AKA, A Love Supreme, the Pathogenesis of Ulcers, My Elvin Jones Stories, and the Orchidectomy Squad of the Jazz Police
Jazz Audience Advocates
Every discipline has dogmas, doctrines considered true often without proof. Once established, they are difficult to exorcise. They feed voraciously and gain in strength and size over time.
For example, in medicine years ago, two Australian researchers suggested that ulcers were not caused by stress, but rather by bacteria. In other words, they suggested that the development of ulcers was caused by an infection. Initially, their mainstream medical colleagues scorned them and it was difficult for them to publish their work in prestigious, peer reviewed medical journals. In 2005, these researchers, Barry Marshall and Robin Warren, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for their discovery that a stealthy bacterium by the name of Helicobacter pylori, played a causative role in the formation peptic ulcers and gastritis. This was a full, 180 degree turn in medicine and an example of the complete destruction of long-lived medical dogma in the area of gastroenterology.
Jazz is no exception. There are dogmas so well established and emotionally charged that when you even suggest challenging them, you'd better be ready to run. On occasion, I tend not to agree with the consensus view of who or what's great and who or what ain't because in my studies of that material and those views, I find too many errors. Besides, it's so much more fun to comment on jazz dogma from an irreverent position. For example, Bud Powell, arguably the best bop piano player ever, never played any Charlie Parker (alto) licks and furthermore, he developed the style of bebop independently of Charlie Parker as well. I can provide performance evidence against this hypothesis. Ask me and I'll send it to you. Another. The piano player Ahmad Jamal is a genius. He's good, but a genius? And don't give me the knee jerk response that Miles said so. I need performance evidence of genius. Name an album. Next, avant-garde is the next logical step in the development of jazz. Please spare me. Finally, one I heard very early on was, if you speed up Lester Young solos and you will hear Charlie Parker licks. Try it. It ain't so.
However, the jazz dogma that is the most sacrosanct, and revered by all, is the Holy Grail, John Coltrane's recording, "A Love Supreme" (footnote 1). Everyone associated with jazz, writers, listeners, and players alike, with whom I have discussed this topic, disagrees with me. I've met only one person who concurs that "A Love Supreme" was not John Coltrane's best, nor his most spiritual work. This opinion of ours is a brazen felony according to the jazz police and I know we're in trouble already. Strike 1 (excuse the mixed metaphor).
When I think of John Coltrane, a true genius of jazz, I always think of Elvin Jones, John's drummer during the peak of their creative years together. I think of McCoy Tyner as well, whom I love, but as a young drummer, Elvin Jones was like a god to me. He played in musical ways that simply floored me. I feel that he is likely the most influential jazz drummer in the history of the music. Every jazz drummer I have ever heard has his or her Elvin ideas that find a way into their playing. Each of the seven most innovative bop-and-beyond jazz drummers (again, my choices of course) share two attributes, staggeringly well-developed musicality, and originality (footnote 2). So it's not about technique although most of the greats had good chops.
Elvin was extremely deep into the music, His quarter note feel, the pulse of the time, was propelled by 3s (triplets) and multiples of 3s. He was unique among drummers in this respect. This feel provided a wonderful forward nudge in the motion of the music he played. He was a perfect fit for John as was McCoy, although he also sounded damn good with Sonny Rollins in the late fifties, for example, on Live At the at the Village Vanguard, and with others as well.
Jim Bruzzese was a high school friend. His parents owned Pampa Lanes, a very popular bowling alley in a suburb north of Detroit. He was a drummer who loved big bands and he idolized Buddy Rich. Consequently, he loved flashy rudiment-based drum technique and he could play some of it himself. On one occasion Jim stopped in at my place and a Coltrane album was playing. At this point I had grown out of my early love of Buddy Rich and was infatuated with both Philly Joe Jones and Elvin Jones and I was just beginning to pay some attention to Tony Williams. Being convinced that Elvin was playing fast, single stroke triplets on medium-up tunes, something that would be tiring to play even for a few minutes much less to sustain for one of Coltrane's famous 20 to 30 minute solos, my friend was truly amazed. The truth is that Elvin was playing only the 2nd and 3rd beats of the triplet (or the first and second) and leaving the 1st beat open in order to reposition his hand to hit 2 and 3 again. But the way Elvin did it created the convincing illusion of single stroke triplets, that is, all 3 beats of the triplets being played with his left hand. Jim fell for the illusion and I didn't want to quash his enthusiasm, especially when he told me he absolutely had to see Elvin in person. Since I didn't have a car and he drove a new Oldsmobile, I kept my mouth shut about the Elvin illusion and agreed that the man had amazing hands. That benign little deception of mine established the opportunity for us to see nearly all the performances for a number of years in the early 60s as the Coltrane group came through Detroit.
