A jazz percussionist who was rooted in the African-American tradition
by John Fordham: The Guardian 20 May 2020
Now that jazz has developed so many tributaries, its African roots are discussed less, but in the 1950s and 1960s it could be a matter for heated argument as to whether or not you needed to be black to play proper jazz at all. If jazz music's celebration of intuition and the symbiosis of the individual and the group has made musicians from Osaka to Oslo believe that a particular corner of the world's jazz can be uniquely theirs, that is as it should be - and probably the way the African-American pioneers would have wished it, since they could see their creation's global influence taking hold as early as the 1920s. But a sense of the music's history is as important to sustain as a sense of its present. And in jazz percussion, so often a centrepiece of the music's unique qualities, African origins in the infamous era of the slave-trade are impossible to underestimate. Few contemporary musicians sustained the African qualities of jazz drumming as evocatively and memorably as Elvin Jones, who has died aged 76.
One of three famous jazz brothers, born in Pontiac, Michigan - the siblings were trumpeter Thad, who died in 1986, and pianist Hank, who is still alive - Jones was a remarkable percussionist for more than half a century, and a revolutionary one who lit a fire for postmodern drumming in a good part of the 1960s. His personal legend rumbled effusively on into senior citizenship, his playing still astonishingly fiery and inventive into his 70s.
A Jones show was always a memorable event. Two things were quickly apparent. For one, Jones appeared not to locate the focus of the beat in any single part of the kit for long, or use the steady ride cymbal pattern of the conventional jazz drummer or the steady, clapping snare-drum backbeat of the traditional rock player. The rhythmic feel would be joltingly strong, but restlessly disassembled and reassembled all over the drums, all the time - like a constant solo, but with an unmistakable underlying rhythm.
Second, Jones would hit the drums with unnerving force - not in a constant barrage of earsplitting volume, but in unpredictable accents and emphases that would crack like whips. His exclamatory sock-cymbal sound, often played at the turning point in a theme, or at the close, appeared to be struck with a dismissive blow like a boxer's right cross, and would be all the more arresting for its contrast with Jones's general demeanour of happiness in his work, smiling fit to bust, unleashing a stream of effusive - and highly rhythmic - chortles and grunts, sometimes eyeballing his partners with baleful amiability from the drum stool while intensifying the pressure, as if baiting them into bigger risks.
Elvin Jones began his drumming career in local groups around Pontiac and Detroit in the early 1940s, and continued it in military bands during army service between 1946 and 1949. After the war he went back to Michigan to work in groups organised by his trumpeter brother Thad among others, and in the early 1950s his career took a substantial step forward when he replaced Art Mardigan as the drummer in bop tenorist Billy Mitchell's band, the house ensemble at the Bluebird club in Detroit, and a regular stopoff for touring celebrities. The exposure got Jones noticed, and in 1956 he moved to New York.
At the time Art Blakey was Jones's model. Blakey had fashioned a more impassioned and dramatic drumming style out of the sometimes wilfully intricate materials of bebop percussion, an instantly recognisable mix of incandescent snare-drum rolls and slyly scattered rimshots. Jones began as an obviously promising exponent of much the same approach, and his talents brought him work with trumpeter Donald Byrd, pianist Bud Powell and saxophonist Stan Getz in the late 1950s.
In 1960 came the career move that ensured Jones would become a jazz immortal. He joined saxophonist John Coltrane's quartet at a time when Coltrane and Miles Davis, both restless experimenters, were searching for ways of releasing jazz from the structural rigidities of bebop's dependence on song-form chords. Coltrane had initially begun by probing even deeper into harmonic possibilities for improvisation, but then swung the other way and - like Davis - pursued a stripped-down structure with minimal chordal support and the exploration of cohabiting sequences of scales instead.
This "modal" approach loosened up the jazz ensemble, created more space between the players, and allowed the support for a soloist to take on a more fluid, collaborative form. Inspired by Coltrane's development of a packed and fervent sax style - not only bursting with headlong arpeggios but often featuring overtones and multiphonics allowing more than one note to be sounded at a time - Jones's expansion of Art Blakey's technique became appropriately hectic, too. At times piano, bass and drums would resemble a single multi-branched percussion section, or Jones's urgent, rumbling support of the leader sound like a constant drum solo.
Where Blakey had stretched the rhythmic role of bop drums by intensifying the scattered offbeat patterns sown against the steady hi-hat and ride-cymbal pulse, Jones was dispensing with the "accompanist" role altogether, and envisaging a drum part as enhancing the playing of others and being a developing musical statement itself. He seemed to hear percussion patterns evolving over a longer span than most drummers, so his work appeared loose and fluid, yet possessed of a sustained and evolving coherence over even the longest pieces.
This way of playing came to dominate post-1960s jazz percussion. Innumerable young drummers struggled to copy it - or triumphantly evolved out of it, as did the late Tony Williams. Yet Coltrane, searching for another voice by the time the quartet had astonished the jazz world for six years, and pursuing a dream of a music that could be both freer and simpler, came to need a drummer who thought even more texturally than Jones, and carried less tempo-based baggage, however audaciously repacked. He brought in the impressionistic Rashied Ali to augment Jones, and the arrangement quickly induced the latter to quit - an irony, since Ali's free-improvisatory idiom was a logical evolution of Jones's increasingly open style of playing. Coltrane died the following year (1967), his jazz revolution still far from resolved.
Perhaps Jones indicated an unease with the sometimes abrasively dissonant music of the later Coltrane bands that preceded the Ali signing, because his own subsequent groups - following a brief stint with Duke Ellington for a European tour - leaned much closer toward a relaxed and accessible hard bop. Saxophones dominated (sometimes Jones would hire two), but if the approaches reflected Coltrane's, they were closer to the saxophonist's soulful, preacherly manner of the early 1960s than the stormy odysseys later.
After a succession of fine saxophonists - including Joe Farrell, Frank Foster and George Coleman - Jones settled on a resourceful saxophonist and flautist, Sonny Fortune, who remained with him into the leader's 70s. In the later years, with Fortune often displaying a furious and increasingly late Coltrane-like boldness, Jones's groups moved back to something like the ferocity and atonalism that had originally driven him from the quartet, an indication of how much that ensemble had eventually reshaped mainstream jazz taste.
Few drummers had such a profound sense of the role of the drums in an ensemble, or represented such a span of the African-American percussion tradition - from African drum-choir origins, to contradictory, crossed-line urban American urgency, and way beyond.
Jones's Japanese-born wife Keiko, who survives him together with a son and a daughter, was a constant companion to her husband on concerts and tours, taking care of the logistics of road-life and contributing compositions to his repertoire as well.
Elvin (Ray) Jones, drummer, born September 9 1927; died May 18 2004