Elvin Jones was a cowboy. A gunslinger if you will. There is something about the way those triplet induced fills propel a band on any record that bears his name in the credits. From John Coltrane to Sonny Rollins, these bands had a different vibe when Elvin Jones was behind the kit.
On Wayne Shorter’s “Witch Hunt”, the shots that ring out right before the solo section can be compared to a gunslinger clearing a saloon before a band of outlaws raids it.
But I am not trying to be poetic here….
Elvin Jones was a gunslinger.
If you clicked to read this you probably are aware of Elvin Jones’ role in the 1971 film Zachariah where he shoots a man then proceeds to usher him to the upper room with a classic Elvin Jones drum solo….
No I am not referring to that.
Elvin Jones was actually a gunslinger.
I have never had the opportunity to meet Elvin Jones. I probably would have lost my mind if I did. See, Elvin Jones is by far my favorite drummer. In my opinion, no one has changed the way the actual quarter note is heard, felt and played in jazz more than he has. Every beat you feel an underlying pulse drenched in African polyrhythms.
Elvin Jones is the J Dilla of jazz music…
To keep the Jazz Police off of my block:
James Dewitt “J Dilla” Yancey is the Elvin Jones of hip hop. (defund the jazz police)
So I never had the pleasure of meeting Elvin Jones, but I did get to meet one of my jazz heroes who also played in a band led by another one of my jazz heroes who told me that Elvin Jones was an actual, real life, walking, talking, drumming…. GUNSLINGER. Well, at least on one night.
In 2005, at the Pori Jazz fest I had the opportunity to annoy, I mean pick the brain of Ted Curson, a longtime trumpeter in Charles Mingus’ band. Among all the amazing stories, some of which I cannot share over the internets, was the story of when Elvin Jones came to sit in on one of Mingus’ gigs in New York during the recording of Coltrane’s Live at the Village Vanguard record. Curson told me that Elvin had been coming by after the gig all week, and Mingus was in a sour mood because his good friend and longtime band member Eric Dolphy was up the street playing with Coltrane and Elvin instead of him all week. It wasn’t until the final night that Mingus asked Elvin to sit in on the drums. Elvin was initially reluctant to do so and had also thrown back a few drinks that night. After a few yells from Mingus at the bandstand Elvin finally agreed to take the offer up.
Elvin stumbled on the stage as he approached the drum kit and Curson told me at that moment he knew he was about to experience something for the ages. Mingus told Elvin they were gonna play a blues and quickly counted off the tune. Elvin went into his “bag” and Curson told me he played the most “Elvin-y” drum fill you could imagine to start off the tune and they were off. But 8 bars in Mingus stops the entire band and starts the song over.
Again almost the same thing happens and Mingus stops the band. He turns to Elvin and says,
“Come on, can’t you play the blues muthaf@#$%r?”
Elvin replies, “Yeah man, I got it. Count the tune off.”
The song starts again, and Curson told me Elvin was in rare form. You know, doing what Elvin does. It felt great to him, but for some reason Mingus wasn’t into it. Maybe it was the sour mood of Dolphy being up the street. One of Elvin’s first touring gigs was with Mingus’ band, so Curson felt confused as to what the real issue was. But something wasn’t right to Mingus so….
Mingus stops the band again for the third time. This time the anger was visible. He again turns to Elvin.
“Stop playing all that crazy s#@t and just play the blues mutha@#$@#. Ain’t you black?”
To ask if Elvin Jones is black is….. (I’m going to leave that alone).
I guess Elvin felt the same way because at that very moment in the story Curson told me Elvin reached behind his back and pulled a pistol out the back of his pants and laid it down on the floor tom and asked Mingus what he said….
“Go head and count the tune off mutha@$#%r!”
Elvin Jones was a gunslinger.