What would Elvin Jones’ drums say if they could talk? How would they describe their relationship with Elvin? Would they speak fondly of the times they have been caressed by their master—the times he has used mallets and brushes to bring forth their most delicate sounds? Or would they painfully recall the times Elvin has assaulted them with his sticks—almost daring them to respond and hold up under the barrage of ideas and rhythms that seem to literally explode from him? Perhaps they would try to explain “Jonesy’s” exuberance when he plays, and how he transmits that in a way that makes them sing. Or possibly they would fear Elvin, because they never know what he is going to demand from them next; what limits he is going to try and push them beyond. Elvin Jones’ drums might speak of any or all of these things. And yet, I suspect they would speak of Elvin with love, for despite the seeming abuse he subjects them to, he is one of the very few drummers who allows them to reach their full potential.
RM: Musicians talk a lot about the people who influenced them, but often, they simply tell who the people were, without explaining exactly what is was that they got from these people. When a drummer says that he was influenced by another drummer, I think a lot of people take that to mean that he actually tried to imitate that drummer’s style in some way, but is that what it really should mean to be influenced by someone?
EJ: To me, “influenced” means “encouraged” in some way. It doesn’t necessarily follow that you have to adapt that person’s style, or that person’s habits, or whatever. It’s simply that this particular individual—or those people or that group—inspired you. They gave you that extra push of an intangible something that we all need to keep going; to take another step. And it doesn’t have to be a musician—it can be your mother. In my case it certainly is. Also my father. Certainly no one could influence me more than he did because I thought he was an exceptional man. I like to believe that I’ve got at least a little bit of his strength. So I’m influenced by him as far as my character is concerned.
Of course, when you’re talking about musicians and music, people tend to think, like you said, that your influences have to be people whom you should play like or emulate in some way. But that isn’t the way I choose to take influences. The great psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan had a theory that we are all part of our environment in the way that our interpersonal relationships affect the molding of our characters. So as far as music is concerned, you have to be influenced by a little bit of everything. We hope that when our final musical character is mature, it will be individual, but part of that gigantic whole.
I suppose you can pin it down more specifically as to say, “Who do you like?” or “Who did you listen to the closest?” That’s another approach to it. So in that sense, I listened to Duke Ellington, Jo Jones, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, and everybody who played in a band and who I thought was a master of the instrument. There are a lot of people whose names I can’t even recall right now but who probably had a great deal to do with molding my musical character. And it’s not just drummers. My brother Hank, for instance, gave me a great lesson one day when he made me play along with an Art Tatum record. You see, there are lessons all around us. If someone really wants to learn how to function on an instrument; how to understand and get some insight into the instrument’s capabilities and into one’s own approach to the instrument, then influences can come from any source. I don’t think it necessarily has to follow that it has to come from someone who has mastered that instrument per se. I think it can be from any source. Usually it’s a musical source, because that’s the environment.
Another important source for me was my band master in junior high school, Fred N. Weist. He had such a strong character that one wanted to be like him. Some teachers have that, whatever it is. Charisma, perhaps. But anyway, the students want so much to as something perfect. So he was one of these people who bring out in a student the desire to do well. I thank God that I was fortunate enough to have the experience of being under his influence in my formative years.
RM: You referred to the drummers you admired as being masters of the instrument. So you didn’t necessarily want to play like Krupa, for instance, you simply wanted to master the instrument as he had done.
EJ: Exactly. The thing is, we have to learn to respect that which is an accomplished fact. Krupa was a man who, to use the vernacular, had “paid his dues.” There’s no question about his ability; there’s no question about the fact that he studied and worked very hard to accomplish the things he did; there’s no question that he was outstanding and exceptional. He was a master, and I admire that. He certainly was part of my development; part of the reason for me being persistent in my pursuit of knowledge through the drums.
RM: In the documentary film you did [A Different Drummer: Elvin Jones], you said that when you first started out, the word was out that you were hard to play with because of your style. Did you ever have doubts about whether you were doing the right thing?
EJ: No, I never questioned it. I knew I was doing the right thing. I also knew that it sounded complicated, but it was only an appearance of complication—it wasn’t really. It wasn’t status quo, so to speak, but I didn’t feel that it was all that different. I grew up with the old methods and learned them, and then I had to reject them. Not really reject, but rather I chose to use the parts of them that suited me, which isn’t exactly a rejection. I think it’s an improvement. It adds more responsibility to the drummer, but it also offers greater opportunities. When approached properly, it broadens the musical scope of the player, and it has to be musical—it can’t be an ego trip, something used to show off someone’s personal achievement. It’s not that kind of thing because it’s not a gimmick. It’s an addition to the responsibility that drummers have to eventually accept. One of the responsibilities involves being flexible enough to support the soloist within the full range of support. You won’t be just following the soloist, but rather, you will become a partner.
