Jazz drummer Elvin Jones, who rose to fame as a driving force behind the John Coltrane Quintet ensemble of the 1960s, has died of heart failure, his wife said Wednesday. He was 76.
Keiko Jones, who was married to the drummer for 38 years and also served as his business manager, said Jones had been in and out of hospital for five months before passing away on Tuesday at Englewood Hospital in New Jersey.
“He was fighting,” she said, adding that he played his last show with his five-piece jazz group at Yoshi’s jazz club in Oakland, California, last month while drawing oxygen from a tank he had with him on stage.
Known for his explosive drumming style, Jones was a fixture in Coltrane’s influential quintet from 1960-66. A pioneer of greater improvisation among jazz percussionists, he was viewed by some jazz critics as the best drummer in the world.
“His main achievement was the creation of what might be called a circle of sound, a continuum in which no beat of the bar was necessarily indicated by any specific accent, yet the overall feeling became a tremendously dynamic and rhythmically important part of the whole group,” the Encyclopedia of Jazz wrote about Jones.
Born in 1927 in Pontiac, Michigan, Jones was the youngest of 10 children. His father was a lumber inspector for General Motors, a Baptist deacon and a church choir singer.
Jones was one of three jazz players among his siblings. His brother Hank is still active as a jazz pianist and brother Thad, who died in 1986, was a successful trumpet and fluegelhorn player, arranger and band leader.
After being discharged from the military in 1949, Jones embarked on a long career as a professional drummer, playing with luminaries of jazz from Miles Davis to Milt Jackson in a career that led to over 500 recordings.
A trip to New York to audition for the new Benny Goodman Band ended disastrously but led to a slot in Charlie Mingus’ band. Joining Coltrane in 1960 became his most celebrated alliance, leading to recordings like, “A Love Supreme” and ”Coltrane ‘Live’ at the Village Vanguard.”
“If there is anything like perfect harmony in a human relationship that was as close as you can come,” Jones once said of his musical relationship with Coltrane.
“It was one of the happiest period of my life,” he said. “It was like a young boy going to the circus and stopping at the stand selling cotton candy and ice cream cones. It was that kind of feeling”.