By Chip Stern
How did you get into the band in junior high school? Volunteered for the drums, did you?
Well, no, I just knew what I wanted to play, so there was no question about handing me a clarinet or any thing like that [laughter]. And there must have been at least sixteen drummers in that.
Facing Off At The Keystone Corner
© Tom Copi
They had two bands, the first and second, beginners and more advanced, and of course naturally I had to be in the beginner band. I didn’t have a snare drum of my own, so I was told to buy a pair of drumsticks and a drum pad and a book, and we had to learn the twenty-six rudiments and practice them for at least four hours per day. And the bandleader made us believe. He used to tell us how “If you don’t practice one day, you will know it, and if you don’t practice for two days, then I’ll know it, and if you don’t practice for three days, then everybody will know it!” So it was with that in mind that we enthusiastically practiced our rudiments [laughter].
How enthusiastic was your family about you practicing the rudiments for four hours a day?
Well, I practiced more than that; I practiced five, six, sometimes eight hours a day. First I would go from one to twenty-six; then I would try to use three or four rudiments per hour and just slowly work on trying to gain some control, and do it back and forth like that for a month or two. And then, of course, there were the rolls. In fact, one is never able to roll to your own satisfaction—ever, I don’t think—but I tried to be able to control the rolls, which gave one a better understanding of how to control the rest of the rudiments and to apply that to the exercises and to the marches we had to play, and try to understand how to translate rudiments into what the beats and rhythms were in the marches and that kind of thing. And to me it was fascinating. And, well, I’ve never grown out of that; I’ve always been fascinated by what one can do with the rudiments. And I used to play the rudiments backwards [laughter] or turn the books upside-down and read them like that or from right to left, from bottom right up to the top left, and all kinds of tricks just to try to be able to recognize things from any point of view or from any angle.
To be able to play anything backwards or forwards, to start phrases with either your right hand or your left hand and not get yourself all tied up in knots.
Yes, exactly. So that takes a little time, you know. And so I practiced diligently. I always kept a pair of drumsticks in my pockets. When I worked in my uncle’s dry cleaners, there were a lot of scars on the counter that can attest to the slack moments, yeah, and on the pressing machine. So there were a lot of opportunities to practice, and I didn’t waste very many of them.
The rudiments are pretty much the fundamental language of parade drumming. But how do they relate to jazz? How do you make the rudiments swing?
Well, they swing because they’re put into a rhythmic context, because they’re in a tempo that is consistent. As long as the tempo is consistent, the things will swing and you can apply most of the rudiments, like a flam or a ruff. You see, they are the natural accents to playing. A flam is a natural accent. And so, for instance, when you’re using flams, no matter where it may be it is always a sort of a rhythmic accent that contributes to the propulsion of the rhythm, and that, of course, is what swings to me. And if one can be consistent and evenhanded and not try to rush the sixteenth notes then it’ll fall right into place and in the meter and the time pattern that one happens to be playing in. It’s just a matter of consistency.
Do you feel the rudiments are applicable to jazz playing on the kit, to four-way coordination?
Most of them are, depending. Now, if you’re going to take a solo, for instance, then the rudiment in itself will help, certainly, because it helps you maintain a certain amount of control, but to play a rudiment…like for instance Gene Krupa used to play solos exclusively with rudiments, which was fine, you know, and I thought Gene Krupa was a good, swinging drummer.
“A Talent For Speed…”
But that didn’t work so well with me, because Gene had a talent—like Louie Bellson and Buddy Rich—for speed, and it sounded beautiful when they did it. I don’t think everybody can do that; I think only certain people who have that kind of facility can make the drums swing like that—exclusively with rudiments.
I sort of associate certain drummers with that kind of natural gift for playing very technical patterns with singles. But, to my ears, when you get into to the doubles and everything in between—all of those different drags, buzzes and press rolls—that’s where you start to elicit another level of colors and textures from the drums.
Exactly. Fortunately, I got to know Gene Krupa, and he was a wonderful guy, a sweetheart, and it was fascinating to watch him work up into that whole complex of patterns. That was very, very fascinating.
Right. It seems as though American drumming is a conglomeration of all sorts of impulses, remembered or forgotten, from the African traditions and the Afro-Cuban traditions and the South American traditions and the Caribbean traditions and the blues traditions as filtered through a military sensibility, sort of coming out almost in spite of the military thing.