It didn’t seem logical to me that the music we were playing could be approached I any other way, and still have logical conclusions. Music has to be logical, I think. No matter how complex it is, it’s still based on logic.
RM: When you were first doing this and people didn’t understand it, did you ever actually lose gigs?
EJ: Well, I’ll put it this way: my telephone didn’t ring as often as it could have. But one never knows; maybe they just didn’t know about me. I don’t think it’s that important now, but at the time…it’s hard for a young person when you feel that what you’re doing is correct, but you’re not fully accepted. I’m sure, though, that Monk and Miles and everybody else who has ever had new ideas has had the same experience. So this was simply my turn to have that experience. I look at it like that.
There were certain people who accepted my approach with a lot of grace. I worked with Harry “Sweets” Edison for a while, and from all appearances, he is absolutely “old school.” It used to be a popular thing to “trade fours,” and I could never lose Sweets. He would always know exactly what I was doing because he was counting. It was as simple as that. No matter what you do inside that four-bar structure—no matter how complex it is—there’s a time frame there. There’s a certain amount of time between the first beat of a four-bar section and the first beat of the next four bars. Some people choose to not bother to count, so when something complex was played, it would throw them off and make it seem difficult. The time I was with Harry gave me renewed confidence in myself. Sometimes you have to wonder. You think, “I can’t be that wrong; not all the time.” You’re playing along and suddenly you hear the beat backwards and you know you haven’t changed anything.
RM: That’s why I asked you if you had ever had doubts.
EJ: Certainly I wondered, but on the other hand, I knew that I was right. So my doubts were only momentary, if at all. I was too busy to worry about it. I still had to practice everyday; I still had to see to it that I paid my rent, got my clothes cleaned, ate properly, and all the other things it takes to live in a big city. So I wasn’t discouraged that much.
RM: So you didn’t have to compromise your style just to work?
EJ: No, not at all. But then, I wasn’t stupid either. It depends on who you’re playing with, and you have to be the judge of that. On some gigs, believe me, you just play it the way the bandleader calls it and leave it at that. Don’t try to fight the system. Go ahead and make your Union scale and tomorrow’s another day. Look at it that way, which isn’t compromising; it’s simply that you’re being sensible—you’re being realistic. So there is that phase of it as well. You have to be realistic, but you still have to stick to your principles.
I don’t mean to say that it was that much of a struggle. I’ve enjoyed every minute of my career and I still do. The early days were very exciting. There was a lot of very exciting music being played then, and everybody was excited by it. There were also a lot of people listening to the music and identifying with it. So I think there’s a great strength in that kind of support.
RM: And then I suppose you got a lot of support from people like your brothers.
EJ: Of course. I never got any discouragement. Like that song, “Home On The Range”: [sings] “Where never is heard a discouraging word.” That’s what I got from my family. They always encouraged me. That’s really what you get from your family—moral support. Getting that pat on the back when you know you need it, and they know you need it, and it makes you feel good. You can go out and struggle along again for another year, or however long it takes you to get back home again. So in a nutshell, I didn’t have too much cause for concern at that time. Things happened too quickly. I was very involved in doing; not in self-analysis.
RM: It would be ridiculous to refer to a piano as being a collection of eighty-eight instruments, and yet, many people seem to think of a drumset as being a collection of instruments. They talk about the function of the cymbal, and the function of the bass drum, and so on, as though these things were not connected. You seem to play the set as though it is one instrument.
EJ: It is one instrument, and I would hasten to say that I take that as the basis for my whole approach to the drums. It is a single musical instrument of several components. Naturally, you’ve got tom-toms scattered around, and the snare drum is in front of you, and the bass drum is down there, and you have cymbals at different levels. But all in all, just as a piano is one instrument, a drumset is one instrument. That is not to say that the cymbal isn’t an instrument. But in order for it to be an instrument you have to use it as an instrument. They are individual instruments if you have them set up that way and you have a tom-tom player and a bass drum player and so on. Okay, then they are individual instruments. It just depends on how one chooses to apply it. So I think that’s probably where people get confused.
In a dance band (to use that phrase), or a jazz band—small group, big band, combo, or as college kids call them, “stage bands”—then this is a single instrument. You can’t isolate the different parts of the set any more than you can isolate your left leg from the rest of your body. Your body is one, even though you have two legs, two arms, ten fingers, and all of that. But still, it’s one body. All of those parts add up to one human being. It’s the same with the instrument. People are never going to approach the drumset correctly if they don’t start thinking of it as a single musical instrument.
