Well Trane'd

Famed jazz drummer Elvin Jones comes to town

By 1962, the guys in the band knew that Coltrane liked to take long solos. They also knew that he sometimes would just go off — improvise for an hour, hour-and-a-half, exhausting his endless well of ideas, spewing his sheets of sound, turning phrases inside out, upside down, wringing out every contour and nuance. Around that time, Elvin Jones, then drummer for the John Coltrane Quartet, remembers the band playing a Saturday matinee at a place called The Showboat in Philly. Three sets, give or take, from about 3 to 5:30.

It didn't exactly work out that way. "We played the first piece and Coltrane started to play a solo," Jones recounts by phone from his home in New York City. "The next thing you know, the matinee's over. (Pianist) McCoy Tyner dropped out, (bassist) Jimmy Garrison dropped out, and we played a duet for about three hours. I don't remember having any feeling of fatigue."

At 74, Jones is hardly wont to engage in such marathon stage sessions; he admits to some diminished power and stamina behind the kit. "I think you gotta be realistic; I know that I don't have the strength that I did 50 years ago," he says with a laugh. "But I think there's enough there for what we do now — playing concerts, festivals. I can generate the energy that's necessary."

Eschewing pickup bands, Jones performs with a regular quintet. Saxophonist Pat LaBarbara has been with the drummer on and off since the early '70s. Rounding out the group are trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis, pianist Eric Lewis and bassist David Pulphus.

His current Jazz Machine may be a highly regarded post-bop ensemble; he may have backed the likes of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Sonny Stitt during his younger days in Detroit; he may have led a variety of bands and engaged in myriad projects during his storied career — but Elvin Jones will be known first and foremost as the drummer in the fabled John Coltrane Quartet from 1960 to '65. That period alone has ensured his status as a legend. That he wrote a significant chapter of jazz drumming while in the group cements his importance even further: his frenetic, whirlwind amalgam of intricate polyrhythms, the perfect complement to Coltrane's no-holds-barred exploratory style, was a mind-bending percussion breakthrough.

Still, you can't help but wonder if the Coltrane tenure is something of an albatross. Does Elvin Jones ever want to shout, "Hey, I did more than play with Trane, y'know!"

"I don't have any problems with it," says the self-effacing musician. "It's the nature of the beast."

At this point, to campaign for a revisionist history of his career would be, in the drummer's words, "an exercise in futility."

And it could've been worse. Jones could've never played with Coltrane and thus been deprived of one of the most special musical experiences any player could ask for.

He met Coltrane in the late '50s when Miles Davis asked him to sub for Philly Joe Jones during a week's engagement in Philadelphia. "During that time we became really good friends," Jones recalls. "During intermissions, we'd sit down and talk together. He seemed like a lonely type guy, very quiet, deeply religious, very spiritual. That attracted me. The spiritual part of me reached out to his spirituality. We understood each other. When we got to the point where we were finally working together regularly, on the stage or bandstand it was sort of like telepathy. He would never, for instance, announce what pieces he was going to play. You just automatically fell right in."

And as for Coltrane's extreme improvisational excesses, they didn't happen all the time, although the saxophonist was pretty windy no matter what the circumstance. Today, people are bewildered at the notion of a two- or three-hour horn solo. (Are they that different from a Grateful Dead space jam?) Coltrane's epic solos were definitely a product of their time and place. And Jones did not, and does not, see them as unusual.

"I think it's like people who exercise a lot," he explains. "They hit their stride and get into the rhythm of it and continue until they can't possibly go anymore. John would get down on his knees when he was playing. It was like he was praying. It was like he was in a trance, and he had to get everything out that he could possibly get out. I couldn't afford to go into too much of a trance. I had to support what he did, not knowing what he was gonna do. That meant I had to be pretty alert."


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Eric Snider

Eric Snider is the dean of Bay area music critics. He started in the early 1980s as one of the founding members of Music magazine, a free bi-monthly. He was the pop music critic for the then-St. Petersburg Times from ‘87-’93. Snider was the music critic, arts editor and senior editor of Weekly Planet/Creative...
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