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Elvin Jones Biography

Born in 1927, Michigan native Elvin Jones’ fascination with rhythm was fully blossomed by his second birthday as he delighted in watching circus bands parade past his family home. A musical household, two of Jones’ 9 siblings, Pianist Hank and trumpeter Thad, became notable Jazz musicians in their own right.

Jones enlisted in the Army in 1946, where he toured with the US Army Band as a stagehand. Despite never becoming a performing member of the group, Jones used this opportunity to hone his skills and transform himself from a hobbyist into a professional. After being discharged in 1949 and returning home, Jones purchased his first drum set and moved to nearby Detroit’s vibrant Jazz scene. He secured gigs as a local, in-house musician for the larger acts touring in Detroit such as Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt, Wardell Grey, and Miles Davis.

Jones moved east to NYC in 1955 to audition for the Benny Goodman band. Disappointingly he was not hired by Goodman, but was able to find work playing with pianist Charles Mingus’ band, performing on the record J is for Jazz. After stints with Bud Powell, Miles Davis, the Pepper Adams-Donald Byrd Quintet, and Art Farmer, Jones was approached by Davis’ former saxophonist, celebrated up-and-comer John Coltrane, about joining his quartet. Jones accepted the offer and subsequently recorded some of Jazz’s most important, controversial, and recognizable albums, such as A Love Supreme and Live at the Village Vanguard.

Jones powerful and abrasive drumming was perfect for Coltrane, whose style required a beat that could flow with the dynamic and innovative sound of Coltrane. Jones’ style accompanied the quartet perfectly and was often compared to the layered, polyrhythmic style of West African drumming in that Jones was able to juggle and layer beats in a fashion that seemed to yielded the effect of multiple drummers, yet also brought the swing back from Jazz’s previous generation.  Coltrane loved the unique, yet commanding sound Jones created, and their time together not only made Jones one of Jazz’s most significant players, but secured his lasting legacy in music.

After leaving Coltrane, Jones briefly played for Duke Ellington before embarking on a new chapter of his career as a band leader. He recorded multiple albums for the Blue Note label, most notably Puttin' It Together with Joe Farrell and Jimmy Garrison, and The 2-volume Live At The Lighthouse which showcased Steve Grossman and Dave Liebman. He also toured and recorded under the band name "Elvin Jones’ Jazz Machine" that featured hordes of young artists during its many worldwide tours.  His marriage to Keiko Jones also played an important musical role in his career as she became his manager and composed many songs for Jones, most notably “Shinjitsu.”

Touted by life magazine as "the world's greatest rhythmic drummer," and described by percussion icon Louie Bellson as “Mother Earth coming alive with syncopation,” Elvin Jones’ influence reverberated throughout not only the Jazz community, but all of music, influencing famous drummers such as Ginger Baker of Cream and Mitch Mitchell of the Jimi Hendrix Experience. 

Although Jones passed away in 2004, his undeniable legacy as a powerful, free flowing drummer, who helped move his instrument from the back of the club to the forefront of music, will continue to live on in his more than 500 hundred recording and the enormous reputation and legacy he left behind.