Elvin Jones: The Game Changer
by Fred W. Gretsch
My most recent “Gretsch Greatest Hits…and Hitters” articles have focused on contemporary Gretsch drummers. This time, I want to delve a bit into musical history and talk about the man who single-handedly bridged the gap between hard bop and avant-garde jazz, and changed the very nature of drumming ever after. His name was Elvin Jones.
Elvin’s influence on jazz drumming—and on jazz in general—cannot be overstated. As important a figure on drums as was his mentor John Coltrane on the saxophone, Elvin’s contributions to the art form continue to resonate with drummers more than a decade after his death in 2004. To quote one stellar jazz drummer: “Elvin was committed to playing the drums in a different way. And after he came on the scene, everyone else played differently, too.”
Elvin’s singularity dates back to his early career. After leaving the army in 1949 he played with his brother Thad Jones in a Detroit band led by Billy Mitchell. In 1955 he moved to New York, where he worked as a sideman in the bands of Charles Mingus, Teddy Charles, Bud Powell, and Miles Davis.
By 1960 Elvin was an established figure on the New York jazz scene. As such, he often took part in a unique series of events called Gretsch Nights At Birdland. These were drumming “summits,” where the great jazz drummers of the day (who were all Gretsch drum artists) would appear at the famous New York City nightclub to play separately and together. One of those sessions, which took place in April of 1960, is documented on the unparalleled jazz album Gretsch Night At Birdland. Along with Elvin, it features performances by three other great Gretsch drum artists: Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, and Charlie Persip.
But it was when Elvin joined the John Coltrane quartet (with Jimmy Garrison on bass and McCoy Tyner on piano) in 1960 that musical history was made. Elvin found a kindred spirit in Coltrane, and (with the help of bassist Jimmy Garrison and pianist McCoy Tyner) the two pioneers explored the boundaries of jazz. They often played extended duet passages, driving each other on to ever-greater heights of instrumental virtuosity and creative expression.
Over the next six years the Coltrane Quartet redefined “swing”—the rhythmic feel of jazz. Elvin’s drumming evolved from the gritty hard bop of the group’s early recordings on Atlantic, to the hurricane-force implosions of A Love Supreme (recorded in 1964 and released by Impulse records in February of 1965). That recording is considered a milestone in the history of jazz, melding the hard bop stylings of Coltrane’s early career with what came to be called “modal” and “free” jazz.
Elvin’s sense of timing, polyrhythms, dynamics, timbre, and legato phrasing set a totally new standard for drumming—one that led Life magazine to tout him as “the world’s greatest rhythmic drummer.” His unique approach baffled some listeners and inspired others. And I don’t mean just other jazz drummers. His free-flowing style was a major influence on many rock drummers as well, including Jimi Hendrix’s Mitch Mitchell and Cream’s Ginger Baker. That influence has never waned; dozens of today’s top drummers speak of Elvin with reverence and awe. He continued to perform, particularly with his own Jazz Machine, until shortly before his passing.
Although Elvin was always serious about his music, he never took himself too seriously. This is illustrated by his appearance as a villain called Job Cain in the off-beat 1971 Western film Zacharia. In that film he wins a saloon gunfight—then promptly sits down at a drumkit and performs a dynamic solo! (You can still catch that flick sometimes on late-night cable. It’s a hoot.)
Hear Elvin with the classic mid-1960s John Coltrane Quartet playing “Impressions”—including a duet segment where Elvin and Coltrane play together.
For a purely audio treat, you can listen to Elvin’s complete 1969 album Poly-Currents.
You can see Elvin’s gunfight and drum solo in the 1971 off-beat Western Zacharia.
Elvin simply burns in an unusual two saxes/bass/drums quartet format in 1973.
Elvin explains the concept of polyrhythmic styles, and demonstrates his solo technique, circa 1979.
Here’s Elvin in a clip from 1979 playing with his own quartet. His playing with the band is powerful enough…but the solo….!
Finally, hear Elvin’s own words about his drumming and the way music changed, as part of a terrific 1979 documentary called Different Drummer: Elvin Jones.