We live in a world where everything is categorized and locked up into little bitty compartments. But I have to insist that the drumset is one. This is the way it should be approached and studied and listened to, and all of the basic philosophies should be from that premise. If you learn it piecemeal, that’s the way you’re going to play it. You have to learn it in total.
Perhaps a good comparison would be the way some arrangers can blend everything together so that no matter how many instruments are in the band or orchestra, you will find yourself hearing everything without consciously trying to do so. I think this is because it’s been so skillfully done that the music comes to you as a total experience. This, of course, is one of the beauties of classical music. It’s a phenomenon how the great masters applied their skill. The music was written so completely and so thoroughly that when it was played, people came away having experienced the whole composition. This is the same principle that drummers have to use in their concept of the instrument. No matter how many components, it can certainly be played as a single instrument and blended with any combination of instruments.
RM: Did you have anyone to tell you that when you were young?
EJ: No. No one ever did. They used to call it “traps.” I suppose they called it that because it dated back to the old street musicians: “Here come the music makers and their trappings.” They would have bells and tambourines and things and these were considered trappings. So I suppose that’s where the term originated.
The drumset as we know it now has only been in existence since about the early ’30s. This is a relatively new art form that we are involved with. And it’s an American art form, I might add. Some people might argue about that, but that’s what I believe, and I’ll live with that. So anyway, I think that people who intend to learn how to play this instrument have to start regarding it for what it is. Until then, they’re never going to be able to listen to it properly; they won’t be able to hear the total picture. So that should be of primary importance to all teachers and instructors from now on, into the future. We must take the correct look at the instrument so that we can begin to develop ways of using it properly.
RM: A lot of people still start with a snare drum, and the rest of the set is added later. Would you start someone on a full set?
EJ: Because of the expense involved, I don’t think you should give a young kid a $2,000 drumset. I mean, that’s ridiculous. But I think there could be teaching aids to employ all of the coordination and all of the reasons for the coordination. Give them something that would make them appreciate the values that are there. You can build almost anything nowadays, so I think the drum companies could build a beginner’s model so they could develop coordination from a very early stage. It would be a real asset to teachers. Naturally, the first step would be to accept the “one instrument” theory. That has to come first. I believe the rest would follow.
RM: There seems to be an emphasis with drummers to be more concerned with technique rather than with musicality. Why are drummers so prone to this?
EJ: That is a problem. I think students get the notion that they have to prove something, and they have to show progress. They have to justify the time they have spent with some kind of a display: “Look. I’ve been practicing for two years and I can now play 2,000 paradiddles in five minutes.” Another thing is that this has become economically feasible for publishers. There are a thousand books out showing you how to strengthen this, and build that, and if you do this exercise you’ll be able to play these speed beats, and if you do this you’ll be able to sound like Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa and everybody rolled into one! It’s kind of an exhibitionist attitude that prevails, and people get completely away from what drumming is really about. The drums should be as musically supportive of a composition as the rest of the instruments. And this should be normal—this shouldn’t be something exceptional. When you hear a drummer playing musically, you shouldn’t say, “Oh my! Isn’t that un usual?” It should be normal. It’s a musical instrument, playing with other musical instruments. It should all be one, big, happy, musical thing. But for some reason, it isn’t. For some reason, a lot of drummers are turned away from the natural course of things.
I’ve noticed with my own students that the first thing some of them want to do is play a drum solo. They don’t even want to base it on a composition. They just want to hit everything in sight, play as fast and loud as possible, say “thank you,” take a bow and walk off the stage. This is very prevalent. I don’t know what to do about it, or even what to say.
RM: As you said, playing musically should be natural. But yet, I frequently hear people express amazement over the fact that when you solo, they can hear where you are in the tune. Again, it’s based on something simple—you base your solo on the melody. Why have people lost sight of the most obvious things?
EJ: Well, I don’t know if I can answer that. I would like to know that myself, as a matter of fact. I wish someone would tell me. But nevertheless, the fact remains that many people have. Or else they just don’t bother to think about it. I think we all have to constantly remind ourselves, and be reminded, of the realities. I think we need to do more things to pass on our concerns about the course of our development. We need to keep up with things and have conscious aids that will tell us what the heck it is that we’re doing wrong and where we should go, and some suggestions, at least, as to how to correct some of the mistakes we keep making. Your title, “Modern Drummer,” suggests the future, or at least something very current. So if we take care of what’s going on now, then the future will take care of itself as well, because we’re talking about the future.