Well, sure. All the military drumming is in strict time; it’s a very strict cadence, usually it’s [a tempo of] one hundred-twenty, and so it’s very predictable. It’s predictable in that sense like certain African rhythms are very predictable, although they can be complex and all that, but they’re also very strict and very strictly applied, with not much room for…I suppose now they must be a lot different. But when I first heard them, I think it wasn’t as sophisticated, things were not as sophisticated as they are now, and at least jazz certainly had not progressed to a point where drummers were recognized as…
[Laughter]. Yeah, I heard that so much, and I didn’t believe it until I was playing in a club and a man came up to me, and I could see he was having a good time, and he had his fist full of money, and he laid a couple of dollars on my drum and said, “I want you to make some noise.”
Rhythmic Innovator Kenny Clarke
So you see, I knew what he meant: he meant that he wanted to hear a drum solo. But just that kind of expression, meaning that it didn’t have anything to do with the music at all, is just something else. He wanted to hear something exciting, to hear a drum solo, and to him it was just noise, controlled as it might be and certainly something that he could appreciate in a certain way. But that’s as far as it went. So you know, that thought process was very revealing in a lot of ways.
Curious isn’t it. Because it seems like in American music every time there’s a significant musical advance, the drummer is at the very least a vital co-conspirator. I mean, Louis Armstrong had Baby Dodds and later on Big Sid Catlett; Lester Young and Basie had Papa Jo Jones; Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie had Kenny Clarke and Max Roach; Monk had Art Blakey; Gerry Mulligan had Chico Hamilton; Miles Davis had Philly Joe Jones and Tony Williams; and of course John Coltrane had Elvin Jones.
Well, I’ll tell you, when I heard drummer like Chick Webb, Big Sid Catlett, Jo Jones, Kenny Clarke and Max Roach I was completely inspired. I never did see Chick Webb, but I sure did hear him. One of my favorite recordings is Chick Webb’s “Liza”. I thought that was the most fascinating drum solo I’d ever heard, and I don’t think there’s anything to compare with that.
Man, Chick’s playing choruses and he’s phrasing like a harmonic-melodic instrument, he’s going past the bar lines and…
“The Most Fascinating Drum Solo I Ever Heard…Absolutely Classic.”
He’s doing everything! He’s completely avant-garde! And the tonality of the drums…you know, the texture of his sound was so beautiful, that even with the bad technology of those recordings I can imagine what it would have sounded like with the naked ear. I think it’s one of the greatest ever. It’s a classic, absolutely classic.
Chick Webb’s choruses on
Yeah, he was master, like a wizard. Yeah.
Great humor, too: all of those coy cat-and-mouse things he did with his mallets.
“Big Sid Really Fascinated Me With The Brushes.”
Well he really fascinated me with the brushes. I heard a lot of good people with the brushes. Max Roach of course. Philly Joe Jones was a great brush man. And Papa Jo, naturally—I don’t think anybody could touch Papa Jo—but Big Sid made this really vivid impression on me when I first heard him. And I didn’t think there was anything like that, because I really hadn’t heard any recordings of modern drummers at that point in my life.
Do you know what Papa Jo’s comment was to me when I first showed him that famous picture of Art Blakey and you watching appreciatively as he played brushes during one of those Gretsch Drum Nights at Birdland? “Here I am with a Gorilla and a Chimpanzee.”
[Laughter] Oh, my goodness…hahahaha—well, that’s Papa Jo for you.
For Blue Note
When you were born? Around 1950, right?
[Laughter] September 9, 1927.
Hmmm, so in terms of the time frame in which you began hearing all of these cats, by 1940 you were in junior high school, and so that would be…
was in 1947, and I was in the Army, sitting around in the barracks. I wanted to
go in the Army, you know, it was just one of those things. Patriotic, I guess [laughter]. Why not? I never graduated from high
school. I used to go up to the library
instead. I went to work when I was
fifteen years old. But at any rate, when
I was eighteen I joined the Army and then I started to have a chance to be in
the band, of course. I listened to all
these…well, some of the fellows had some recordings, and so for the first time
I heard Charlie Parker, for the first time I heard Max Roach, I heard Kenny
Clarke, I heard Big Sid—and these were the records that we had. And so it really changed my life at that
point, because I was taking timpani lessons from Rags Ragland—he was the
percussionist in the Columbus Philharmonic Orchestra—and studying vibes and
xylophone and all that from him, and so when I heard all of these great
drummers, it was really inspiring. You
see, one of my motives for joining the Army was to get out of
© Chuck Stewart
Art Blakey [L] And Elvin Jones [R] Dig On Papa Jo Jones’ Wire Brush Extravaganza
Gretsch Drum Night At Birdland, Late 1950s
“I Don’t Think Anybody Could Touch Papa Jo.”