Shortly after Elvin joined John's group in 1960, they began to come to Detroit on a regular basis. During those early sixties performances, the group usually played at an old refurbished grocery store turned jazz club called The Minor Key. It was located on Dexter near Burlingame, close to the heart of downtown Detroit. Nearly every time the group came in to town, Jim and I were first in as the doors opened and that enabled us to capture the choice front table closest to the sweet spot on the stage. From that table, Elvin was positioned at about 1 o'clock, John at 11, approximately 15 feet from me, and McCoy at about 9:30 a bit behind John. Jimmy Garrison was usually close to the piano. When Eric Dolphi was with the group, which wasn't too often, he generally stood behind John and between Elvin and Jimmy. (I don't particularly care for Eric Dolphy, which is clearly another serious felony according to the jazz police. Strike 2).
The response to Coltrane's group at The Minor Key was overwhelming. It was the most exciting music I have ever heard and the most emotional response of an audience to a musical performance I have ever experienced. At least once during an evening, John would play a tune usually a blues that would slowly build in intensity, excitement, "out-ness," fervor and tension. On those tunes McCoy would leave and Jimmy would join him off stage. So, at a point early in the tune, it became a duo between tenor and drums. At the end of John's solo, some 20 minutes later, the entire room was up on its feet, hands in the air, screaming for minutes. Some writer, obsessed with avant-garde jazz, I can't recall who it was, suggested that if Coltrane had only played completely free of chord changes in the early sixties, it would have been so much better, to which I respond, I was within a few feet of John many times during those early performances and my friend, I'm telling you unequivocally, it couldn't have been any better!
Nearly every time I saw John's group, at the back of the stage there was a quart jar of honey for John and a spare Camco bass drum pedal. In those days, the Camco pedal was lightweight and fast. Most jazz drummers, including myself, used it or its competitor, the SpeedKing made by Ludwig, a somewhat slower heavier pedal.
One evening the group started "Softly As In A Morning Sunrise," at a medium-up tempo. About 10 minutes into the tune, while John was soloing, the bottom dropped out. John looked over at Elvin and Elvin shrugged his shoulders. I knew immediately what had happened.
The Camco pedal, as good as it was, had an Achilles heel. Unlike the all-metal SpeedKing bass drum pedal, the Camco had a leather strap that attached the toe end of the footplate to the bass drum beater. In the middle of John's solo the leather strap snapped which meant there was no bass drum. It was immediately and painfully obvious because the bass drum was such an integral part of Elvin's style. John was clearly upset but continued to play. However, the momentum of the tune was put on a very noticeable hold. I hesitated to do anything at first, but then decided to intervene.
I was frightened. I was a kid. It was John Coltrane for god's sake. I hadn't met Elvin, and I wasn't sure how he would react to me climbing on to his stage. I mustered the courage, climbed on stage at the back wall, retrieved the spare pedal and asked Elvin, in his ear, while he was playing, if he wanted me to replace the pedal. He nodded yes. It took me almost no time because I knew the clamp mechanism of the pedal well. But I will never forget while I was on my hands and knees on the stage floor swapping the pedals, I was being bombarded by a deafening barrage of Elvinisms from the snare drum inches above my head. I can still clearly picture it and hear it in my head. When I finished, he gave me a nod and a smile and I sat back down, shaking a bit.
After the tune, John was still very upset and asked Elvin off mike but within earshot, "Why the hell do you keep using that f...ing pedal? Elvin replied, "Because it's the best." And it was, but John was still clearly pissed.
After the gig, Jim and I waited until most of the folks wanting to talk had left before we approached Elvin. He shook my hand and thanked me for switching the pedal. I was a kid in heaven.
Jim and I offered to take him out to any restaurant of his choice, on us. Remember, it was the early sixties and we were two, naive, early twenties, suburban white kids with a mid thirties black guy all riding in the front seat of a new Olds near downtown Detroit. But I don't think that influenced his request. To our surprise, his food and drink choice for that night, and the few more times he took us up on our offer of taxi service with refreshments after the Minor Key gigs, was two bags, each with one dozen White Castle hamburgers from a specific nearby White Castle location, and a pint of Cuddysark. He absolutely loved the burgers, quickly finishing one bag and saving the second for later. He also enjoyed sips of Cuddy that he shared with me (Jim didn't drink) and he used to comment that there was something special about these particular Detroit White Castle burgers that made them the best in the country.
I always brought a pair of drums sticks in the car and we would turn on the radio to a jazz station (in those days, there were several to choose from) and listen to him play on the dash as we drove. Once, and only once, I interrupted him and asked, "Wait, what was that you just played?" He quickly turned a bit uncharacteristically professorial and said, "It doesn't matter, I just listen to the music and play." I shut up, completely embarrassed. This was my one drum lesson from Elvin. It was simple but sage advice. These are wonderful memories that I treasure (footnote 3).