RM: Are there, then, any guidelines you could offer in terms of playing musically?
EJ: The only guideline you can have that I think is practical is that you know the composition well enough that you know the form— you know when the bridge is coming up, and so on. After that, it’s enough to allow yourself to be guided by the soloist and follow your instinctive understanding of the instrument in the support of that soloist. When you work with a group of people for any length of time, rapport develops between the individuals. The longer they work together, the deeper this rapport can go. Sometimes it can almost become telepathic, and when that happens, of course, you have something really unique. But short of that, to break it down into simpler terms, just listen to one another and respond to one another. That will add more genuine quality to a group than any device you could possibly think of. I think the more natural it is, the better. You can form the clichés later. But I think the whole idea of it is that you’re supposed to enjoy it. I think you should have fun. That’s the beauty of it all—that you can go to a gig and have a good time playing the music, playing with each other, and encouraging and supporting each other in this endeavor. When that is adhered to, then something meaningful occurs.
RM: I’ve heard various explanations of why jazz drummers started using 18″ bass drums. Some people go into detail about the function of the bass drum in modern jazz, and give reasons why the 18″ drum was more suited to the music. Others contend that the only reason the smaller drum was used was because it was easier to carry around.
EJ: Well, that’s the reason why I used it. Twenty years ago, we travelled a great deal by car. We would throw all of our stuff in a station wagon or a car, then we’d all pile in and off on the road we would go. That’s the way bands travelled then. So it made a difference if you had a compact unit of equipment. I only used two tom-toms in those days: the floor tom-tom was 14 x 14, and the small tom-tom was 8 x 12. But when I used a 20″ bass drum, it just would not fit in the trunk of the car. If I put it in the back seat, that took up the space where two people could sit. So that made it necessary to tie the damn thing down on top of the car on a rack. I ruined a lot of drums that way. Whenever it would rain, with the car going sixty miles an hour, the rain would be forced right through the case, onto the drum itself. So the drum was a soggy mess when we arrived at where we were supposed to go. And then there were times that the ropes would slip and the drum would fall off on the highway. So when I got an 18″ bass drum, there was no problem at all. My drums would all fit comfortably into the trunk of a car, along with a suitcase, and perhaps even some golf clubs. So the drums had to be as practical as they were functional.
Another good reason for having the smaller set was that it fit in with the overall image of the group. If there were only four or five people on the bandstand, the drumset was not obtrusive; it blended with that whole image. I remember the first time I saw a drumset in a store. I didn’t have one then, of course, and everything looks good to the person who doesn’t have one. So I saw these drums and I said, “My God!” Here were these drums—white pearl, of course—with two huge floor toms (they looked huge to me; they were probably 16″), two mounted toms, and about a 28″ bass drum. They were huge. They were beautiful. I had never seen anything so pretty in my life. But they were made, basically, for an 18-piece dance band. They were designed to be part of the overall design of the stage. The drums and the music stands would all be white mother-of-pearl. In those days, the drums were not considered that much of an instrument. They were more a part of the decoration on the bandstand than they were an instrument. I mean, you certainly didn’t have mother of- pearl basses and trumpets. So anyway, we sort of got pushed into that corner by the designers. But then we started to come out of that. Musical drummers have something else in mind entirely. This is not our intent at all. It is the instrument we are concerned with. I no longer see a problem with whether a bass drum is an 18″ or a 24″. I think that simply has to do with an individual’s preference. I don’t think it should be dictated; I think the choice should be left to the person who picks out the instrument. We can only say, “I know what suits me and what I like.”
Playing in a small group context, I found that I didn’t need the heavy timbre of, say, a 24″ bass drum. It wasn’t necessary. All I needed was something that would be felt throughout that small group. And through a little experimentation, I found that by tightening the front head, making that taut, and making the beater head a little looser, I could control the pitch of the instrument without losing any of the tonal consistency. The sound was never impaired; I could get the same depth out of that small bass drum as I could a larger one. It’s simply a matter of tuning. If you know how to tune it, you’ll have no problem. I mean, it isn’t going to sound like a 30″ bass drum, let’s face it. You have to stay within reason. But within a reasonable range you can get all the depth and timbre of sound that you need in a small band context.
RM: Several years ago, you changed from using a four-piece set to using a six-piece. What was your reason?