They weren’t teaching that in any of the local colleges, however.
Nowhere [laughter]. You had to be where all the new, young musicians such as Dizzy and all these guys were leading; on the leading edge of all of what was new in music at that time—so I was captivated by that. And I’m still caught in the net [laughter]. So it was an enlightening experience for me. And fortunately, there was one other drummer there in the Army, my buddy, who was…oh, man, this guy was so good that he could listen to anybody, no matter what they were doing and no matter what the tempo was, and he’d say, “Oh, that’s what he’s doing right here.” And he’d write it out, and tell you what rudiment it was based on, break it all down and analyze it just as fast as the guy could play it. And so I was fortunate to be around him and learn as much as I could through him. It seemed as though we were always together. In our free time we’d listen to this music together and talk to each other about it. And we got to the point where he would write a book, and then I would write one and challenge him with it and see if he could play it; and he’d write one and give it to me and see if I could rise to his challenge. Well, we did that a lot, just practicing. And so I was fortunate to have somebody with that kind of a mind to bounce my ideas off and to learn from and to carry on a dialogue of musical study with. So I was very fortunate.
How did you apply all of this to the kit? Because the manner in which you hear the drum kit and apply all of these rolls and rudiments is so unique, so unmistakably Elvin. Way too many drummers are all hands and no feet—they just have no concept of the totality of the kit or how to make music on it. They're like drum-store wizards who can play single strokes with incredible velocity, but then they can’t play steady time without speeding up or closing down, and they couldn’t swing from a rope.
Yeah, well, that's true, too. The thing is I still didn’t have a drum set, so the next-best thing was for me to learn as much as I could and to try to study as much with what was available as possible.
You mean all these years when you were practicing eight hours a day, you didn’t even have a snare drum let alone a drum kit?
Wow! When did you finally get a drum kit?
Well, when I got out of the Army. I’d been stationed at the Lockbourne Air
Force Base in
What’d you get?
Well, I bought a set of W.F.L. Ludwigs, very good, very beautiful drums, I thought, white marine pearl and all that, you know [laughter]…anyway, they were my treasures. And so then I had to learn how to use them, and all of the theory in the world can’t teach a person how to play an instrument until you actually have the instrument, and then you have to try to apply some of those things that you learned and discard those things that you don’t need and learn how to use the instrument itself. So that’s what I’ve been doing ever since then [laughter]—trying to learn how to use the instruments. Naturally I had to learn the pedals and how to use my feet. But I’m not saying I had a hard time of it, because I was enjoying every second, every minute of it, you know.
You always seemed like such a natural on the drums to this innocent.
Well, I’ve always been fascinated by the drums; I’ve never really wanted to do anything else. And I thought I had prepared myself at least to start to learn how to play—how to play the instrument—and I never looked at it as “pedal this” or “this is with the right foot” or “left hand.” I always looked at it as a total, a complete instrument. And I think that’s what helped me at least begin to use what I knew, to apply my mind to the instrument in that way, as a totality—as a single instrument rather than a bunch of components.
What did you matriculate in while you were studying on the drums?
On the Hoffman Pressing Machine [laughter]. I worked at my uncle’s cleaners and several other places around the city, because one thing that was absolutely necessary, and I always knew this—and my mother and father drummed this into us—is that if you’re going to do anything, first thing you have to do is learn how to take care of yourself, and then perhaps you can do something else. But that’s the criterion for life…for living. You have to believe, certainly, in yourself, and trust in your abilities. Nothing has ever been handed to me on a platter, so I think we all have to do a certain amount of agonizing to get to where we want to be—to achieve things.
To do what we’re supposed to do. If it were all that easy we wouldn’t have any character.
You wouldn’t have any character; you wouldn't enjoy it after you got it anyway; you couldn't appreciate it—it wouldn’t have any value. I think things should have value, so that it’s not just some disposable thing.
