japan, I did six drum clinics. The minimum amount of people to attend one was about six hundred. What’s important about a drum clinic is that the kids don’t go to be snowed, they want to learn something. It doesn’t have to be conducted by a well-known drummer, it can be anyone competent enough to get people over their fright; to perform and enjoy it. You don’t have to be a great star to put on a drum clinic, you just have to be sincere.

HH: Your wife Keiko is very visible at your performances, setting up and tuning the drums and keeping things under control. How did she become this involved with your career?

EJ: I could never begin to tell you of the help that she’s given to me because of her intense interest.

Even before she met me, Keiko was a great jazz fan. She had one of the best and most extensive collections of jazz recordings in Japan. She was an authority among connoisseurs. There was no mercenary attitude, people who loved the art would use their private resources to accumulate this material, and it would run into considerable expense. When I first visited her home in Nagasaki, it was like walking into a radio station. There was this fantastic hi-fi equipment and thousands of records that she had accumulated since childhood. I was very impressed. And her taste has always
been excellent.

After we became involved, she’d be right there and would pitch in when I was going to set up my drums. Now she can set them up quicker than I can. She also tunes the drums, changes the heads, sets up the stage, and sound system. Keiko is not just some pretty little girl messing around, she knows what she’s doing and does it very well.

HH: Tell me about two of the lesser-known episodes from your experience, your brief tour with Duke Ellington, and the film Zachariah. in which you acted

EJ: The same day that I left Coltrane, Duke called me from Spain, saying that he would like me to join them and finish this European tour. I was able to say yes, and met them in Germany. When I got there, he already had a drummer, the same set-up I had just left with John, two drummers on stage. I really could never generate any enthusiasm for that idea, it’s not musical. On quite good terms, I told Duke, ‘I like you, I like the band, but I don’t see myself being cast in this role again.’

Zachariah was billed as the first electric western. I co-starred, playing the part of a gunfighter — a gunfighter-drummer. After the gunfight in the saloon, I went over to the drum set and played a solo! It was a crazy movie, but a great experience. It was always my secret ambition as a kid to be a cowboy — who doesn’t want to be a cowboy? The film has been shown all over the world. Maybe they’ll revive it. I hope they do.

HH: Looking back on your youth in Pontiac, how would you describe your opportunities to experience jazz then as compared with the situation of young Americans today?

EJ: Next to church music, jazz music was the next thing on the social order. It was something people did, and it was utilized and accepted as part of our free expression. It made you feel, like the church music. It had those deep, emotional overtones. That’s what made us interested in it.

Elvin JonesThere were a lot of great bands at that time; all the big bands were flourishing. The industry was very strong. Jazz, vaudeville, burlesque, it was all there, and they had very hip radio programs. This music was getting to everybody, and that’s the greatest thing that could have happened to anybody at that time. It isn’t happening now. There’s a lot of great music, but it isn’t available; one almost has to be a connoisseur.

Americans still have that old thing where we don’t know whether it’s good enough for our kids. We’re so full of prejudice, it’s shameful. As much as we try to say we’re not, we are, and it spills over into areas where we could do so much good. The music is the validity of the art form; a contribution to the world.

I think we’ve made great progress educationally. There are dozens of universities here in the United States that have jazz studies courses. Twenty years ago that didn’t exist. Let’s face it, that’s progress!

But it’s got to be supported and this tremendous vacuum must be filled by public acceptance that gets the man in the street involved. Let’s make it a byword of our language, and then we’ve got it made. I’m pretty sure we’re going to do it, but it’s going to take a lot of effort, and a lot of people have to make a commitment. We have to commit ourselves.

I’m not going to lose my enthusiasm, not for a moment.


Elvin…on Coltrane


Elvin Jones, in an interview with Herb Nolan, Down
Beat. November 8, 1973:

“I don’t know how you can explain it,…What, for example, would be the greatest thing to happen for a kid? It was like a young boy going to the circus and stopping at the stand that is selling cotton candy and ice cream cones. It was that kind of feeling.”

Elvin, with Herb Nolan, December 15, 1977:
… “It certainly was one of the most significant things that ever happened to me. Thank God I had that association.
I think it gave me such a clear insight into myself and my approach to music. I know it didn’t happen when I was playing with other people. I’m not saying it wouldn’t have, but I know it didn’t. That Coltrane group gave me a whole new universe of possibilities to explore as well as my full capacity as a musician. I think it’s a beautiful thing when you can use all the knowledge you have and apply that in a context that works…

…”We were all good friends. We would probably have been good friends if we had met under other circumstances. It was one of those things where you meet a person and feel like you’ve known him all your life…

… “The whole time I was there, no one really told me what to play or how to play it. Like, we played My Favorite Things about 10,000 times, but the first time we played it, he didn’t tell me it was going to be in three quarter time — we just started playing. … I never saw a sheet of music the whole time I was in that group. I think John had a notebook in which he used a system of dots. It was very small — it looked like an address book. I’d see him with it sometimes and get a glimpse of it every now and then, and it was just full of dots, like braille. I guess that was his music notation code. I don’t know where the hell that book is now…

…”It was the individuals that made it such a perfect situation for the drums — and for me as the controller of the instrument…”

Elvin Jones