Sound Signatures



Elvin Jones

 The Formative Years

Part 3


By Chip Stern



Right.  When you finally left Detroit, did you walk out, were you driven out, or were you invited?


No, no, I was invited.  It was with Benny Goodman.  It was in 1954…no, it was earlier than that.  My brother Hank was playing with Benny Goodman’s band, and he had just made this film, The Benny Goodman Story.  And he was getting his band reorganized to go on a world tour as part of the promotion for this film. 


[L] Benny Goodman Trio

[R] Shadow Wilson


And so they were auditioning all kinds of drummers to play these Gene Krupa solos.  And so my brother put the word in for me, and I guess on the strength of that, Benny Goodman called me one night.  I was working at a club out in Detroit, and the guy who owned the place was a big fan, a big Benny Goodman fan, and he thought it was the most wonderful thing in the world because he spoke to Benny Goodman on the telephone.  And he would have driven me to New York himself, he was so happy for me at that point, and I really wasn’t all that enthused, because I was listening to Max Roach and Roy Haynes, Art Blakey and Philly Joe and all these guys, and I knew what Gene Krupa was doing, and I knew that I didn’t want to do that—not that I didn’t like it or appreciate it.  It just wasn’t something that I would care to do.  I wasn’t that much of a professional then in that sense, so my heart wasn’t in it, and so needless to say I didn’t pass the audition, and neither did Shadow Wilson, for that matter, or several other…


Shadow Wilson didn’t pass the audition?


No, he didn’t [laughter].  He was just before me.  And there were several other drummers who also took the audition, and they didn’t satisfy Benny.


Shadow Wilson played the most swinging quarter notes since man first walked erect.  Damn.  So Shadow couldn’t cut it with Benny either.


He couldn’t cut it.  And then I was there, and I thought it was the most depressing audition ever.  I said, “Well, if I ever have to make another audition, I’ll never have another job,” you know.  That’s the way I felt [laughter] at that particular time.  But at any rate, it got me to New York, and at least that was something, not that I was waiting on my big break.  I could have come anyway; I worked all the time, so I mean, I was not destitute; I could buy an airplane ticket if I wanted to, so it was not a big thing like that.  I wasn’t so overwhelmed by that.  It was just that I really wish that I had been able to cope with it, but I didn’t.  It was just one of those things.


So you never actually played with Benny.


No, not at all.  I never even saw Benny Goodman, as a matter of fact.  I talked to his manager—Benny wasn't there.  It was the manager, the band manager.  Everybody introduced themselves, okay, but there were eighteen guys, and I could never remember all of them.  Hank was there, of course.  But then they started dropping out one by one, and then Bobby Brookmeyer was there as well, and it just got to the point where there were about six people left, and we're jamming, and I’m still trying to play “Sing, Sing, Sing”.    The book was about three inches thick, every note is written out for the solo, and I was trying to go through that.  I said, “Who’s turning the pages, anyway?” I couldn’t play and turn the pages, and so it was just a disaster.  But it served me well.  So afterwards I took myself and stayed in Hank’s hotel room for a few days, and then I ran into Kenny Clarke, and Philly Joe Jones, who came by to console me [laughter], so we got to be very good friends from that, and Art Blakey was around as well.  I really had a good time.  And I got a call from the Sauter-Finnegan band, but I said no, I didn’t think so—I was sort of allergic to big bands at that point [laughter], and Miles Davis told me about his group but I said no, I didn’t want to go with him either. 


Philly Joe Jones


Oh?  Why not?  Chemical reactions?


No, no, it was just personal.  I didn’t want to get into that.  Well, it was mostly personal.  So I didn’t.  And then Charlie Mingus…


Was that around the time of that session you did with Charlie Mingus and Miles?  I remember seeing that record when I was a neophyte jazz fan, and I instinctively reached for my wallet and snapped it up.  I figured “Man, this ought to be really ferocious,” and then I put it on, and it was surprisingly tentative and subdued.


Well, that’s what they wanted, because Teddy Charles didn’t have a very strong sound on vibes—he was very light, and of course the dynamic had to be at least below the level of the vibe tone in order for it to have any balance at all.  At least, that’s what I thought.  And so I played that way. And at least it was time; I wasn’t the featured artist or anything, so it was no big deal; I was just there to keep the time and because Mingus asked me to do it.  And so then Mingus called, and he and Teddy Charles and J.R. Montrose and I formed this group, and we played the Newport Festival.  It was in 1954, I guess. 


