Posts Tagged ‘Elvin Jones’

Gretsch Greatest Hits…and Hitters

Wednesday, October 14th, 2015

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.

Photo: Lee Tanner

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.



The Great Gretsch Jazz Drummers Summit of 1973

Saturday, July 7th, 2012

An Audio Portrait of Four Percussive Legends

by Fred Gretsch

On July 7, 1973 the Gretsch Drum Company sponsored a unique musical event: A live concert that brought together a bevy of the company’s top artists. This “summit” of Great Gretsch Drummers featured the cream of the jazz drumming world.

The host for this historic event was promoter/producer George Wein, who has been called “the most famous jazz impresario” and “the most important non-player” in jazz history. Among his many accomplishments, Wein founded the Newport Jazz Festival—probably the best-known jazz festival in America—as well as the Playboy Jazz Festival in Los Angeles and the  New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. But in 1973 Wein was at the Wollman Amphitheater in New York’s Central Park, acting as emcee for the Great Gretsch Drummers summit.

The full roster included performances by virtually all of the top jazz drummers of the day. These included established star Max Roach, the then-young-phenomenon Tony Williams, and the unique drum-and-percussion collective led by Roach called M’Boom. Regrettably, those performances were not captured for posterity.

However, four other Great Gretsch Drummers on the bill were recorded. That stellar group included Elvin Jones, Mel Lewis, Freddie Waits, and “Papa” Jo Jones.  Their remarkable presentations have been made available for listening at Wolfgang’s Vault HERE.


Elvin Jones

The first recorded performance is by Elvin Jones, who, by 1973, had already set the jazz world on its ear during his six-year stint in the John Coltrane Quartet. In fact, many music critics regard Elvin as the most influential drummer in the history of jazz. His revolutionary multilayered rhythmic approach transformed the drums as a traditional time-keeping instrument, serving as an inspiration for drummers seeking greater improvisational freedom.

Critic and historian Leonard Feather explained Elvin’s significance this way: “His main achievement was the creation of what might be called a circle of sound, a continuum in which no beat of the bar was necessarily indicated by any specific accent, yet the overall feeling became a tremendously dynamic and rhythmically important part of the whole group.” With this freewheeling approach Elvin helped lay the foundation for the avant-garde and fusion jazz movements.

For his Gretsch Summit performance Elvin begins with a polyrhythmic exploration of the kit. Then he’s joined by Moog synthesizer player Joe Galavant and wah-wah-inflected guitarist Paul Mitsky. Their far-out, futuristic fusion jam—fueled by Elvin’s signature rolling thunder on the kit—is the edgiest and most freewheeling of the day’s performances. At the climax of the jam, Elvin lashes into the toms, driving the electronic mix to Hendrixian heights and prompting emcee George Wein to announce: “Elvin Jones, ladies and gentlemen! Strange things are happening!”

Wein then presents Elvin with his award as #1 drummer in the Down Beat International Critics Poll for 1973. In his unmistakable basso croak, Elvin responds with a gracious speech of acceptance.


Mel Lewis

As co-leader of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, Mel Lewis was widely recognized for bringing a tasteful, small-group approach to his big-band drumming. In an interview, Mel once described his subtle but highly musical style as “not pushing or pulling, but supporting.”

Mel didn’t lack for technique; he could play at break-neck tempos for lengthy periods and hardly break a sweat. But he was never one for blazing fills around the drums. For him, chops had to do with control of the instrument, a sense of color, and, above all, the ability to swing. “I learned that the power of the drums was in this smooth glide of rhythm,” he once told Stanley Crouch. “It wasn’t the volume.” So Mel wasn’t flashy or loud—just tasteful, and highly musical.

When it came to sound, Mel was a purist. He insisted on playing genuine Turkish-made cymbals, favoring lightweight models that were dark and rich with overtones. His standard setup included a 21″ ride, a 19″ crash-ride, and a 22″ “swish-knocker” with rivets. The sound of these cymbals, combined with the rich, warm sound of his wood-shell Gretsch drums equipped with natural calfskin top heads produced a sonic identity that was uniquely Mel’s.

Mel opens up his Great Gretsch Summit performance slowly, using mallets and sticks to play deliberate strokes on his toms and cymbals. Extending the solo musically as well as rhythmically, he artfully orchestrates a thoughtful and dramatic piece that highlights the melodic potential of the complete drumkit.


Freddie Waits

Next up was Freddie Waits. While never the jazz superstar that Elvin Jones was or that Tony Williams would become, Freddie was the embodiment of the solid, in-demand working drummer during the late 1960s and early ’70s. While in college Freddie played blues with Ivory Joe Hunter and Percy Mayfield. Later he became a “house drummer” for Motown Recording Studios in Detroit, where he worked with such legendary artists as The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, The Supremes, and Stevie Wonder. (Freddie drummed on Stevie’s first hit Fingertips.)

Freddie entered the jazz scene after moving to New York, where he became a member of the original New York Jazz Sextet. He went on to tour with Ella Fitzgerald, and to work with such other greats as Betty Carter, Donald Byrd, Nancy Wilson, Sonny Rollins, Freddie Hubbard, McCoy Tyner, and Johnny Hodges.

Freddie also devoted a great deal of his time and energy to the versatile percussion group M’Boom. The ensemble featured Max Roach, Omar Clay, Roy Brooks, Joe Chambers, Warren Smith, Fred King, and Ray Mantilla, all of whom contributed a tremendously wide range of ideas and influences to the group’s collective percussive identity.

For his part of the Summit, Freddie opens with an audacious eruption on the kit. Employing a take-no-prisoners approach from the outset he dives in headfirst and continues to blaze unabated over the course of eight minutes. Midway through this dynamic percussive deluge Freddie is joined by fellow M’Boom member Joe Chambers on marimba and assorted hand percussion. Together they bring the intensity of the performance to a breathtaking crescendo.


Papa Jo Jones

When Papa Jo Jones took the stage, he was the acknowledged elder statesman among the drummers on the bill—and among jazz drummers worldwide. As one-fourth of the legendary All-American Rhythm Section in the Count Basie band (with Basie on piano, Freddie Green on guitar, and Walter Page on bass) from 1936 through 1948, Papa Jo provided the swinging momentum for that legendary musical organization. In so doing, he established a standard for style and taste on the drums that influenced drummers for generations to come.

More than any other drummer in history, Papa Jo Jones developed the hi-hat into an instrument of great rhythmic and tonal variety. His hi-hat style has been characterized as swinging and driving, but never obtrusive. So it isn’t surprising that Papa Jo’s Great Gretsch Drum Summit solo spot features the hi-hat—only the hi-hat.

According to jazz author and historian Michael Steinman, “Legend has it that the young Tony Williams and the middle-aged Max Roach came out and did their best to show all the ways in which they could make sounds by using every part of their drum kits. Sly and subversive, Papa Jo came out with only his hi-hat cymbals and a pair of sticks and ‘washed them all away.’” The sixty-two-year-old drumming great held the crowd spellbound with his myriad of hip approaches to playing his signature instrument.

It’s a shame that these classic performances were not filmed so that we could have a visual as well as an audio record. But if you’re a drummer—or even just a drumming aficionado—it’s really not hard to imagine what it might have been like to witness these Great Gretsch Drummers in action. Just listen…close your eyes . . . and enjoy!