Elvin Jones, 76, drummer for John Coltrane Quartet

May 19, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Elvin Jones, whose explosive drumming powered the John Coltrane Quartet, the most influential and controversial jazz ensemble of the 1960s, died yesterday in New York. He was 76 and lived in Manhattan and Nagasaki, Japan.

Mr. Jones' death, which came after several months of failing health, was announced by John DeChristopher, director of artist relations for the Avedis Zildjian Co., maker of Jones' cymbals. Jones continued to perform until a few weeks ago, often taking an oxygen tank onto the bandstand.

Mr. Jones, a fixture of the Coltrane group from late 1960 to early 1966 and for more than three decades the leader of several noteworthy groups of his own, was the first great post-bebop percussionist. Building on the innovations of the jazz modernists Kenny Clarke and Max Roach, who liberated the drum kit from a purely time-keeping function in the 1940s, he paved the way for a later generation of drummers who dispensed with a steady rhythmic pulse altogether in the interest of greater improvisational freedom. But he never lost that pulse: The beat was always palpable when he played, even as he embellished it with layer upon layer of interlocking polyrhythms.

The critic and historian Leonard Feather explained Mr. Jones' significance this way: "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."

But if the self-taught Mr. Jones had a profound influence on other drummers, not many of them directly emulated his style, at least in part because few had the stamina for it. None of the images that the critics invoked to describe his playing -- volcano, thunderstorm, perpetual-motion machine -- quite did justice to the strength of his attack, the complexity of his ideas or the originality of his approach.

Mr. Jones was born in Pontiac, Mich. The youngest of 10 children, he was the third Jones brother to become a professional musician, following Hank, a respected jazz pianist who is still active, and Thad, a cornetist, composer, arranger and bandleader, who died in 1986.

He began teaching himself to play drums at 13, but he had lost his heart to the instrument long before then. "I never wanted to play anything else since I was 2," he told one interviewer.

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