Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Jones, Elvin (Ray)

Elvin Jones expanded the jazz drummer’s role from timekeeper to volatile improviser. Jones’s approach was more extreme and rhythmically advanced than many of his predecessors, and his ability to blur the end of one measure with the start of another made his sound an intense, polyrhythmic, tension-building force.

Elvin Ray Jones was born on September 9, 1927 in Pontiac, Michigan. His father was a lumber inspector for General Motors who sang bass in the church choir. Elvin’s mother, a homemaker, raised a total of ten children, of whom Elvin was the youngest.

Two of Elvin’s older brothers are also jazz musicians: Hank, a pianist, and Thad, a trumpeter and arranger. As a child, Elvin was exposed to gospel, blues, and jazz through both his parents and older siblings, and his musical talents became evident at a very young age. By his early teens, Elvin was already drumming in the style of his early influences, Jo Jones and Shadow Wilson.

Jones spent 1946 to 1949 in the United States Army. When he returned, he immediately immersed himself in the rich Detroit jazz scene. Billy Mitchell, a tenor saxophonist and bandleader, soon hired both Elvin and Thad Jones to play at the Bluebird Inn, where they backed jazz legends such as Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt, Wardell Gray, and Miles Davis during their three-year stint there.

After this successful run in Detroit, Jones moved to New York in the mid-1950s. He was undeterred by his unsuccessful audition to join Benny Goodman’s group, and remained in New York, where he freelanced with almost all of the era’s leading names, including Charles Mingus, Bud Powell Gil Evans, J.J. Johnson and Miles Davis.

Elvin’s most famous early recording came from a run of dates with Sonny Rollins at the Village Vanguard in November of 1957. Rollins and Jones performed only with a bassist, and the lack of chordal accompaniment forever altered the scope of improvisational possibilities between the drummer and soloist in modern jazz. “I Can’t Get Started”and “Old Devil Moon” are fine examples of the interaction between the two musicians.

In 1960, Jones joined John Coltrane’s now “classic” quartet. The perfect foil for Coltrane’s musical personality, the pair developed a virtually telepathic relationship in which they anticipated every intense climax or rhythmic motive.

Highlights from Jones’s tenure with Coltrane include their Latin-to-swing version of “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes,” “Chasin’ the Train”and ”Spiritual (B)”from their performances at the Village Vanguard in 1961.Other crowning achievements with Coltrane is A Love Supreme, and a master-class in sustained intensity from a 1965 recording at the Half Note, entitled “One Up, One Down.”

During his nearly six years with Trane, Jones also freelanced and appeared on some of the sixties’ most memorable tracks, such as “Dance Cadaverous” on Wayne Shorter’s Night Dreamer, and ”Inner Urge” on Joe Henderson’s Inner Urge.

Elvin began recording as a co-leader with increasing regularity in the 1960s. Successful collaborations in the late 60s included a session with bassist Richard Davis entitled Heavy Sounds (1968), and a semi-regular trio with tenor saxophonist Joe Farrell and bassist Jimmy Garrison that can be heard on Puttin’ It Together (1968).

Jones spent much of the 1970s recording as a leader as well, including sessions with a young Dave Liebman from the Lighthouse Club in California and an octet recording with Clark Terry and James Moody entitled Summit Meeting (1976). The late 70s saw Jones collaborate with altoist Art Pepper, under Jones’ name (Very R.A.R.E., 1978) as well as under Pepper’s name (The Complete Village Vanguard Sessions, 1977).

Jones’s final act was to form the Jazz Machine, a revolving door of jazz musicians that released its first recordings in 1978. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the band toured and released records, many of them capturing the group live in concert. These records featured, in different combinations, musicians Frank Foster, Roland Prince, Sonny Fortune, Richard Davis, Nicholas Payton, Javon Jackson, Brad Jones and Ravi Coltrane. The Jazz Machine continued touring and recording until Jones’s death in 2004.

Jones and Nagasaki native Keiko Jones were married in 1966, and remained married until his death. Keiko acted as his personal and business manager, and also arranged and composed charts for the Jazz Machine. Jones is survived by one son, Elvin Nathan Jones, of California, and one daughter, Rose-Marie Fromm, of Sweden.

Jones left an indelible mark on jazz drumming. His style summed up the accomplishments of his predecessors - Kenny Clarke, Roy Haynes, Jo Jones and Max Roach – yet he gave the drums a speaking voice that was entirely his own.

His prodigious technique, four-limb independence and penchant for polyrhythmic invention were coupled with a thunderous intensity He occasionally shifted ride-cymbal accents from the downbeats of to the upbeats of beats two and four were revolutionary and copied by nearly every subsequent jazz drummer. (From: one – TWO-uh – three – FOUR-uh / To: one – two-UH – three – four-UH).

Jones’s ability to remain musical and tasteful at a thunderous volume pushed his collaborators to new musical heights, and made him a favorite of soloists as well as fellow drummers. Jones has been inducted into the Halls of Fame of the Percussive Arts Society, Modern Drummer, Downbeat Critics Poll, and Zildjian.


