Sound Signatures



Elvin Jones

 The Formative Years

Part 1


By Chip Stern



I especially like his ability to mix and juggle rhythms.

 He’s also always aware of everything that’s happening. 

I guess you could say that he has the ability to be in three places at the same time. 


John Coltrane on Elvin Jones


Right from the beginning to the last time we played together, it was something pure. The most impressive thing was a feeling of steady, collective learning. If there's anything like perfect harmony in musical relationships, that band was as close as you can come.


Elvin Jones on the John Coltrane Quartet



When did you first realize you were a drummer?


Well, damn, I’ve always wanted to play them.  I don’t know when I actually realized that I was a full-fledged drummer with all that means: to master an instrument, to have at least a ninety-eight-percent control of what it is that you do, to use the instrument in a musical capacity, and to try to be creative in some way with the instrument.  I must have been probably twenty-five years old when that occurred—I’ll put it that way…when I really wanted to, yeah, when I really wanted to start to play drums.  I can’t remember any time in my life when I didn’t really want to study and to play the drums, from my first circus parade when I was maybe four or five years old up till right now [laughter].


Elvin Jones—Drummer

“Well, Damn, I’ve Always Wanted To Play Them.”

© Chuck Stewart




Yeah, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus used to play Pontiac, Michigan at least once a year, and they would mount these tremendous circus parades beforehand, because they really didn’t do a great deal of radio or newspaper promotion in those days—maybe a couple of billboards.  And the way most people found out that the circus was in town was because of the long parade right through the center of the city, and to me that was the most wonderful, beautiful thing.


That’s so funny, because on some level you always sounded like a circus drummer to me.  I remember when I first heard your solo at the opening of the “Pursuance” section of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme.  It sounded as if you were playing for the clowns and tumblers.  I could literally see them jumping about and doing their flips in the air.


[Laughter]  Really?  Well, they’re great drummers, you know.  William Slingerland, the old man, was an old-time circus drummer, you know, and later a circus bandmaster.  I played for a tumbling act in a theatre in Chicago.  I forget the name of these people, but they were marvelous tumblers and acrobats, and it was a fantastic experience.  And I had to peek around the curtain to see them.  But the music was so, so exacting that I really didn’t get a chance to view the act the way I would have liked to because my concentration had to be on the music, because it was very important that everything that the drums did was translated into a movement on the stage. 


Right.  Now everything is based on what you hear.  Back then an awful lot of what you played would have been based on what you saw as well.  Papa Jo Jones used to tell me stories all the time about his experiences in that sort of context. 


Oh, yes.  I remember an old vaudeville act I played for. One of my first experiences, as a matter of fact, in the theatre—onstage at least—was with a two-tenor group under dual-leadership of Johnny Griffin and Wardell Grey, and we played in a place in Cincinnati, Ohio for a variety show.  And one of their acts was Butterbeans and Susie, and what a great experience, you know.  To me I didn’t think there was anything greater than that in life, you know—just that experience.


Butterbeans and Susie

Stars Of Black Vaudeville


That's how Papa Jo started.  Jo used to run errands for Butterbeans and Susie when they played…I believe it was the Gaiety Theater in Birmingham, Alabama, sometime during the mid-1920s, and eventually he went out on the road with them.


As a matter of fact, there was a Gaiety Theatre in Cincinnati that we played in.  Most of them had turned into burlesque houses by that time, but there were still a few that were theatres like the Apollo in Harlem, or the Regal in Chicago…theatres like that.  I played a few burlesque shows when I was coming up.  But you know, there was a Gaiety in Detroit that I worked at a couple of times, and one of the features in that show was a guy named Scurvy.  You ever hear of him?  He was a great comedian [laughter].  We stayed in the pit, mostly, and so I’d look up and watch this guy.  He was phenomenal, just phenomenal.  I’d never seen a real Top Banana in that sense. 


Do you see a relationship between the whole art and timing of comedy and that of drumming?


I’m sure that in a sense there certainly is; there’d have to be, because a comedian’s timing is certainly comparable to a drummer’s timing, and it’s all run by meter:  the way they speak, the way they talk, the way they deliver the lines—it’s all in rhythm.  And so that correlation is there, definitely—at least the good comedians [laughter].  Oh my gosh, now they cuss too much for me, you know.  I like comedy, but I also like comedy when you don’t have to refer to everything in four-letter words and things like this.  So that sort of takes a little of the humor out of it for me—to me they don’t have the command of the language.  Redd Foxx can talk for hours and never use a vulgar word, and they say he’s a real nasty guy, but I don’t think so.  Maybe in a club or something he might be different, but I don’t think so.  He just tells jokes that are very risqué, but he doesn't use vulgarity that much.


Some of your tunes seem to have a certain comic element.  Some of your tunes, such as “Three Card Molly,” have a real hard shuffle feel with a kind of a bump-and-grind feel in the bridge.  I can practically see the stripper strutting down the runway. 


Oh, yeah [laughter].  Well, I think you must be referring to one of Wayne Shorter's compositions [laughter].  In a way I suppose you might.  You can hear everything within any composition; it depends on what your frame of reference was, yeah, and what you want it to be.