EJ: Basically, I’ve never really been a multi-drum man. I’ve always thought that even the snare drum has never been fully exploited. After all, you’ve got a tom-tom there as well. You can throw the snares off and there’s a tom-tom. It’s just a matter of having a throw-off that is efficient enough to expedite some sort of technique that would incorporate the snare strainer. And I think a snare drum and a tom-tom—the two together—is certainly sufficient for any kind of solo pattern. You could work up an endless variety of combinations with these two components. Add to that a bass drum, and perhaps a floor tom-tom, and that would be a handful in anybody’s band. It’s simply a matter of how proficient you are. By having more equipment than that, you would simply be able to duplicate what you could already do in a different direction. But it wouldn’t mean you were making more music, or playing more of a variety of rhythmic patterns. There are more tones, of course. But as I say, one tone might just be a duplicate of what you could get by releasing the snare strainer. Or you could probably get extra tones out of one floor tom-tom by pressing your finger into the head. So I don’t know if the need is really there for an infinite variety of drums. But again, I can only say that it’s up to the individual. If one feels that’s his need, then by all means he should do so. As long as it’s musical. The only thing that justifies it is the music. If it’s required by the music, then by all means you should have it. You should certainly have what you need, although, it’s another experience to be able to improvise the things that are not there. For instance, when playing the Latin-American style, you can improvise the sound of timbales or claves. This is some of the fun in playing drums—to be able to imitate those sounds. That’s why it’s such a wondrous instrument. It’s an instrument with infinite variety, I think. So before acquiring all this superfluous material, I think it would be practical to explore the drumset from a simplistic point of view. One should reach a point of non-expansion, so to speak, before one expands. In this way, you are assured of control of what you have in front of you. It’s more important to have the control over it than to just have it there as a cosmetic.
RM: So you added drums because you felt your music called for it?
EJ: I think so, and I felt confident of being able to control it. That’s why I haven’t added anything more, because for what we’re doing, I don’t see any need. There is probably music around which would require a number of extra components to the set. But we haven’t played music in that context yet. I think there has to be a definite reason for using anything.
RM: You switched to Tama drums a couple of years ago.
EJ: I’m glad you brought that up. I think this company really has a sincere interest in the future of the music and of the uses to which the artists will put the instruments and apply them to the art form. The Tama company and the Hoshino family have proven to me that they have the integrity that I had sorely missed in my relationships in the past. They make a quality instrument. I can’t say too much about them, and not just because I endorse them. I was already using the drums before I was asked to endorse them. What happened was, I went to play in Europe, and I had been promised the use of a set of drums by a European drum company. When I got to Paris, the drums didn’t show up, so I had to go out and buy a set of drums. I just picked Tama off the shelf. I didn’t know anything about them. I just saw that they were wood and they were the size I wanted. I learned later that they were Tama. So I was already using the drums. When they asked me to endorse them, it wasn’t a snow job. I knew about the quality of the instrument. Nobody had to snow me and I don’t have to snow anybody. I just tell the truth.
RM: I understand you had something to do with the K. Zildjian cymbals that are now being made in America.
EJ: I had some old K. ‘s that I gave them to use as the prototype for the cymbals they’re now making in Norwell. I have a very high interest in these cymbals because I’m going to use them. It’s something I believe in.
RM: Some musicians play with the same people for a long period of time, and other musicians are constantly playing with different people. Having been in both situations, do you prefer one over the other?
EJ: I think if you’ve got a group of people who stay together and grow together for a protracted period of time, you certainly stimulate each other and feed each other. Providing that you’ve got the right people and the chemistry works, it can be extremely creative, as was the Coltrane Quartet. That was an ideal group. There have been other groups that I have been with, and although circumstances decreed that they didn’t last as long, they were still tremendous experiences for me. I was with Bud Powell for a year, for instance, and it gave me so much insight into myself and how I could use my instrument. Unfortunately, it was decreed that it wouldn’t go any longer than that, but even for that short period of time, it was very rewarding.
As for groups that interchange; since 1966, I’ve had my own groups, and they have been more or less transient. They have been nothing like the protracted period of time—six years—I was with Coltrane. Although, Pat LaBarbera has been with me seven years now, and my bassist, Andy McCloud, has been with me four years. And I expect that this guitarist, Jean-Paul Bourelly, will stay. He’s that kind of person, you see. His motivation is such that he wants to have that experience, gain that knowledge, and he’s willing to spend that time to develop that discipline. So it’s the motivation of the musicians that really determines the ability of a group to remain under a certain structure for protracted periods of time. I think in some ways it’s a great advantage—in some ways it isn’t. But there’s always something to be gained and learned from the experience. People have different motivations, and some of them are very selfish. Let’s face it—it’s a cruel world, you know. There are people who are very selfish and there are people who are not. There are all kinds of personalities around and you never know until you’ve had the experience of living with it for a while. When the manifestation occurs, there’s a decision to be made, one way or another.
