Elvin Jones: The Life & Legacy of the Jazz Machine

Elvin Jones was a highly acclaimed American drummer and jazz musician. Many industry critics regard him as the most impactful drummer in jazz history, owing to his technique of combining a multilayered and rhythmic drum style as well as dynamic interplay that blended well with soloist artists.

Throughout his five decades career, Jones’ innovative rhythmic performance became a motivating factor for upcoming drummers seeking more freedom with their instruments.

His sense of timing, timbre, legato phrasing and dynamism emphasized the importance of drum set in jazz music, plus the legend’s free-flowing technique also influenced the careers of several iconic drummers in later years such as Mitch Mitchell, Janet Weiss, John Densmore, and Christian Vander among others.

Early Life

Born on September 9th, 1927 in Pontiac MI, Elvin was the youngest of 10 kids from a father who was a deacon and bass singer in the Baptist church choir.

He also describes his mother as the greatest lady’ in the globe who inspired and instilled within him attributes of self-sufficiency, and courage which was valuable to him at the start of his music career.

Two of his brothers, Hank the pianist and Thad the trumpeter, also went ahead to become successful in the jazz world.

Elvin began showing interest in drums right from an early age, inspired by circus-bands he frequently saw marching by his family’s residence in Pontiac.

At 6 years old, Jones toured the fairgrounds center in Pontiac where he watched drummers from the Ringling Brothers circus play for the first time.

This early experience, together with other local radio broadcasts he listened to at home, introduced him to the timpani sound which later encouraged the boy to pursue a drumming career.

By the time he was 13, the young boy was already practicing 8 to 10 hours per day and was carrying his drum sticks with him everywhere he went, beating out rhythms on any flat surface he found.

Moreover, when visiting local parades and football tournaments, Elvin could often be seen immersed in musical rhythms with particular interest, and also started practicing drums on various objects he found inside the house.

In high school, Jones further showed interest as a percussionist by buying a drum-method pamphlet, from which he began learning the basics of playing this instrument professionally.

He explains that the booklet allowed him toread drum music and also opened an entire world of possibilities,’ since it mentioned techniques which could be adopted into other forms of music as well.

While in school, Elvin’s knowledge and skills as an instrumentalist grew significantly, having been taught by the institution’s band instructor Fred N. Weist.

Nevertheless, seeking a full time drumming career, he soon left high school to try his luck in the outside world.

Military Enlisting and Career Startup

In 1946, Jones went to Boston in search of a job and landed in the U.S Army, where he served for the next three years while still being an active member of the military’s music band.

He also did several tours together with other members of the Special Services show, known as Operation Happiness, where the young drummer gradually honed his skills and gained stage confidence playing at post social events.

After completing his military duty, Elvin returned home to Michigan in 1949 where his sister loaned him some cash to buy his first drum set. He later partnered with his brothers, Thad and Hank, who were also jazz music players and began performing in local Detroit clubs.

While doing some of these performances, the budding drummer met other music greats on stage such as Paul Chambers the bassist, Tommy Flannagan the pianist and Kenny Burrell, the guitarist.

Moreover, being part of Billy Mitchell’s home band at Blue Bird Club, Jones rubbed shoulders with some of the greatest Detroit singers of the time and jazz legends like John Coltrane the saxophonist and Miles Davis the trumpeter.

Remembering the experience in a recent interview with the Detroit Free Press, Elvin says he appreciates that they took him as one of their own’ and helped him to start using his abilities, also noting that it was a great friendship there.

Growth in the Music Industry

After briefly performing in his native town of Detroit, Jones left for New York in 1955 for an audition to become part of the Benny Goodman band.

Even though they picked a different drummer, two weeks after the interview he joined another group managed by bassist Charles Mingus.

Elvin Jones1
Elvin Jones, courtesy of Brian McMillen

The upcoming percussionist toured with Mingus across the U.S for several months, then later joined pianist Bud Powell for music shows that lasted more than a year.

He describes Bud as one of the greatest all-time jazz players. In 1957, Elvin Jones drummer began touring Europe with J.J Johnson the trombonist, amassing fans all over the world in every country he visited.

Likewise, in the late 1950s, he also recorded songs with various globally renowned artists like Stan Getz and Sonny Rollins, including fellow Detroit natives such as Flannagan and Chambers.

Joining the John Coltrane Quartet

In 1960, Elvin made one of his greatest crowning achievements in music by enlisting into the John Coltrane Quartet band, where he replaced Billy Higgins as the leading drummer.