Right, right: guilty as charged.  I’m always cross-referencing furiously.  I can’t help it.  So initially you heard circus drummers in the parade, and that got you all excited. 


Thad Jones & Hank Jones

Elvin’s Spectacularly Original Older Brothers


What about the immediate influence of your family—we know about Thad and Hank, they were your older brothers and spectacularly original musicians, but didn't you have a couple of sisters who were opera singers or something like that?


They weren’t opera singers, no.  We had a friend of our family who took voice and piano lessons from my oldest sister and who eventually became an opera singer here with the Metropolitan Opera in New York.  And the rest of my sisters sang in the church choir, and that was where most of our musical ability was channeled.  We all did.  We all sang in church choirs.  We had a little family quartet where we sang in church programs and things like that, which were a lot of fun.


                                                             © Chuck Stewart


John Coltrane

The Other Side of Elvin’s Heartbeat



Do you come from a big family?


Well, there were ten children.


Ten!  My goodness.  I didn't realize it was that extensive.  So were you the baby brother?



                                                                                                                                                                      © Jimmy Katz


Elvin Ray Jones, To The Fifth Power

“I Was A Twin...”


Well, I still am.  You know, my sister still calls me the baby boy [laughter].  So I guess I’ll never outgrow that.  Hank was the oldest, and whenever Hank introduces me to one of his friends, it’s always “This is my little brother, Elvin [laughter], or simply as “the baby brother.”  So yeah, I’m the baby brother, and I was a twin… he didn’t survive, you know—he died as an infant.


Oh, my God, that’s a shame.  I believe that Ed Sullivan, Harold Arlen and Elvis Presley also had twin brothers who passed away during infancy.   


My earliest memory is of him.  I remember my brother’s funeral, my twin brother Alvin Roy’s funeral, I remember that…I must have been six months old or so, but I can remember that.


                                                                                                                                                                                    © Tom Copi

Elvin Ray & Alvin Roy



Damn.  So did you grow in Detroit?


No, in Pontiac, Michigan.  It’s in another county, as a matter of fact, but it was considered a suburb of Detroit because of the bus service that Greyhound used to run.  There used to be a streetcar that ran from Pontiac to Detroit, but later they took the streetcar tracks up and started running a suburban bus that the Greyhound Company handled.  And of course I suppose that’s why people refer to it as a suburb of Detroit.  But it really wasn’t.  It wasn’t as close as Newark is to New York City.  I’m sure now people wouldn’t think of Newark, New Jersey as a suburb of New York.  You’d probably have a lot of incensed New Jerseyites.


So had your family come up there from the South?


Yes, my mother and father were from Vicksburg, Mississippi.  Henry and Olivia.  They came north just during or just after the beginning of World War I.  My father worked for a lumber mill in Mississippi, and these people in Pontiac hired him away and brought him up north to work in the Oakland Coach Company.  And I think General Motors bought the Oakland Coach Company and turned it into Plant #1 of General Motors Corporation.  And that’s where he worked all his life.  He was a lumber inspector.


Interesting.  That part of Michigan is the heart of the furniture industry.


Yes, Kalamazoo, right.


Gibson guitars, too.  And your Mom was the straw boss of the house?


She was the boss of the house [laughter], absolutely, yeah, chief cook and bottle washer. 


I know this is kind of an off the wall question, but what’s the earliest musical memory you can recall? 


Well, I just remember my mother singing a lot, you know. She’d sing to me when I was put to bed and things like that.  And of course the real recollections are from, like I say, listening to the band music and going to church and hearing the choir and hearing the organ and the piano and all of that.  That is very vivid in my memory.


Miss Mahalia Jackson


When you were a little kid coming up, were your older brothers Hank and Thad already professional musicians?


Hank may have been, but I don’t think so, I think he became a professional at perhaps sixteen, but before that I could always listen to him practice; and my sister also played piano and she practiced, and my mother taught herself to play piano, and she practiced—and so there was a lot of music in the house all the time.


A lot of very disciplined music, too, it sounds like.


Yes, of course, and I was too young to recall my oldest sister very well, because she died—fell through the ice in the lake and drowned, so I really don’t remember much about her.  But the next sister, Melinda, I remember very vividly, as well as my sister Anna May and Edith and all my brothers.


Did your excitement at the drums and the rhythm translate into anything immediately?


No, not really.  I couldn’t actually put that together until I started to really study music notation in the school band, reading the drum textbooks and all the rest.  Then my course was set as far as I was concerned.  I just wanted to find out as much about it as I could and see what, at that point, I needed to do and what method to use to achieve this.  And I had a very good teacher; fortunately I had a marvelous band teacher in junior-high school whose name was Fred N. Weist, and he went to The University of Michigan, and he was a drum major for that magnificent marching band there.  Oh, yeah, he could twirl [laughter], he was a master, and as a matter of fact, we had to learn to do that as well, you know, to handle the baton and twirl. 


So did you study piano or anything before you got into the band in junior high?


No, I didn’t. I didn’t study piano at all.


What about the guitar?  Did that come in during this period?