Did you always have that sound which you ultimately manifested with
Coltrane in your mind’s ear? Or were you
always working towards finding the right context where you could implement your
conception of how to hear the band? For
instance, on those
On Sonny’s music, your playing is very combustible and exciting. I was always very inspired by the manner in which you and [bassist] Wilbur Ware handled the vamp and release transitions from an Afro-Cuban vamp to a swing release on “Old Devil Moon.” That’s a wonderful performance, but it sounds as if you’re sort of reaching for it; it didn’t sound like in your own mind that everything you were hearing you were quite able to get to.
Well, I tell you what, it’s interesting that you should say that, because I didn’t even know they were recording, and this happened at a time when I’d just gotten fired from J.J. Johnson’s band [laughter], the greatest thing that ever happened to me.
May I ask if he gave cause?
Well, we just didn’t get
along. That’s enough cause for me [laughter]. We just didn’t get along. These are marvelous musicians, certainly, and
he’s a fine man; I like him otherwise, but to work as a sideman, it always
seemed to be rubbing him the wrong way and vice a-versa. So anyway, it didn’t work out. We’d made this year tour in
Modern Jazz Master Of The Trombone
“We Just Didn’t Get Along.”
And first of all, I bought another new set of drums
then and I borrowed the money from J.J., and of course I had to pay him back
weekly, like half of my hundred and fifty bucks a week I had to give back to
him, so in eight weeks or so I gave him back the three hundred and then
some. And so I was living in
And so I came back to
A Heart And Soul For Swing
“Those Were Pete LaRoca’s Drums.”
© Chip Stern
And we came out there on
I’ll be damned. That’s the exact opposite of what I thought—I thought Pete was sitting in on your drum set and that it was your gig. Because when I heard him play, I thought, “Well, Pete tunes his drums high but he doesn’t tune them that high. That must be Elvin’s kit.”
No. I was just sitting in. And when I looked up I saw Rudy Van Gelder sitting there and Frank Wolff was standing around or Alfred Lion or somebody…maybe both. And I said, “Well, I’ll be damned—they’re recording.” So that’s how that came about. They gave me exactly seventy-five whole dollars for that. I should have had it framed, but I needed the money [laughter].
“Well, I’ll Be Damned—They’re Recording.”
Live and learn. That's interesting. You know, there are some drummers who take a backbeat approach where they syncopate in a vertical manner around the closed hi-hats, and then there are other drummers who proceed from a linear jazz conception based around a flowing ride cymbal pulse. Whereas to these ears, Elvin Jones is one the few drummers who sound as though he’s juxtaposing both approaches: someone once characterized you as having a jazz top and a blues bottom. In a jazz context, there are a lot of guys who basically play one phrase with the ride cymbal, and they have certain characteristic phrases and fills they do on the snare and the bass drum. But in listening to you over the years, the perspective was always shifting around, so that the moment a listener focused in on any one thing it would kind of diffract; and what you were playing on the ride cymbal would all of a sudden be on the snare—and then your bass drum syncopations were so radical, so exciting.
[Laughter] I just try to play the compositions, not so much imposing any particular kind of rhythm on any particular tune or composition—but to try and interpret the composition as if I’m an accompanist, fundamentally. And in addition to that, I’m responsible for the consistency of the tempo. And in addition to that, one has to try to give impetus and support and dynamic support to the different soloists and not to overwhelm them in some way that would make them uncomfortable with themselves and with the music in itself. So I’ve always thought that what’s primary is what we do in the totality—the total interpretation of the composition—and that's what I think about mostly. And the rest of it is mostly because I’ve studied and worked and trained and taught myself to be disciplined. I can do a lot of those things subconsciously, so it’s not a conscious effort to do them. And they’re not so automatic that I do the same thing every time. So there’s a certain amount of flexibility as well, because I think that’s important and it’s necessary. And I hate to be bored [laughter], and I’m sure other people hate to sit up and listen to a group or band or drummer who is always playing the same kind of licks where you could make bets on it [laughter], and win practically every time.
Where the only thing that’s missing is a monkey with the cup.
Yeah, right. So I think that’s basically my approach. I don’t say it’s a concept; it’s just a way to approach the music and to get the most out of it—to make people enjoy it. People have to enjoy what you’re doing…people should, and that’s what it’s all about, you see: not being an entertainer per se, but certainly for the enjoyment of all, so that people can have an experience with the music.