This band allowed him to test out different drum arrangements, and together with McCoy Tyner the pianist and Jimmy Garrison the bassist they managed to give powerful, dynamic and vibrant performances across the globe.

Jones notes that the most exciting thing about working with Coltrane was the sense of constant, progressive learning. He claims to have admired John Coltrane’s ethics as a bandleader, and also his talent as a singer.

He further added that the band’s experience gave him a taste of different music worlds.

Just like Coltrane, Elvin had impressive musical stamina and a knack for creativity, coupled with an innate talent for prolonged solos.

The band’s cohesiveness and productivity were displayed in October 1960 when doing a studio session, where they managed to record a total of 3 albums in just one week, going by the titles of My Favorite Things, Coltrane Plays the Blues and Coltrane’s Sound.

Unlike other bands, the Coltrane Quartet never did any rehearsals before coming on stage. Instead, their performances rhymed naturally even without any prior practice, and they also had a free atmosphere where both Jones and Coltrane were free to throw in solos or duets amidst their sessions lasting more than 30 minutes.

In a previous radio interview with Terry Gross, Elvin explains that he never knew which songs they were playing onstage until Coltrane started performing it, and they all rallied behind him in unison and harmony.

The group never took notice of time but instead focused on pursuing a specific jazz idea or style until its end. Due to this, sometimes their performances lasted up to 2 hours, but they still had the courage and stamina to continue.

In 1966, Jones left the Coltrane Quartet after the leader decided to add new singers to the band, including another drummer to accompany him. The budding drummer claimed that the new musical arrangement didn’t match with the Elvin Jones style, thus the reason why he left the band.

After a short stay in Europe performing with Duke Ellington’s music group, Elvin came back to the U.S where he established multiple trios under his name.


One of these bands featured bassist Wilbur Ware and the flutist Joe Farrel, but later Ware was substituted with Jimmy Garrison who was a former member of the Coltrane Quartet.

Nevertheless, since the band didn’t have a piano or guitar for placing the harmonic setups needed for their performances, getting the group to work proved an uphill task for Elvin, but he somehow managed.

His Final Journey as a Drummer

Starting in the mid-70s, Jones began touring Europe again including some parts of Asia and South America, where he performed in multiple venues including clubs, high schools, outdoor concerts, and clinics.

He made several appearances in songs recorded by McCoy Tyner the pianist and Ron Carter the bassist, which inspired a whole new generation of artists to start learning acoustic jazz.

Elvin began mentoring young talents in the industry and by the 1990s already had his own group of jazz artists, popularly known as the Elvin-Jones Jazz Machine.


Concerning this achievement, Elvin Jones once said, “giving somebody a chance is the best gift you can ever give them.”

Despite his failing health caused by old age, Elvin continued performing live on stage up to his mid-70s, sometimes even carrying along an oxygen tank to play.

Sadly, the jazz drummer passed away on May 18th, 2004 in Englewood, New Jersey following a heart attack.

Today, Jones leaves behind a much-acclaimed jazz legacy, similar to that of Buddy Rich. Many modern drummers try to imitate, but still lack the vibe, vigor and tactical execution he had.

His impact on contemporary music is unquestionable, having laid the foundation for experimental jazz music which fuses different instruments and styles of play.

He significantly redefined the place of drums in jazz music, which was previously known more for trumpets and pianos, plus influenced a new generation of jazz drummers who currently play in concerts all over the world.

Featured image courtesy of Tom Marcello on Flickr.com


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One Comment

  1. Elvin Jones was the most innovative and inventive drummer in jazz. He seemingly abandoned a sence of “keeping time” during his solos, but Elvin was always in time within his own sence of percussive expression. He knew how to mix all triplet signatures with sixteenths and could incorporate the bass drum as if his right foot was another……a “fifth” HAND! He was incredible. I still listen to his solos today with utter amazement. He also had such a profound emotional attachment to his playing. Louie Bellson said Elvin was “mother earth” on the drums. In my opinion, Elvin was the greatest jazz drummer of all time. I put Elvin, Max Roach, Alan Dawson, and Tony Williams as the pre eminate jazz drummers in terms of invention and creativity. Art Blakey, Art Taylor, and Billy Higgins are the swingers. Franky Dunlop was very tasty, and Philly Joe and Papa Joe were swinging rudimentalists.

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