Charles Mingus


We played that festival, and we went on a sort of a circuit and played jobs all over, in Connecticut, in New England and Washington, D.C., all up in Canada, and around.  Then Teddy and Mingus had a big argument—they argued all the time.  Teddy had a huge, beautiful car, I think it was a Pontiac convertible, so all the drums could actually fit very easily in the trunk.  So we all piled in there and drove to all these jobs, with Teddy and Mingus in the front seat arguing the whole time, and J.R. and I sitting in the back listening [laughter].  It was funny…peculiar situations.  And then they fell out in Toronto, and in retrospect I suppose Mingus engineered all of this, because right afterwards he asked me to come to work with Bud Powell and him, because the band broke up as a trio.


There are no recordings of that, though, right?


No, no recordings, because at that time Arthur Taylor was the choice for the management of Bud Powell to make all of his recordings.  I think it was RCA Victor at that time; Bud had a contract with Victor.  At any rate, I didn’t make any of his recordings. I wish I had, because Bud was a wonderful man.  Oh, he was ill; he was extremely ill, but he was such a sweet and beautiful guy…a wonderful person and a very loving man. 


Bud Powell

“…Such a Sweet And Beautiful Guy…An Absolute Master.”


You know, he got better, and the music playing was very therapeutic for him.  And he had long periods of lucidity.  But because of the illness, when we first began Bud was sort of frozen at the piano and I realized that he didn’t know how the tunes started.  So I would whistle between my teeth the first few bars of the piece, and he’d smile, and then he’d start playing, because nobody could hear the whistle.  I was right next to the piano, and it wouldn’t be picked up by a microphone. 


I always resented the notion that basically all his greatest playing occurred around 1948-1949 and thereafter he wasn’t worth a damn.


Oh, not at all.  I think he was great up to the day he died.  You know, he was an absolute master.  I’ve seen him play in a place in Cleveland where we were working, literally packed with people, everybody drinking and playing around, and Bud played the first note, and the place became as quiet as a cathedral.  You wouldn’t have believed that you were in a nightclub.  It was just that beautiful.  And of course Mingus was a virtuoso.  Unfortunately that band wasn’t together for a very long time.  He went back to France.


What would have been the other musical experiences after Bud Powell?  Because you weren’t heavily recorded during this period, your emergence as a rhythmic innovator made it seem as if you came out of nowhere.


Well, I didn’t do any recordings, or I could count them on one hand, certainly.  But I did some commercial recordings, but one’s name never gets on those labels.  It was just sort of recordings for Muzak and that kind of stuff.


Elvin Jones Muzak—now there’s an advanced concept.


[Laughter] It’s just that you get a call and you go to the studio and there it is, you know, violins and orchestra.  It was just the normal three-hour commercial record dates.  They called it “Mickey Mouse Music” back then [laughter].


There was a Steve Lacy record somewhere in that period.


Oh, yeah, and a Lee Konitz, and I’m not chronological about this at all, because if these things happened I’m not so sure what the dates were.  But I enjoyed that with Steve and with Lee as well.  I did the one with Lee, I think, before the one with Steve.  Steve is a very, very intense man, a very interesting fellow, with a good command of his instrument as well you know—a good musician who is always improving and gets better all the time.


So you and Steve made that album of Monk compositions.  Did you ever get a chance to play with Monk in that period?


That’s right.  Well, no, not really.  I played with Monk but not in that particular period.  I don’t recall exactly when it was.  I was working at the Roundtable.  You know that place?  It was on East 52nd Street between Park and Lexington.


Is that when you had one of those funny pearl-finished Gretsch kits?  As I recall you had a kind of psychedelic Gretsch kit there for a second.


Yeah, I had that one.  I had several sets by then, but I think that was the one I took over there.  But it was Tyree Glenn and Tommy Potter, Tommy Flanagan and myself.  Sonny Greer, I think, had his drums there all the time, although I never saw Sonny in there. He had beautiful drums.  He had timpani and everything. 


