Encounters with Elvin
“ Elvin was the engine of the rhythm section around Coltrane, A V-8 sometimes running on four cylinders, sometimes on six. ”
It was a grand era for jazz. In the late fifties and in the sixties a leap was taken from a tied-up, restrained swing and be-bop to a music today still utterly modern and contemporary. But atonality, intensity, crossover influences, free form, almost emptied an entire musical genre of its means of expression. It is a fact that the level of music reached by the classic John Coltrane Quartet became a terminal station for jazz that no one else has managed to pass through. Many have tried. This is not to diminish the jazz musicians "A.T." (after Trane) [perhaps a reference to Trane's spiritual message, as in B.C./A.D.- eds], who in their own way are creating fantastic music. But none has been able to lift and transform jazz into a new dimension like the J.C.Q. There hasn't been enough space, it seems. The sixties and early seventies became a peak and a turning point for others than Coltrane and his men. Ellington ceased, Miles' music found its final shape in the sixties, and every important actor of the art form today has his roots in the music of this era. An art form that stops developing runs the risk of dying, becoming a relic. The living field of force between the audience and the musician decreases and the music transforms into a phenomenon of recollection, which has its primary justification as a review and a nostalgia mediator. [We at AAJ believe and hope this is not the whole truth. For example, our own "Coltrane Page Adviser," saxophonist David Liebman is keeping the soul of jazz creativity alive and well, and there are others like him who are pushing the limits.- eds.]
But let's go back to Elvin Jones. He who has ears to hear cannot avoid being lifted to a higher, more beautiful, world by his music. At Birdland in June '62, we all flew (like birds!) some 2.5 meters over the floor surface (the room didn't allow more). Some facts about the old Birdland might be in place. A rather small club, maybe 150 square meters- after descending down the stairs from 52nd Street, which is a side street to Broadway at Times Square, the room opened up with the band-stand right in front and with a bar along the left wall. To the right, on the opposite side from the bar, as well as just in front of it, there were rows of chairs reserved for listeners only, and in the middle a number, maybe 10-15, of tables were placed where certain solid and liquid nourishments could be taken. On the tables were nothing but white and red chequered cloths and black plastic ashtrays carrying the words 'Birdland- The Jazz Corner of the World' in white. One of them became a souvenir, which my wife unbelievably dispatched to into the garbage some time in the eighties (my second irreplaceable collectible from the New York jazz scene was a black T-shirt from the Village Vanguard which disappeared at a rapids-shooting event in the south of France a few years ago). Since the drinking age limit was 21, how I, younger than that, managed entrance belongs to the secrets you learn when you are desperate to gain admission! Initially I would be sitting as far from the bar as possible (an imperative requirement by the door guard) but eventually I would slowly move forward and by the time Trane started set no.2, I'd have him one meter in front of me, the McCoy piano to the left, Garrison to the right and a steam boiler called Elvin further back. This felt to me a bit like being in the middle of the engine room on the Titanic, or in an iron ore mill in Kiruna brim-filled with hip black brothers and foxy sisters. At this period in time, Trane was apparently mainly attractive to the black community of New York. I believe they started playing at around 9 p.m., in forty-five minute sets interrupted by half hour intermissions, and the place closed at 5 a.m. Lots of sleeplessness collected during the five nights there, for sure. I'd be the last to leave on most nights, kicking waste paper on desolate streets on my stroll back to the hotel room.
Let's get back to Elvin. Over time I, like many, have come to realize him to be a grand human being, and as a fellow creature, too. In music, as in sports, the greatest individuals are those who play for the team. Team playing came perfectly natural to Elvin, and he played his role with joy (which to a minor extent is true for McCoy, although my impression is that he was never really able to be equally generous, and it affects his aftermath). Elvin was the engine of the rhythm section around Coltrane, A V-8 sometimes running on four cylinders, sometimes on six. Additionally, the Elvin engine was mounted in a car with oval wheels. This odd transmission produced a beat that seemed like convulsions, like peristalsis. Elvin Jones's music, as well as Coltrane's, resembles Richard Wagner's, to some extent: extensive, pompous, filled with layers and references. Wagner perhaps should be dealt with in a different context, but his way of continuously twisting sequences forming an 'infinite melody' is so strikingly similar to Elvin's and Trane's. I think also of the attempts by Coltrane to convert his horn into two, to play several octaves simultaneously, to find new notes beyond what the instrument in fact was designed to permit.
