Elvin Jones, 76; Coltrane Drummer Helped Propel Jazz
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 21, 2004; Page B09
Elvin Jones, 76, the drummer who lit the rhythmic fire under the transcendental jazz of saxophonist John Coltrane, died May 18 at a hospital in Englewood Cliffs, N.J. He had a heart ailment.
In his five years with Coltrane's quartet in the 1960s, Mr. Jones set the standard for modern jazz drumming, incorporating the polyrhythmic patterns of African drumming into his incendiary, almost overwhelming technique. McCoy Tyner, the group's pianist, called the quartet "four pistons in an engine." By that analogy, Mr. Jones was its drive train.
With Coltrane, he performed on some of the most important, and influential, albums in jazz history, including "My Favorite Things," "John Coltrane Live at Birdland" and "Love Supreme." He was, according to Whitney Balliett, jazz critic of the New Yorker, "the greatest of all modern drummers."
Mr. Jones exerted a towering influence over jazz for decades, performing on hundreds of albums and touring all over the world. He continued to perform until weeks before his death.
"Elvin seemed to invent new ways of playing the drums," said one of his drumming proteges, Peter Erskine. "Nobody else sounded like him."
Mr. Jones was born in Pontiac, Mich., the youngest of 10 children. His father worked at General Motors and was a Baptist deacon.
From an early age, Mr. Jones knew he wanted to be a drummer.
"I didn't want to play basketball," he told a jazz Web site in 2002. "I didn't want to play baseball, football or anything like that. All I ever thought about was playing drums."
Two of his older brothers, Hank and Thad Jones, also became renowned jazz musicians. Hank, who is 85, is a pianist, and Thad, who died in 1986, was a trumpeter, bandleader and composer.
Largely self-taught, Elvin Jones had his first "professional" performance when he was 14. His payment was a hamburger. After three years in the Army Air Forces in the late 1940s, he worked in Detroit's fertile jazz scene for several years, accompanying such noted musicians as Wardell Gray, Milt Jackson, Barry Harris and Tommy Flanagan.
In 1955, when his brother Hank was a member of Benny Goodman's band, Mr. Jones went to New York to audition for the King of Swing. Rejected for the job, he was soon in demand among the progressive wing of hard-bop jazz, performing alongside Miles Davis, J.J. Johnson, Sonny Rollins, Bud Powell and Charles Mingus.
He joined Coltrane in 1960, just as the saxophonist was emerging with a distinctive musical approach that took jazz further than it had gone before. With pianist Tyner and bassist Jimmy Garrison, Mr. Jones anchored the Coltrane Quartet until 1966, except for a year he missed while in prison on a narcotics charge.
Their music still sounds astonishingly fresh and forward-looking. With Coltrane's powerful saxophone solos, the quartet's music was described as "sheets of sound." Mr. Jones's drumming, which seemed to suggest "all rhythms at once," in the words of Village Voice critic Gary Giddins, was a large element of the Coltrane mystique.
"He holds Coltrane in his extraordinary hands in every number," Balliett wrote in the New Yorker, "pushing him gloriously in his longest solos, nipping at his heels in the slow numbers, perhaps in large part making him what he was."
Critics and musicians often said Coltrane's music evoked a sense of spirituality that reached far beyond music.
"If there's any such thing as a perfect man," Mr. Jones once said, "I think John Coltrane was one. And I think that kind of perfection has to come from a greater force than there is here on Earth."
In time, some people would come to say the same about Mr. Jones.
"The remarkable thing about Elvin," said Erskine, "is that he represents almost a seismic break in the tradition. It's hard to figure out where his language came from. But the stronger influence became this incredible philosophy and passion that he brought to the music."
After leaving Coltrane in 1966, Mr. Jones led his own groups, becoming a mentor to generations of younger musicians, including Nicholas Payton, Delfeayo Marsalis, Washington saxophonist Andrew White and Ravi Coltrane, the son of John Coltrane. In 2003, he received an American Jazz Master Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Tall and strongly built, Mr. Jones invariably worked up a heavy sweat while drumming, and the stage would sometimes shake under the force of his attack. Yet no matter how active Mr. Jones was behind his drum kit, a smile always played across his face.
"There wasn't a jazz musician I ever met," Erskine said, "who was more full of love than Elvin."
Mr. Jones lived in New York and in Nagasaki, Japan, with his wife of 38 years, Keiko Jones, who survives him. He had two children from his first marriage, which ended in divorce.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Elvin Ray Jones, at the 1997 San Francisco Jazz Festival, also played with Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis.
(Susan Ragan -- AP)
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