But all in all, given the conditions of the industry now, I think it’s probably beneficial if a group can stay together for a long period of time. I think they can gain a great deal. There is only one way to get that kind of experience, and that is with each other. Of course, you have to be willing to make a few sacrifices to stay together. It’s almost like a marriage. You make a commitment to your colleagues just as you make a commitment to your music and to the study and pursuit of your development. You want to develop yourself; you want to pursue this career; you want to pursue the knowledge of the instrument. There are many ways of doing it. But the best way, I think, is with someone whom you are congenial with; whom you can play with; whom you can experience musical opportunities with. All these things have tremendous value. And even when you leave it, you don’t really leave anything, because you take all of that experience with you. And if there are ten of you, that means that ten people have shared that experience and they can go in ten different directions and utilize that knowledge and spread it out to that many more people. So it’s perpetual—it never ends. People can still, for in stance, benefit from the experiences I’ve had with Coltrane
There’s a practical side to experience too. People ask, “What do you eat?” Well, that’s a very important question. You have to learn how to eat the right food so you have enough energy to play a two hour concert at peak efficiency. Music is something that requires a great deal of energy, so if you eat a lot of garbage, you’ll burn yourself out. You’ll also ruin your teeth! So I know that if I’m on the road and I miss my meal at the restaurant, I can go in a grocery store and buy a can of sardines, a box of crackers, an apple and a pint of milk, and I can get just as much energy as if I’d had a steak dinner. I don’t say I want to do that every day, but in a pinch it works. So somebody might think that’s useless information, but somebody else can gain something from that. Maybe you’ve only got enough money for a can of sardines. Okay, don’t worry. You can get enough energy to do the gig, and after you get paid, you can buy a steak for tomorrow. So there’s a practical side to experience; it’s not just for intellectual gain. Un derneath it all, we all want to know ways to get through the day. That’s what people want to know—and they want to know the truth. And that’s one thing you learn from having experience with a group of people you admire and who you have faith in and trust: you learn to be truthful. You don’t lie to your friends. That will be reflected immediately in your music. So there are things you derive from these experiences and relationships that have unending value.
In a way, I miss the nights out on the road, travelling in a car. The long hours, with nothing to do but talk about the music. Those are the times when you can do it. Sharing that kind of hardship, as it were, adds something to what you have to say about experience, and what you have to project in the emotional content of your music.
RM: You have the distinction of having been associated with a group that has become legendary. But have you ever felt that the Coltrane Quartet has overshadowed the things you’ve done since? Are there people who still think of you primarily as Coltrane’s drummer?
EJ: I don’t think that’s what people really think. What I think is that people experienced so much, and enjoyed the music of Coltrane to such an extent, that they have almost a reverence for it. And when they encounter me, it invokes all those memories they have of that time. Perhaps they were some of the best times of their lives. I know it was certainly one of the best times of my life. I know how people feel because I feel somewhat the same way. So it doesn’t bother me, really. As they say, “You’re talking about the man I love.” So I can understand when people feel like that, and I certainly can sympathize with that feeling. I understand that it can be trivial as well as meaningful, but I prefer to think that people mean well when they ask you about these things. Maybe they don’t understand completely what they want to say, but they do know they want to make that contact. I don’t expect everybody to be a music historian.
What I do object to is that sometimes a journalist will, for lack of any preparation for a meaningful, intelligent interview, use that as a crutch. In other words, they don’t do any homework. They figure, “I’ll just ask him some questions about John Coltrane and then I can go home.” So that I object to—that attitude; that kind of approach.
RM: You left the Coltrane group over a year before he died. If he had lived, do you think you would have played together again?
EJ: Probably. I think so. He didn’t approach me and say in so many words that this was what he had in mind, but he used to come by and listen to my group quite regularly at Pookie’s Pub. We never lost touch with each other.
RM: At first, you were using your own name for your group, but then you changed it to the Jazz Machine. Why?
EJ: First of all, it was my wife, Keiko’s idea. I concurred of course. I thought that prefacing everything with “Elvin Jones” personalized things in a way that wasn’t necessary, because everyone knows I’m the drummer. When you say “The Jazz Machine,” everybody knows what it is and what it stands for. It is instantly recognizable. It has its own identity and it sort of took my name out of the limelight to an extent. You need your personal life. The more recognition you have, the more you need that privacy. Taking your name out gives one that added bit of privacy, so I’m glad she thought of it. And it looks very nice on our sweaters and jackets and things.