The music of the group at the time was still not complete. Pretty recently they had left behind the phase when forming the quartet, with broken up harmonies and new sounds, which in turn was a period of transition from basically hard bop music. Coltrane was developing tremendously and the others were forced to follow. Elvin, the team player, signed in without a doubt. If you have heard "Afro-Blue" you see what I mean. Elvin's music, so potent, is still only a motorway for Trane to drag on. Someone has said that beauty only is in the eyes of the beholder, but here it was for real. And "Afro-Blue" ends as it starts, a bit like life itself.
In an interview, Elvin has said that Coltrane had a sense of divinity about him. I suspect he meant to include his feeling that his relationship to Trane was like an apostle, and that Coltrane was his master. Let's not for one moment forget this contradiction that was Elvin's, that as coherently as you lay a road of concrete, you break it up with bulldozers. And you are laying that road for one single man to travel. It's great.
My nights patronizing Birdland were split with days in arcades (pin ball halls), hamburger joints, and record stores around Times Square. One night, I brought with me an album, the newly released Africa/Brass, to the club with the faint cherished hope of a Coltrane autograph. In New York then, as you all know, there were an abundance of jazz clubs with awesome music. Besides the most famous ones, there were smaller joints like one hole in the wall right on Times Square, called the Metropole. It was unique in the respect that it really was a hole in the wall, no wall or door to the street, you could stand on the sidewalk up front listening to people like Jack Teagarden, Jimmy Smith, the Woody Herman Band (how do you manage to squeeze a big band into a 6 meters wide and maybe 15 meters deep hole which was mainly a bar? And who had to pay for the whole show?). Carrying the Africa/Brass under my arm I pulled away from Metropole to my constant nightly sermon at Birdlandat the corner of Broadway and 52nd Street ('a dollar admission- how could you go wrong?'). I was considering being able to nick Coltrane in between sets, but that wasn't possible. Obsessed by his chase for development, after each set he'd disappear into the back regions of the club, and after a minute or so you could hear him practicing scales, up and down, down and up, without an end. You all know what it's normally like at clubs during intermissions. Everyone relaxes, the musicians might take a beer or a coffee, talk to friends in the crowd, just loosienng up. This was the case here too, except for one man. Scales, scales, scales. I was then a rather shy teenager. In the middle of a tune (it might have been I Want to Talk about You), when Coltrane had gone down to sit at one of the tables lighting one of many Cuban cigars, I pulled myself together and went over with the record. My intention was to trap his attention, maybe get a conversation going. "Mr. Coltrane", said I, "I'm from Sweden and I admire your music very much." Perhaps he was as shy as me, or just reserved, or concentrated in McCoy's solo (if not stoned, I don't know if he was still into drugs at the time) but he didn't react. I repeated what I said bent over his left ear handing him the album. He slowly looked up at me with the words "Sweden, huh?" and pulled out a chair. For a few minutes, that felt like eternity, he kept smoking his cigar staring blindly ahead of him. Then he wrote: "Thank you + very best wishes. John Coltrane."
About 25 years later The Elvin Jones Drum Machine played Malmo, Sweden, my hometown. This was at the late Fredman club, one of the rare places in the country that really looked like a jazz cluband I brought the album with me. Elvin, now an elderly gentleman in the parish register, was as great as ever in his playing. He surrounded himself with young co-players, chasing them to madness. It was heavenly. After the gig was over, I was drawn backstage, where everyone were sitting eating around a sofa table. Once again I tried flattery. "Mr. Jones, I'm a great admirer of your way to play drums," I said. Elvin, being a warm and extroverted person, brightened up, said 'thank you' and laughed. We talked some about jazz music, and eventually I approached my real subject, the classic quartet. I told him we had met at Birdland in 1962 and pulled out the album asking him to sign it. "Big eyes" looked at it for a whileand his eyes started to water. "Ah", he said, "I can't believe it." His eyes shiny and a big smile, he stood up to hug me. We were standing like this for a while and he shook me violently. Then he produced a pen, asked for my name (having some problems getting it right, and wrote: "To Bertil. Love and PEACE. Elvin Jones." This is my sole remaining souvenir from the New York jazz scene. Coltrane has his place in music history. I've got a document of my encounter with him and his premier supporter.