[L] Sonny Greer and [R] Thelonious Monk


Sonny was a very good percussionist.  And he kept his drums there, or some of them anyway, in the dressing room, and it started off with my brother Hank playing piano; he played one night, and then Tommy Flanagan came in [laughter].  I think Hank was sort of farming that job out to different people.  They did that in those days because both Tyree and Hank worked at CBS in the studio.  Jack-something had this early-morning thing, and Tyree and Hank worked that show with him.  And they worked all the time, all day; and then they left the studios to do club dates and all kinds of stuff that kept them really, really busy.  I was sort of getting into that then, staying with Tyree a lot of the time, moving into that orbit, which was nice.  We played just as hard as anybody else, but it was in a tuxedo.  And it was nice.  They would work the Embers and the Roundtable.  And then during that time is when Monk was working at the Five Spot, the one on 4th Street near the Bowery.  Charlie Rouse, Abdul-Malik and Roy Haynes were in the group. And one Saturday morning, Sonny Rollins came to an apartment Pepper Adams and I shared over on East 6th Street right off 2nd Avenue…it wasn't so fashionable then [laughter].  We were paying fifty bucks a month…twenty-five apiece.  So anyway, Sonny came knocking on the door and he said, “Monk wants you to go to Montreal with him.” 


So I said, “Well, okay, but…wait a minute.”  I tried to think of a drummer I could get to take my place the coming Saturday night, and I called Kenny Dennis…he married Nancy Wilson.  I called Kenny and he agreed to do it.  And I told him “Listen, this is Tyree, you know?   So none of that fancy shit—you’ve got to play straight [laughter].  Because Tyree is a soloist and he doesn’t need all of that, and so you just play along with him and everything will be fine—keep the time, that’s all.”  As a sub one shouldn’t try to be too flamboyant, I don't think—I just don't believe in that.  At any rate, he agreed to it, and then I called Tyree and laid it out for him, that I wanted to do this favor for Monk, and I said “If it’s okay—otherwise I can tell him no, that we can’t do it. But I’ve already arranged for Kenny Dennis to come and work for me.”  I didn’t give Tyree a chance to speak [laughter]…so I got off that gig, and Monk was happy, and we went on up to Montreal.  Roy didn’t want to go for some reason, and Abdul-Malik missed the train, so it was Charlie Rouse, Monk and I.  We hired a bass player up there, but he was so frightened he couldn’t play a note [laughter], so it was just the three of us.  I mean he was up on stage with us but he couldn’t play anything—just too overwhelmed, I guess.  Still, it was a treat to play with Monk. 


Earlier you mentioned traveling that big Pontiac with Mingus’ bass, a set of vibes, a tenor case and your drum set—that car must have had a trunk like a casket.  How would your whole approach to equipment have evolved during this period?  Your first drum set was that W.F.L. Ludwig kit.  I mean, I once asked you about the eighteen-inch bass drum, and I had a whole elaborate theory in mind about your use of it:  how because of the smaller volume, you can tune it to a higher pitch without muffling; hit it harder; take a more percussive approach.  You listened politely and then said, “Well, Chip, it fit into the trunk of a car.”  You went on to explain you’d been playing an eighteen-inch bass drum since the ‘50s. 


Yeah, I wore that W.F.L. kit out.  They were good drums, they were just too ponderous, and ultimately they served their purpose, actually, ‘cause there were a few lugs missing [laughter] and various things.  I just got tired of packing them up, so I retired them.


                                                                                                                                                                                                     © Tom Copi


Elvin Jones On His Classic Gretsch-K. Zildjian Set-Up


Right, and this was about the time when you got with Gretsch?  Can you tell me about your relationship with that company and Phil Grant, who seemingly hooked up all of the great drummers and made Gretsch Drums and K. Zildjian cymbals synonymous with modern jazz? 


If it were not for Phil Grant, I probably would have been in deep trouble, because he was so responsive to my requests for sticks and brushes and drum heads and pedals—the whole nine yards.  Without the slightest hesitation he would grant these requests, because I broke a lot of drumsticks and ran through a lot of pedals, especially during the six years I was with Coltrane.  It was hard for me to maintain my equipment standards, because I just carried five, six pedals all the time, and then I had to carry at least seven or eight of each dimension of drum heads, so that was another bag.  And I cracked dozens of cymbals.  At first I used to try to get them repaired; this guy said when they split a good man can drill holes at each end of the split and then cut it out.  But it changed the sounds too much for me, and I would ask Phil for cymbals.  I mean, he’d take me right to the bin and say, “Just pick what you want.”  He was a wonderful guy who was really nice to me.


