The following article is an excerpt from Mark Stryker’s excellent new book, Jazz from Detroit (University of Michigan Press), which hits the shelves on July 8.
Faced with the animalistic intensity and rhythmic innovations that drummer Elvin Jones brought to jazz, critics often retreat into dry technical analysis or force-of-nature metaphors comparing his style to a tornado or hurricane. But neither captures the full measure of what Jones meant to the music. Yes, he was one of the most influential drummers in jazz history and helped elevate the music to new peaks of creativity and expression in the 1960s with the John Coltrane Quartet. But Jones, who died of heart failure in 2004 at age 76, was not just a trailblazer. He was a philosopher king, venerated for his hard-knock wisdom, charisma, spiritual aura, personal warmth, and the respect he accorded fellow musicians and everyday fans. He was famously supportive of colleagues and newcomers and generous with bear hugs. The contrast between his sweet disposition and violent physicality of his playing—his forearms and biceps were as big as a bodybuilder’s—was part of his vibe. To see waves of polyrhythms crash across his drums, sweat pour off his drenched frame, and his face contorted into a shaman mask—and then experience his 1,000-watt smile and humanity off the bandstand was to witness a sage in a state of grace.
Jones signed autographs: “Love and Peace, Elvin Jones.” He meant it.
“His ability to communicate with people from the drum stool was amazing,” said saxophonist David Liebman. “He hypnotized people. It was because of this immense reservoir of energy, the way he played, the way he looked—the sweat, the cigarette dangling from his mouth. He was super expressive, and then he’d walk off the stand and talk to anyone. That reflected his generosity of spirit, his desire and ability to warm you up, to involve you with the music.”
Jones took nothing for granted in music or in life. He played every night as if it might be his last, and he gave the impression of a man ready to die for his art. Jones took tremendous pride in his heritage as a jazz musician. In a 1971 interview with drummer Art Taylor published in Notes and Tones, Jones spoke of jazz as a profoundly humanist calling: “It’s a pure art form developed here in this country by black artists and which is continuing to be developed by everybody that has any musical aspirations at all or who has even thought about becoming a musician, whatever color they are. I think the fact that it’s pure transcends all colors and races.”
Musically, Jones represented the next great leap forward in jazz drumming after bebop innovators Kenny Clarke and Max Roach in the ’40s ushered in the ride cymbal as the main carrier of the beat and employed more intricate syncopation than earlier drummers. Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, and Roy Haynes pushed the drums ahead in the 1950s; Haynes’ conversational approach and way of breaking up the time proved especially forward-looking. But Elvin Jones had the most individual take of all. Fiercely aggressive, he created a pulsating web of shifting accents and meters that echoed the multilayered complexities of African drumming.
The result was a visceral and loose post-bop, a new and deeper way to swing that implied the beat instead of stating it outright. At full throttle, the ferocity and volume of Jones’ playing bordered on maniacal. But it was also musical and disciplined, varied in dynamics, texture, and color. Jones erased the line between foreground and background, elevating his accompaniment to a kind of continuous solo that remained complementary and supportive. Musicians often said that playing with him was like feeling the vastness and power of the ocean behind them. Jones reconciled opposites. In the same way that Miles Davis married virility and vulnerability and Billie Holiday encompassed joy and suffering, Jones embodied a push-pull between kinetic fury and a mystical feeling of relaxation. The result was an emotional breadth unique among drummers.
Jones’ unorthodox approach was present in embryo before he left Detroit in 1955 and he hit an early peak on records in the late ’50s. But it was during his five and a half years with John Coltrane, from 1960 to 1966, that Jones reached full maturity. The quartet—Coltrane on tenor and soprano saxophones, McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison (who joined in 1961) on bass—pioneered a freer approach to jazz. On epochal records such as Impressions, Live at Birdland, and A Love Supreme the group explored more open forms, modal and pedal-point harmony, and incantatory improvisations that crested on Jones’ waves of thunder. Anthems like “Impressions” or “One Down, One Up” could last an hour and include 30- or 40-minute duets between tenor sax and drums that were cathartic rituals.
On a technical level, Jones reinvented the fundamental bebop ride cymbal beat with his right hand. He reorganized the standard ding-dinga-ding pattern, breaking up the beat with fluidity and phrasing over bar lines. Jones scattered triplets across the drumkit with his left hand and integrated all four limbs into a churning undertow. He further unshackled the beat by abandoning the conventional practice of accenting beats 2 and 4 in every bar of 4/4 time on the hi-hat. Instead, he folded the hi-hat into his vortex.
The floating-triplet feel is Jones’ most recognizable calling card. Triplets are three evenly spaced notes squeezed into the space of two—think da-da-da/da-da-da/da-da-da. That’s the ubiquitous rhythm that “floats” through Jones’ playing and implies constant motion. One clear example is the 1962 Coltrane recording of “Tunji.” Jones plays eddies of triplets across the snare drum and tom-toms with his left hand.
“I especially like his ability to mix and juggle rhythms,” Coltrane once said. “He’s always aware of everything else that’s happening. I guess you could say he has the ability to be in three places at the same time.”
The unusually wide spaces between Jones’ cymbal strokes stretched out the beat. As Liebman once wrote, this gave the appearance that Jones played behind the stated pulse. At faster tempos, the variety of articulation of his cymbal strokes made downbeats less discernable and difficult to follow for musicians whose internal time wasn’t secure. Jones’ solos were also challenging to follow. Sometimes his breaks gave the impression of a drumset crashing down a flight of stairs, only to somehow land standing right side up. “I can see forms and shapes in my mind when I solo, just as a painter can see forms and shapes when he starts a painting,” Jones told Balliett. “And I can see colors. My cymbals will be one color and my snare another color and my tom toms each a different color. I mix these colors up, making constant movement.”
Other widely copied elements of Jones style include the elliptical swirl he brought to Latin rhythms—a kind of surreal and swinging mambo—and his loose approach to waltz time heard on “My Favorite Things,” “Afro-Blue” and “Chim Chim Cheree” with Coltrane. Though Jones’ bashing volume became part of his legend, he had masterful control over dynamics, and his eloquent playing with wire brushes is part of his legacy too. On recordings you can often hear Jones’ involuntary vocalizing in the mix with the swooshing brushes—a growling cackle that became a defining sound in jazz all on its own.