Elvin Ray Jones was an American jazz drummer of the post-bop era. He showed an interest in drums at a young age, watching the circus bands march by his family’s home in Pontiac, Michigan. He served in the United States Army from 1946 to 1949 and subsequently played in a Detroit house band led by Billy Mitchell. He moved to New York City in 1955 and worked as a sideman for Charles Mingus, Teddy Charles, Bud Powell and Miles Davis.
From 1960 to 1966, he was a member of the John Coltrane quartet (along with Jimmy Garrison on bass and McCoy Tyner on piano), a celebrated recording phase, appearing on such albums as A Love Supreme and Live at Birdland. Following his work with Coltrane, Jones led several small groups, some under the name The Elvin Jones Jazz Machine. His brothers Hank Jones and Thad Jones were also jazz musicians with whom he recorded. He was inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame in 1995.
Elvin Jones was born in Pontiac, Michigan, United States, to parents Henry and Olivia Jones, who had moved to Michigan from Vicksburg, Mississippi. His two elder brothers, Hank Jones and Thad Jones, both became jazz musicians respectively on piano and trumpet. By age two, he said he knew he held a fascination for drums. He would watch the circus marching band parades go by his home as a boy, particularly fascinated by the drummers.
Following his early passion, Elvin joined his high school’s black marching band, where he developed his foundation in rudiments. Jones began service in the United States Army in 1946. He was discharged in 1949. With his mustering-out pay and an additional $35 (US$376 in 2019 dollars) borrowed from his sister, Jones purchased his first drumse
Jones began his professional career in 1949 with a short-lived gig in Detroit’s Grand River Street club. Eventually he went on to play with artists including Miles Davis and Wardell Gray. In 1955, after a failed audition for the Benny Goodman band, he found work in New York City, joining Charles Mingus’s for the Blue Moods album on Mingus’s co-owned Debut label. During the late 1950s, Jones was a member of a Sonny Rollins trio that recorded most of the album A Night at the Village Vanguard, an album cited as a high point for both Rollins and for 1950s jazz in general.
1960–1966: Association with John Coltrane
In 1960, he began playing with John Coltrane. By 1962, he had become an integral member of the classic John Coltrane Quartet along with bassist Jimmy Garrison and pianist McCoy Tyner. Jones and Coltrane would often play extended duet passages. This band is widely considered to have redefined “swing” (the rhythmic feel of jazz) in much the same way that Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, and others had done during earlier stages of jazz’s development. He stayed with Coltrane until 1966. By then, Jones was not entirely comfortable with Coltrane’s new direction, especially as his polyrhythmic style clashed with the “multidirectional” approach of the group’s second drummer, Rashied Ali.
Jones remained active after leaving the Coltrane group, and led several bands in the late 1960s and 1970s that are considered influential groups. Notable among them was a trio formed with saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist Joe Farrell and (ex-Coltrane) bassist Jimmy Garrison, with whom he recorded the Blue Note albums Puttin’ It Together and The Ultimate. Jones recorded extensively for Blue Note under his own name in the late 1960s and early 1970s with groups that featured prominently as well as up and coming musicians. The two-volume Live at the Lighthouse showcases a 21- and 26-year-old Steve Grossman and Dave Liebman, respectively. Jones played on many albums of the modal jazz era, such as The Real McCoy with McCoy Tyner as well as on saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil.
n 1969, Jones played drums for beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s 1970 LP Songs of Innocence and Experience, a musical adaptation of William Blake’s poetry collection of the same name.
Other musicians who made significant contributions to Jones’s music during this period were baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams, tenor saxophonists George Coleman and Frank Foster, trumpeter Lee Morgan, bassist Gene Perla, keyboardist Jan Hammer and jazz–world music group Oregon.
He appeared as the villain Job Cain in the 1971 musical Western film Zachariah, in which he performed a drum solo after winning a saloon gunfight.
Jones performed and recorded with his own group, the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine, whose line up changed through the years. Both Sonny Fortune and Ravi Coltrane, John Coltrane’s son, played saxophone with the Jazz Machine in the early 1990s, appearing together with Jones on In Europe on Enja Records in 1991.
Jones, who taught regularly, often took part in clinics, played in schools, and gave free concerts in prisons. His lessons emphasized music history as well as the drumming technique. In 2001, Jones was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Music from Berklee College of Music.
Elvin Jones died of heart failure in Englewood, New Jersey on May 18, 2004. He was survived by his first wife Shirley and his common-law second wife Keiko (Elvin married Keiko before divorcing Shirley, meaning that legally he and Keiko were not married), in addition to his son Elvin Nathan Jones of Seattle and daughter Rose-Marie Rosie Jones of Sweden.
On June 25, 2019, The New York Times Magazine listed Elvin Jones among hundreds of artists whose material was reportedly destroyed in the 2008 Universal fire.