By the time you and Tony [Williams] and Mel [Lewis] had picked through the bin, there wasn’t anything left for the average guy on the street.  You know, we’d go out looking for K, Zildjian rides because we heard how great you guys sounded using archetypical versions of them, but unless you were very lucky or had someone looking out for you at a place like the old Professional Percussion Center you might just end up with a really ratty-sounding thing.




Elvin Jones And Armand Zildjian

Introducing One Of The New American K. Zildjian Models

“…It’s The Stroke That Makes The Tone.” 


Well, I tell you, I never had any problems.  The way I picked a cymbal, I would always use a twenty or an eighteen, and of course the highest are the fourteen-inch hi-hats.  I’d go to the bin, I’d get two fourteens, I’d go to the eighteen bin, get an eighteen, then I’d go to the twenty bin and get a twenty, and that was that—none of that banging and trying.  You know, what’s that anyway?  I mean, first of all, you have to play the cymbal just as you would have to play a trumpet, and so it doesn’t really matter if it’s gold or silver or brass or steel, you know.  If you’ve got a good mouthpiece you can play it.  So I never did believe in going through that whole charade of listening to the vibrations and the ding-ding-ding; that seemed to me to be so superfluous, because it’s the stroke that makes the tone, and if the cymbal isn’t flawed to begin with, then the more you play it the more it becomes pliable, and of course it’ll vibrate more, and the tone grows—and once I discovered that, I quit trying. I used to do the same thing, although I’d get to the point where if you’d bang a couple of cymbals I couldn’t tell the difference.  My ear would be completely blank; it would just be dulled to any kind of subtleties.  So I concluded, “Well, the best thing to do is if I’m behind it I can tell if it sounds good or not and I can put more pressure on it to bring the tone up or hit it near the crown and near the leading edge or whatever,” and the tone changes in each position. So it’s very simple.


Well, you understand there is a major mystique about your cymbals.


[Laughter] Oh, really?


Are you kidding me?  I’ve even got a cymbal on my set I call Elvin.  So, yeah, sure—absolutely…there’s an Elvin Jones cymbal sound some of us have been inspired to pursue.  Myself, I’ve gone through hundreds of cymbals at a time of the same type, trying to discover general characteristics.  I’ve found that certain cymbals in certain sizes with particular profiles and bell shapes, in certain weight classes will have a common range of fundamental pitches, while the whole overtone series seems to derive from the relationship between the profile of the cymbal and the bell.  And you were an inspiration for that approach, because I was always very moved by the tonality of your drum kit; the manner in which you tuned the drums, and the relationship between drums and cymbals seemed very specific to my ears—it didn’t seem casual at all.  And your cymbals were very much a part of that. 


I don’t doubt that method is valid; it’s just that I’ve never really had that kind of time or that kind of patience to just go through two dozen cymbals and try them all [laughter].  Phil Grant had an explanation to me about judging cymbals, and I found that worked just as well as looking for a specific pitch.  Gretsch sold cymbals to high schools, to philharmonic orchestras and to professional bands, as well as to jazz musicians, and Phil’s criteria was this.  He told me that “Some of these cymbals are band cymbals or orchestra cymbals—and it comes down to the weight, the thickness.  Some of them are so thick that even though you like the sound, and while it might be the right pitch, the damn thing is so thick—it takes such a stiff stroke to bring the sound out of it—that it just isn’t worth carrying around unless you want it for a specific purpose, like in a recording studio where you want this particular texture.”  But otherwise, they would mark them “Medium-Thin” and “Heavy” and whatever. 


Elvin Jones At 75

Viewing The Drum Set As A Totality

“…As A Single Instrument,

Rather Than As A Bunch Of Components.”

© Jos L. Knaepen


I usually used the mediums.  I found that they were most consistent, at least for my tastes, and so based on those criteria I was able to consistently get very good cymbals.  And although I’ve tried others, I don’t know whether that was different or not, but if I found one that was too heavy, I would just drill some holes in it and make it a rivet cymbal, and leave it at that, use it that way rather than trying to work the stiffness out of it.  And so then, of course, that changes the texture.  If I had two of them, I could work it out in a few months by crashing them together.  When you really get one that will respond to everything, then a cymbal is a magnificent instrument.  Sometimes they’re very stiff, and you just have to play them a while.  It takes some time, sometimes as long as a year, to really break in a cymbal.  When at first if you’ve got a lot of them, of course, then it’s easy for you to say, “Oh, well, I’ll just put it aside, I won’t use it, or I’ll exchange it or something else.”  But if you persist it’ll gradually break in.  








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