Elvin Jones

September 9, 1927 -- May 18, 2004

Elvin Jones

Elvin Jones

"Elvin is so great it will bring tears to your eyes. I mean, damn, somebody play drums like that! Just that he could figure out all that."

--Wynton Marsalis

Elvin Jones was born in Pontiac, Michigan, and began his professional career playing in local groups in Pontiac and Detroit, then, during army service (1946-49), performed in military bands. After returning to Michigan he resumed his professional career working with various bands, including some organized by his brother Thad, and occasionaly touring. Of particular importance was his acquaintance with Art Mardigan, whom he eventually replaced as drummer in Billy Mitchell's quintet; this group was the house band at the Bluebird Club in Detroit and, as such, accompanied the national jazz artists who were regularly featured there.

In 1956 Jones moved to New York, where he bagan to establish a reputation as a dynamic drummer in the tradition of Art Blakey. Among the most notable groups and individuals with whom he recorded or performed at the time were J.J. Johnson's quintet, Donald Byrd's quintet, Harry Edison, Bud Powell, Sonny Rollins, and Stan Getz. In 1960 Jones became a member of the John Coltrane Quartet, beginning a five-year association that was to become one of the most significant in jazz history. During his years with Coltrane, Jones emerged as the premier jazz drummer of the 1960s and brought his unique style to a state of maturity which irrevocably altered the nature of jazz drumming.

When Coltrane decided in 1966 to add a second drummer (Rashied Ali) to his ensemble, Jones, who found the arrangement incompatible with his musical ideas, left the group and joined Duke Ellington's orchestra briefly for a tour of Europe. He worked in Europe for a short while before returning to the US, where he formed a series of trios, quartets, and sextets, occasionally in conjunction with Coltrane's former bass player Jimmy Garrison. These groups usually dispensed with a pianist, and characteristically consisted of one and often two sax- ophonists, a strong bass player, and Jones on drums; among the musicians who were Jones's most frequent sidemen were Joe Farrell, Frank Foster, George Coleman, Garrison, Wilbur Little, and Gene Perla. In 1970 Jones appeared in the film Zachariah and in 1979 he was the subject of a documentary film, Different Drummer: Elvin Jones. He has continued to pursue an active performing and recording career into the 1980s.

Jones' style is a logical extension of the bop approach established by Kenny Clarke and Max Roach and modified by Art Blakey. Utilizing a greater number of cross-rhythms in his patterns, Jones built on Blakey's techniques and added new ones to the extent that the fundamental role of the drummer changed from that of an accompanist to one of an equal collaborative improviser. Jones played several metrically contrasting rhythms simultaneously, each of which was characterized by irregularly shifting accents that were independent of the basic pulse. Of particular note is Jones' ingenious mixture of playing irregularly accented half-, quarter-, eighth-, and 16th-note triplet subdivisions over an extended period as a means of generating a wide array of polyrhythms. An excellent example of this technique may be heard on Nuttin' out Jones, recorded by the Jones-Garrison Sextet in 1963.

Jones' techniques resulted in dense percussive textures characterized by greater diversity of timbre, heightened polyrhythmic activity, and increased intensity and volume. Moreover, as the richness of these composite textures made it difficult to discern the basic pulse, they contributed to the development of a new style of "free improvisation" which underlayed or dispensed with regular pulse altogether. Ultimately Jones' innovations gave the drummer a broader role in ensemble playing, as a collaborative improviser, and as the principal architect of large-scale, organically evolving percussive textures, while removing the emphasis from his function as a timekeeper.

--OLLY WILSON, from The New Grove
Dictionary of Jazz

A selected discography of Elvin Jones albums.

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