As a leader:

Together! (with Philly Joe Jones, 1961), Elvin Jones and Company (1961), Elvin! (1961), Illumination! (1963), Dear John C. (1965), And Then Again (1965), Midnight Walk (1966), Live at the Village Vanguard (1968), Puttin' It Together (1968), The Ultimate Elvin Jones (1968), Heavy Sounds (1968), The Prime Element (1969), Mr. Jones (1969), Poly-Currents (1969), Coalition (1970), Merry-Go-Round (1971), Genesis (1971), Live at the Lighthouse Vol. 1 & 2 (1972), Elvin Jones Is on the Mountain (1975), New Agenda (1975), Elvin Jones Live at Town Hall: John Coltrane Memorial Concert (1976), Summit Meeting (1976), The Main Force (1976), Time Capsule (1977), Remembrance (1978), Very R.A.R.E. (1978), Love and Peace (1978), Live in Japan 1978: Dear John C. (1978), Heart to Heart (1980), Earth Jones (1982), Brother John (1982), For John (1982), Reunited (1982), Love Me with All Your Heart (1983), Live at the Village Vanguard, Vol. 1 (1984), Live at Pitt Inn (1985), In Europe (1991), The Elvin Jones Jazz Machine in Europe (1991), Youngblood (1992), It Don't Mean a Thing (1993), When I Was at Aso Mountain (1993), Going Home (1993), Live in Japan (1995), Jazz Machine (1997), Familiar (1997), Jazz Machine, Vol. 2 (1999), Fumio Karashima/Moon Flower (1999), The Truth: Heard Live at the Blue Note (2004), On the Mountain (2005), Tribute to John Coltrane: A Love Supreme (2005)

With John Coltrane:

In 1960: Coltrane Jazz; The Heavyweight Champion; My Favorite Things, Pt. 1&2; Coltrane's Sound; Coltrane Plays the Blues; The Coltrane Legacy; Alternate Takes

In 1961: Africa/Brass, Ole Coltrane; The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings; The Other Village Vanguard Tapes; From the Original Master Tapes; Coltrane "Live" at the Village Vanguard; Impressions; Live in Paris 1961 (Featuring Eric Dolphy); The Complete Paris Concerts; The Complete Copenhagen Concert; Coltrane Quartet and Quintet in Europe; Ballads

In 1962: That Dynamic Jazz Duo!; Coltrane; Impassioned Tenor Man; Duke Ellington and John Coltrane; The Complete 1962 Stockholm Concert, Vol. 1; Blue Cover: Blue Train Live on Mount Meru, Vol. 1; Yellow Cover: Blue Train Live on Mount Meru, Vol. 2; Stockholm '62: The Complete Second Concert, Vol. 1&2; The Copenhagen Concerts; Impressions of Europe; The Complete Graz Concert Vol. 1&2

In 1963: John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman; Coltrane Live at Birdland; Orange Cover: Blue Train 1963; The European Tour; The Complete Copenhagen Concert, Vol 1; Tempo Di Jazz; Afro Blue Impressions; The Paris Concert

In 1964: Crescent; A Love Supreme

In 1965: The John Coltrane Quartet Plays; Live at the Half-Note: One Up, One Down; Creation; Brazilia; Kulu Se Mama; Living Space; Transition; Infinity; Ascension Ed. 1&2; New Thing At Newport (with Archie Schepp); John Coltrane Quartet Live In Concert: A Love Supreme; Live in Paris; Live in Antibes; Live in Comblain-La-Tour; Sun Ship, First Meditations (for Quartet); Live in Seattle (featuring Pharaoh Sanders); Om; Selflessness Featuring My Favorite Things; Meditations

As a Sideman (Selected):

Blue Moods (Miles Davis, 1955), Jay and Kai (J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding, 1956), Farmer's Market (Art Farmer, 1956), Sonny Rollins Plays (Sonny Rollins and Thad Jones, 1957), The Magnificent Thad Jones, Vol. 3 (Thad Jones, 1957), A Night at the Village Vanguard (Sonny Rollins, 1957), The Cool Sound of Pepper Adams (Pepper Adams, 1957), Soul Stirrin' (Bennie Green, 1958), Reflections (Steve Lacy, 1958), The Pepper-Knepper Quintet (Pepper Adams and Jimmy Knepper, 1958), Great Jazz Standards (Gil Evans, 1959), Sliding Easy (Curtis Fuller, 1959), Sketches of Spain (Miles Davis, 1959), Silver Vibes (Lionel Hampton, 1960). Out of the Cool (Gil Evans, 1960), Ready For Freddie (Freddie Hubbard, 1961), Motion (Lee Konitz, 1961), Into Something (Yusef Lateef, 1961), Inception (McCoy Tyner, 1962), Judgment! (Andrew Hill, 1964), In 'N Out (Joe Henderson, 1964), Night Dreamer (Wayne Shorter, 1964), Matador (Grant Green, 1964), Stan Getz and Bill Evans (Stan Getz and Bill Evans, 1964), Juju (Wayne Shorter, 1964), Into Somethin' (Larry Young, 1964), Inner Urge (Joe Henderson, 1964), Speak No Evil (Wayne Shorter, 1964), Rip, Rig and Panic (Roland Kirk, 1965), Unity (Larry Young, 1965), Once Upon a Time (Earl Hines, 1966), East Broadway Run Down (Sonny Rollins, 1966), At the Village Vanguard (Dizzy Gillespie, 1966), New York is Now! Vol. 1 (Ornette Coleman, 1968), Harlem Blues (Phineas Newborn Jr., 1969), Trident (McCoy Tyner, 1975), The Peacocks (Jimmie Rowles, 1975), The Trip (Art Pepper, 1976), The Complete Village Vanguard Sessions (Art Pepper, 1977), Something for Lester (Ray Brown, 1977), Super-Session (Tommy Flanagan, 1980), Rejoice (Pharaoh Sanders, 1981), The Main Ingredient (Shirley Horn, 1995), Time Is Of the Essence (Michael Brecker, 1999), Bill Frisell with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones (Bill Frisell, 2004)


Kahn, Ashley. A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album. New York: Viking Adult, 2002.

Porter, Lewis. John Coltrane: His Life and Music. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998.

Ratliff, Ben. Coltrane: The Story of a Sound. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2007.

Spagnardi, Ronald. The Great Jazz Drummers. Cedar Grove, New Jersey: Modern Drummer Publications, 1992.

Contributor: Eric Novod