Elvin Jones is one of the most important drummers in history of Modern Jazz.
Elvin Ray Jones was born September 9, 1927 in Pontiac, Michigan, the youngest of ten children. His father, originally from Vicksburg, Mississipi, was a lumber inspector for General Motors, a deacon in the Baptist church, and a bass in the church choir. "The greatest lady in the world", as Elvin describes his mother, encouraged him and above all taught him the value of self-sufficiency; the strenght to survive that "was especially valuable to me in the beginning as a musician". Music was in full flower in the Jones home. Brother Hank is known as one of the finest pianists in jazz, and brother Thad became a highly successful trumpet and flugelhorn player, arranger and band leader.
By age 13, determined to be a drummer, Elvin was practicing eight to ten hours a day. He went nowhere without drum sticks in his pocket, and would beat out rhythms on any available surface. Early influences Elvin likes to cite range from Kenny Clarke, Max Roach and Jo Jones to parade drummers and the American Legion Drum Corps! In 1946 Elvin enlisted in the Army, and toured with a Special Services show called Operation Happiness - as a stagehand. Unofficially, however, he was honing his own musical skills and gaining confidence, playing at post social affairs.
Jones was discharged in 1949, returning to a Detroit musical scene that was as vibrant as any outside New York. His first professional job was at Grand River Street, where things went well until the leader absconded with the receipts on Christmas Eve, Elvin began to frequent the Bluebird Inn, where he was sometimes asked to sit in. He always refused, thinking "it was presumptuous to sit in with these musicians, because... they were the greatest people I knew." In time, Jeader Billy Mitchell hired Elvin, and in three years at the club he backed up visiting stars including the legendary Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt, Wardell Grey, and, for six months, Miles Davis. In Addition, Monday nights there were jam sessions Elvin organized at his home, Tuesdays a concert series near a local university, and Elvin and his brother Thad promoted Sunday festival-style concerts. The long list of musicians Elvin played with during this period includes Miles Davis, Sonny Stitt, Tommy Flanagan, Pepper Adams, Barry Harris, Kenny Burrell, Milt Jackson, Lou Hayes and Yusef Lateef.
Elvin made his move to New York ostensibly to audition for a new Benny Goodman band. Instead, he ended up with Charles Mingus, and in subsequent years he developed his style with Bud Powell, Miles Davis, the Pepper Adams-Donald Byrd Quintet, Art Farmer and J.J. Johnson. He also had his first experiences playing with Miles' tenor man and the increasingly celebrated recording artist John Coltrane. After leaving Miles in 1960, Coltrane was touring in San Francisco with his new group when he flew back to New York to seek out Elvin. Elvin joined one of jazz' most celebrated alliances in, of all places, Denver, Colorado. Through 1966, Elvin contributed to some of the most controversial, influential, and ultimately important music in jazz. Among the triumphant recordings from his great association are "A love Supreme" and "Coltrane 'Live' at the Village Vanguard". About this experience, Elvin comments: "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 is anything like perfect harmony in human relationships, that band was as close as you can come".
In March 1966, Elvin left Coltrane. After a brief European tour with Duke Ellington's band he returned to New York to begin his distinguished career as leader, with a series of innovative piano-less trios featuring Joe Farrell on tenor alto and flute, and one of several bassists including Jimmy Garrison, Bill Wood, Charlie Haden and Wilbur Little. Also in 1966 Elvin married Keiko, whom he met in Nagasaki, Japan. Keiko has become Elvin's partner in every sense: besides providing inspiration, she is also his personal and business manager. Keiko is involved creatively as composer and arranger; Elvin has performed and recorded many of her works, including "Mr. Jones", "Shinjitsu" and "Zange". Elvin has been heard on nearly 500 recordings, with no end in sight. He also made a temporary detour to Hollywood in 1971 to appear as the character Job Cain in the ABC Paramount film "Zachariah". Reflecting his deep commitment to the music ("Playing is not something I do at night" he said, "It's my function in life").