Well, for me you’ve always communicated the total joy and excitement of swing. You inspired me to try and play the instrument, and to participate in the creative give and take of jazz…and I can’t think of a higher compliment. I guess what I’m trying to say about your playing is that there’s a very powerful groove element, and yet it’s extraordinarily loose and textured and impressionistic. Especially your bass drum feel. You kind of spoiled me for other drummers, Elvin. I mean, I once told Mel Lewis that I thought playing four-to-the-floor on the bass drum was cheating. Mel laughed and said, “That’s not cheating, Chip—that’s swinging!”
Actually, my feet are always going on four. But for some reason I have a light touch on the bass drum and it doesn't always project—because I don’t want it to project. I don’t think it should, and so that’s probably the reason why you don’t think that I’m playing four on the bass drum all the time. I’m not, of course, but most of the time it is. It’s just subdued and dynamically pulled back.
Right, right. Getting back to the whole
process of coming of age on the
Exactly. Kenny Burrell was very instrumental in sustaining one particular event, because he was one of the principles. There was this theatre where they featured a repertory company. And Monday nights the theatre group was off, so we would stage concerts. It was very reasonable. I think they charged twenty-five cents at the door. And all the musicians would gather there, and it was like a big session. And of course that was the one time during the week where most of the musicians who knew each other could see each other and play together.
“Detroit is a swinging town, you know…”
And we’d pick groups that would play half an hour or forty minutes to an hour or so, and then another group would come on. And so we all got a chance to work with each other in that way. These concerts were always enthusiastically supported, and we learned a lot from each other that way: for one thing, to be friends, you know. There wasn’t any of that envy and if a person got too egotistical it was very easy to say, “Okay, go on, play with Barry, play with…[laughter] and see how if you’re gonna be egotistical you must teach us something.” So that usually took the wind out of the egotist’s sails. And it was good for all of us—everybody benefited from that.
Were you playing gigs other than that, like straight jazz gigs where you were part of the house rhythm section?
Yes, as much as we could. I was working at the Bluebird most of the
time, and other clubs. There was another
place called the
During this period, did you
get to travel to the other cities and other principalities and states,
Not so much, not so much. I didn’t.
People tend have a kind of a
heliocentric view of the universe, like things only happen here in
Yeah, right [laughter]. That's a wonderful analogy.
When you're describing the experiences you had coming up, is there anything comparable to that for young musicians today?
Only if they seek it out. I think everyone has to learn how to cope with life—with their own lives. If you want to be something; if a person wants to be a drummer or any other kind of musician, then whatever the instrument happens to be, if you want to get involved in music then it’s certainly easier now to learn the history now than when they didn’t have CDs and LPs and things like that. Everything was 78s or tapes and all this stuff. That was all very new, and the technology wasn’t very clear. Some of the tape recorders sounded so bad I didn’t like to listen to them, because they were not clear at all. It was like the wire recordings—the sound just wasn’t true. But now all these things are in the library; there are books all over the place; you can study even without a teacher, for crying out loud. You can go and listen to the tapes that are electronically filtered of early Charlie Parker—all this stuff is in the public library, so there’s really no excuse for someone saying that there’s no way for him to develop. There’s more material now than ever. But you have to seek it out. I think it’s a matter of personal ambition in that respect. You’ve got to be willing to do the work.
course it’s not easy. Places like the
Apollo Theatre no longer have showcases any more. Everybody can’t live in
The Pianist And His Baby Brother
The Great Jazz Trio Sessions
Avatar Studios, May 2002
The whole point in development is to get to a standard that one can sustain and never to lose that, never to go below that standard of professionalism. And then it’s the love and the compassion and working with your peers and colleagues, and loving one another and making the music the primary reason for you being there rather than being there to have an individual fashion show. The thing is that now it’s so easy. In the early days, certainly, when I was around that age, I always tried to do my best, and all he people I knew had that same attitude. And that was a general attitude. Of course there were a few punks and assholes, as always, but they were in the extreme minority. For the most part, everybody strove for some excellence, for some high standard, and the music was what we were all serving, and the music is the master of us all—and we had to be subservient. Everything is under that; everything has to come under that umbrella. I mean, the whole thing just makes for a general improvement: if the music is on a high standard, then everything else will come up to it, you know, and people will appreciate it that much more, and they’ll go away feeling that they have heard something and they have enjoyed the evening out and enjoyed the music and all the rest of it. And that’s what it’s all about. And that doesn't happen because somebody writes about it or because the tout is out there making his spiel. It happens because it has to be done and done properly and done correctly and done with some integrity and honesty. That’s all, just as simple as that.