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“Is the drummer always that loud?” a displeased Lincoln Center subscriber asked me during intermission of a concert featuring Elvin Jones with Wynton Marsalis about 10 years ago. “I’ve heard him be a lot louder,” I told her without thinking, then wasn’t surprised when the two seats to my left were empty for the second half. Too bad—she and her husband missed a subtle display of power by a drummer who had by then acquired the majesty of an African chieftain.
Borges once wrote that art is algebra plus fire. For five years beginning in 1960, Jones—who died of heart failure May 18—helped create the fire that kept John Coltrane’s solos from sounding like exercises in chordal subdivision. The primal energy—and yes, the sheer volume—of his drumming hooked you immediately. But it was the complexity of his own subdivisions, the artful suggestion of triple meter over a basic four, that kept you riveted after the shock wore off. He could be loud, all right, when urging on Coltrane and then the succession of Coltrane-inspired saxophonists he featured in his own bands over the next four decades. But he had an unerring sense of how much was enough: Nobody’s brushwork was livelier or more sensitive in a piano trio. He was the drummer most crucial to the evolution of jazz in the period following bop, and you feel sorry for the generations who’ll know him only from his recordings, denied the thrill of watching him in action, the sweat dripping from his brow and his teeth bared in an ecstasy that resembled the one he inspired in everyone else on the bandstand—and you.