Another thing one has to realize is that this is the music business, and this made it easier to handle as a business. People can deal with you on a different level. The kind of thing we have is just a small business. It’s like a “mom and pop” business where Keiko runs the store and I drive the truck, [laughs].
RM: When I first heard the name, I knew that I was going to hear a band, not “the drum star and his sidemen.”
EJ: Exactly. And that’s another point that justifies giving a name to a group. If you had no other reason, that would be suffi cient, and we also considered that.
RM: I sometimes have to laugh, though, when I hear the word “machine” applied to your group, because you are certainly one of the least machine-like players I’ve ever heard. This is the age of drum computers, click tracks and multi-track recordings, but frankly, I find it hard to imagine your group using any of these devices. Have you ever overdubbed anything?
EJ: No! I’m happy to say that I’ve never overdubbed in my life, and I don’t intend to! I just can’t conceive of myself becoming that impersonal about my music. I feel that when one records, it should be just as much of a personal commitment as playing in a live concert. The only difference is that you don’t hear people in the background—talking, coughing, or sliding their chairs around. That kind of sound is eliminated in the studio. The engineer has an opportunity to capture the sound under perfect conditions. But that’s the only thing, I think, that should be different. The rest is absolutely the same.
I don’t think you should try to trick people. I don’t believe in that. I don’t believe in gimmickry. But I suppose it is necessary when you are dealing with people who are less than artists. They have to compensate somewhere, so they do it with machines, and they’ve got very efficient machines that can do that, I understand. But for the way I choose to approach music, I think all of the quality should be in the person. It should be in your dedication, in your habits, and in the way you play. The degree of ability has to come into play there, and this is what we can’t compromise with. So I refuse to overdub.
RM: All of these things are done in the interest of perfection, but what is the relationship between perfection and beauty?
EJ: It varies. There are no two snowflakes alike, and what could be more beautiful than a snowflake, if one looks closely at it? I think what we really mean when we say that we’re striving for perfection is we’re striving for some kind of consistency in our efforts. We want to get a standard that we can sustain, and we call that perfection, I suppose. But I can live with the high standard I set for myself. I say to myself, “Well, I’m not going to make too many mistakes. I know I’m going to make some, but I hope they’re going to be a minimum.” So I think this is the kind of perfection we mean when we say that. I know it certainly is what / mean. Being the realist that I am, I know that there’s really no such thing as perfection. Let’s face it. Even Pablo Casals has made a few bloopers, but even when he did, he plays so beautifully all the time that who cares? I’d rather hear one of Casals mistakes than to hear someone else’s so-called perfection—the click track perfection—because it’s human. That’s the whole difference. We’re human beings; we falter, we slip, we stumble, we stutter, we do everything. But we can also sing as clear as a bird, and that’s very beautiful.
RM: A magnificent tree is not perfectly symmetrical. If you pruned it to be perfectly round…
EJ: You would take the beauty right out of it.
RM: People are doing that with music. They splice all the right notes together but lose the soul.
EJ: That’s the commercial side. I believe that they are kidding themselves, because even with all of that, they have to keep telling themselves how great it is. That’s why I’m not yearning to get into that crowd. It’s based on flaw.
RM: You are one of the few artists that I’ve never heard accused of selling out. Have you ever been pressured by a record company to be more commercial?
EJ: Oh yeah. I had a producer offer me a charge account at one of the popular music stores. He instructed me: “Go there and pick out any of the sheet music that you want. Just charge it to me. And you can have tickets to any Broadway shows, just to see if there is any material there you can use for a recording.” That was the research I was instructed to do. I didn’t do it, of course, [laughs] But nevertheless, they always tried, and they never ceased. And a lot of pressure was applied. It wasn’t just a casual conversation. But I managed to resist.
RM: What kind of strength does it take to resist that kind of pressure?
EJ: I think it’s simply your own conviction that what you represent is what you intend to pursue. It’s no more than that. Your employment was based on that conviction; the talent you had as a jazz artist. So this is the reason you were approached and given the contract—in order to pursue these convictions; in order to develop that talent. That was the whole understanding. And so you can’t let that be usurped. You have to insist. I think it is the artist’s responsibility to maintain the artistic freedom to pursue objectives artistically. This is not debatable; you don’t contest that. So I don’t have any problem; I don’t see that there’s any room for argument. Not with me.
RM: So, in a sense, you are living proof that an artist can resist that kind of pressure, and still survive.
