The Formative Years
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].
“Well, Damn, I’ve Always Wanted To Play Them.”
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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?
“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.
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
Damn. So did you grow in
So had your family come up there from the South?
Yes, my mother and father
Interesting. That part of
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.
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
© Kate Kulzer
I think the blues are quite universal, and I don’t
think there’s any particular region in the
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
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
Real active listeners, people you couldn't bullshit nor would you ever want to.
[L-R] Paul Chambers, Kenny Burrell, Barry Harris
Major Movers Who Emerged From The
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