That came much later and was just an accident.  I always liked the sound of the guitar, and a man, one of my friend’s fathers, worked in a foundry, and he was a very hard-working man, and he had, oh, hell, must have had twelve kids [laughter].  People had big families, you know.  And he had two guitars, and when he came home and got the iron filings out of his hair and washed himself off, he’d sit down and play his guitar for the kids.  I used to sit around, go over to my friend’s house sometimes and just sit there with him and listen to him play his guitar.  And so that’s what got me so interested and fascinated in the old-time blues.  Actually he was from Iowa, but he knew all these old blues tunes. 


Elvin’s Guitar Blues

© Kate Kulzer


I think the blues are quite universal, and I don’t think there’s any particular region in the United States where one is more predominant than the other, at least in that sense, in the pure blues sense, especially from an instrument like a guitar, at least.  And he would sing and play all these old tunes.  And I was just so fascinated, that I suppose he recognized that, and finally he said, “You want to try it?” and he gave me the other guitar and showed me how, first, to tune it and then how to place my five fingers and frail a little bit.  And so I gradually learned how to handle a guitar, at least in a limited capacity.


Pretty good, actually.  There was “Elvin’s Guitar Blues” and that instrumental cameo you did onscreen as gunfighter Job Cain in the movie Zachariah (click on this link for a QuickTime video clip of Elvin’s drum solo from the movie on Bernard Castiglioni’s Drummerworld web site). 


[Laughter] You saw that movie?


Terrible movie…a real oddball curiosity, to be sure.  I went to see it mainly because it featured Elvin Jones and the Firesign Theatre.  That wasn’t nearly enough, but I thought you were a way cool heavy in a Sugar Ray Robinson kind of mode.  I loved that little scene where you taunted the rube into a gunfight, shot him down and then did a stick exchange with the drummer from the James Gang and took a drum solo.  Radical. 


[Laughter] Yeah, that was a lot of fun.


And that little blues cameo you did on the nylon string guitar before they killed off Job Cain was really cool, too.  Speaking of blues guitar, that region of Mississippi your parents came from--that whole area, from Vicksburg, down on through Clarksdale and all along Highway 61, is the crossroads where the real hard blues comes from. 


Muddy Waters is from that area, right, and Howlin’ Wolf.  And they spread those sounds all over the country from down there.


Yeah, and there was a strong regional feel to that area where your parents came from.  Just like there was a particular feel to the music up in Memphis and down in New Orleans that spread north to urban centers such as Chicago.  When you were coming up, were you conscious of any particular feel to the music scene in Detroit, like a particular style of music, a style of expression?


Master Pianist, Tommy Flanagan
A Giant Of The Detroit Jazz Scene


Well, Detroit is a swinging town, you know.  They’ve got wonderful schools, so there were a lot of well-educated musicians who studied harmony and theory, and there were plenty of places for people to practice their craft, a lot of theatres and a lot of clubs.  And I think that everybody in Detroit, whether they were musicians or not, had some appreciation of music.  And they supported it.  People would come out by the thousands to see Duke Ellington and Count Basie and all these bands that came through, and they’d flock to the clubs.  It really was a very enthusiastic audience, which gave the student musicians who were trying to learn a big shot in the arm, a lot of encouragement.


Real active listeners, people you couldn't bullshit nor would you ever want to.





[L-R] Paul Chambers, Kenny Burrell, Barry Harris

Elvin’s Contemporaries

Three Major Movers Who Emerged From The Detroit Jazz Scene


That’s right.  And you know, you’d keep going to a club, and there would be maybe ten drummers sitting around, and five or six piano players, three or four trumpet players, several saxophonists and all the bassists.  There were always an extra five or six in the audience.  And everybody had the records, and the radio programs were very good; we had some good jazz stations, and so it was a rich territory, a good ground for learning.  And we talked music day and night.  And there were so many great musicians to look up to, and very talented guys your own age to look up to...Howard McGhee, J.C. Heard and Art Mardigan to name a few, and then of course there were my own contemporaries:  Barry Harris and Tommy Flanagan; Paul Chambers and Doug Watkins; Kenny Burrell and the McKinneys, Harold and Bernard.  There were just hundreds, you know, literally hundreds of great musicians:  Billy Mitchell, the Richardson brothers, James and Jerome.  Every time I name somebody, another name pops into my memory, so it could go on and on, literally hundreds of very highly competent musicians in Detroit in all sorts of styles, from the blues and ragtime to modern jazz and R&B—whatever you want.  They were classical musicians, very serious people…very serious.  I think it’s still that way.  Whenever I go out that way, I feel that same atmosphere prevails.  When Motown came into existence, I had already left.  But I do know that before the latest rioting, when that was over, most of the east side had been already turned into a highway and a lot of neighborhoods were just simply swept away with the road system.  But they’re still in the west side of Detroit, where I used to work most of the time at a place called Bluebird Inn.  That was a beautiful club there.  I worked in there for three or four years.  That’s where Miles Davis did his residence, where Sonny Stitt would do his residence.  They all played with our band, which was Billy Mitchell and my brother Thad, James Richardson and sometimes Terry Pollard would be playing piano, sometimes Tommy Flanagan, and sometimes Barry Harris.



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