EJ: Exactly. You should just never lose sight of what your true objectives are. I think most record producers are not out to corrupt young artists. Most of them are very ethical, but there are a few who are not, and these are the people you have to be careful of. That’s why it is always important to get good counsel. No artist should ever sign any kind of a contract unless an attorney is there—an attorney who is also a friend, who understands the artist as a person, and who is willing to help the artist reach the artistic objectives. A recording contract is a very important step in a musician’s career. It’s important to make sure that the objectives as an artist are not corrupted.
RM: What about the listeners? Could they be doing more to support the music they claim to love?
EJ: A lot of people don’t do anything. The password is “action”; not “wishing.” Go into the record stores and tell them that you won’t buy anything else until you get what you want.
RM: Would the record companies be responsive?
EJ: Of course. They want to make that money. All they need is a demand. And you can demand it. You know, when lawyers go into court, they don’t ask for anything; they demand it!
RM: The last couple of years, I’ve started seeing quite a few ads for independent record companies.
EJ: I wish you’d see more. If you see enough ads for independent companies, the big ones will wonder what it is these independent companies are doing that they’re not doing. Then they’ll try to duplicate it and be better. Competition—that’s all it is. Healthy competition. That’s what this whole country is based on. If we had more competition…the reason why the Blue Note catalogue almost got burned—I mean literally; it almost happened—was because the small record companies were all sold. One after another, they went around buying up all the small record companies until there weren’t any more. Then they started dropping the artists and burn ing the masters to make more room for the commercial music. And the people who really loved the music—musicians included—sat around and didn’t complain too much.
I just think people have to become more aware. You know, these are some of the subjects we should discuss at our drum clinics. These are some of the things we should touch on, even if just to give a verbal newsletter as to the state of the art at the moment. This kind of information can be helpful to some people. I hope that those who read this article will gain some insight, and perhaps even some direction.
RM: You haven’t had too many records released the last couple of years. What’s your situation with recording these days?
EJ: I have two albums out in Japan on Trio Records. That company is now in the midst of negotiations to secure facilities for the distribution in the United States of the product they already have, and for future releases. As part of this, I’m forming my own label, and certainly some of these records will be distributed through my label— at least the albums that I participate in. That’s about as far as I can go at the moment. I’m not planning any big operation or anything like that. Simply, I know of a decent man who has access to one of the biggest distribution circles in the country, and he happens to be a friend. So we are going to go into business and distribute my records in the future. Having distribution is the key. I would never consider having my own record company if I didn’t have access to distribution. I mean, I could make records all day, but if they’re just going to pile up in my basement, they’re not going to do me any good or the public any good. They wouldn’t serve any objective, really. So first, you have to secure adequate distribution. Then it makes it a practical step to form a company.
RM: That’s interesting that you have albums out in Japan that are not available in the States. I’ve been told by several jazz musicians that the Japanese are more interested in American jazz than most Americans, and they support the music better.
EJ: That’s all very well, but what they don’t see is that Japan is a small country. Although they have a lot of people, it’s only a small segment of the jazz audience.
The heart of the Japanese people is beautiful. They certainly give the American artists as much courtesy—more perhaps—than they’ve ever received anywhere in the world. It’s a great boost to the ego of the American artists, and they probably need it. But the point is, as generous as they are, it’s still a small country and you can’t just rely on that. It’s here that the fight has to be won. This is the market that has to be cracked. The American audience is the one that has to be convinced that this art form is valid and worthy. We have to persuade our society to move over a little bit and make some room. So if people consider that wonderful hospitality of the Japanese people as an indication of a breakthrough in the economics of the music business, I think they’re misleading themselves. This is the wrong way of perceiving that gesture of friendship. Here is where the economic battle has to take place.
RM: And it is a battle. There are a lot of problems here.
EJ: Of course, but people have beaten larger problems in the past. Like my father—I mean, these guys came out of the cotton fields in Mississippi. They didn’t know nothin’. My father didn’t go to school. He had to teach himself how to write his own name. Shit, he had a bigger problem then we do. And he beat his. He taught himself how to read and write, and he taught himself how to be a mathematician. He overcame his problem. I’m sure that next to that, what we’re trying to do is like eating cake. I mean, we should be able to do this with no sweat at all.
RM: So this is the kind of thing that’s making you start your own…
EJ: Exactly. That’s it. That’s what it’s all about. You’ve got to get up off your ass. The people who are complaining are the ones who are just sitting around waiting for somebody else to hand them something. Nobody’s going to. It doesn’t happen that way. I think you’ve got to work for what you get. And that’s what it’s all about. There aren’t any magic words in solving your problems any more than there are in learning how to play the drums.