The next time I saw Elvin was at Ronny Scott's in London in 1969 while my wife and I were on vacation in Europe. Coltrane had died and at this point Elvin was a leader. My memory is fuzzy but I recall that Joe Ferrell was on tenor and I can't remember who was on bass and piano. It always took Elvin a few seconds to remember me, but when he did, I got a hug and that famous ear-to-ear grin. It was small talk, and then good-bye. I saw him once briefly in the mid eighties. But then he came to Wayne State University (WSU) in Detroit sometime in the late 90s for a seminar/performance arranged by my friend Dennis Tini, who was a jazz pianist and the Chair of the Music Department at WSU.
After everyone had left following an impromptu 20 min drum solo and some Q & A in a university music rehearsal room, we were alone and I spoke at length with Elvin for the first time. He was in his early seventies and he didn't look in particularly good health. I was concerned about that (footnote 4).
I wanted to ask him about the early days. I opened by saying that he'd better be careful because Adam Nussbaum was stealing all of his stuff (footnote 5). He laughed hard at that one, expressed a few compliments for Adam, and we proceeded to have our longest, most comprehensive and serious discussion to date.
I was eager to learn his impression of the music when John took a turn toward avant-garde in the mid sixties. It was the time of the Civil Rights Movement, the Age of Aquarius, the beginning ascendance of the political left, flower and drug power, and make love, not war. Avant-garde jazz was close to its peak of popularity. Elvin really opened up to me for the first time, perhaps trusting me after 35 years of seeing me periodically. In the course of the conversation I asked him why he thought John went in that musical direction. His reply, "I think that he thought his fans wanted and expected him to do it." This is consistent with a comment John made to a young Stanley Crouch indicating that on certain "money nights," he made it a point to play tunes that the club owners and customers wanted him to play (footnote 6).
Elvin complained to me about the various turns the group took during those times and surprisingly, he actually became visibly angry when he recalled John's decision to hire Rashied Ali, another drummer for the group. At the end of our conversation I told him that my favorite time for the group was in the early sixties. He agreed.
With the exception of Elvin, every jazz journalist and critic I've read, and every musician I've talked to, argues that John was stretching, expanding, and moving his art forward to its musical and spiritual pinnacle, "A Love Supreme". It seems that Elvin and I are at least two individuals who disagree with that premise. Perhaps in partial support of our view, Branford Marsalis, in an interview, said, " I never heard Trane say that A Love Supreme was his most spiritual record. We make these things up and they just perpetuate themselves" (footnote 7). Could it be that Branford was describing a bit of unsubstantiated jazz dogma here? It sure sounds like it to me.
But more importantly, now that I'm out of the closet on A Love Supreme, it's the big strike 3, and I know the orchidectomy squad of the jazz police is coming for me. As Mose Allison might sing:
The jazz police is comin'
Gettin' closer every day
The jazz police's is comin'
I got to make my getaway
(a) Before I go further, I must add my obligatory disclaimer. These are my personal feelings. You should listen and come to your own conclusions. For you, they are more valid than mine. But you've read enough of my stuff to know that by now.
(b) I plan to write an essay on one way to approach John Coltrane so that with some direction and certain critical albums in a given order, you can learn to hear him. John, like Charlie Parker, was a true genius of jazz and neither is particularly easy to hear at first without some basic direction. You'll get it on this web site.
(c) I believe that A Love Supreme, the title of a tune on the album with the same name is in fact a bit easier for the average listener to grasp than John's other work during that period and even earlier.
Footnote 2. Max Roach, Roy Haynes, Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette
Footnote 3. Still expressing the same sentiment, Elvin is quoted in the liner notes of "One down, One up", 1965. "I was more listening to him (John) than trying to accompany as a drummer. I was just fascinated by this guy and the way he played". Of course Elvin was in fact, accompanying, and like no other. However, this is truly well founded advice to drummers. It will be explained and expanded in an essay on the role of a jazz drummer in the rhythm section (in preparation).
Footnote 4. Elvin Jones died on May 18, 2004 and I find myself going back to listen to him a lot more since then.
Footnote 5. Adam Nussbaum is a wonderful drummer who recorded, and is recording with a number of different groups. He sounds good in all styles including the sort of fusion/funk jazz style that Michael Brecker with Mike Stern and Joey Calderazzo liked to include in their live performances in the late eighties and early nineties. But often, when he plays straight ahead, he is completely in the style of Elvin, more so than any other drummer I can think of. A good example of Adam in Elvin mode is the tune "McCoy" from Jerry Bergonzi's album, Standard Gonz, a very nice album if you know some jazz standards - get it even if you don't.
Footnote 6. Stanley Crouch. John Coltrane's Finest Hour Before He Jumped into the Aesthetic Abyss www.slate.com/toolbar.aspx?action=print&id=2137816 (3/10/2006). Those of us who play jazz locally do this on nearly every gig, cater to the folks.
Footnote 7. Fred Jung. A Fireside Chat with Branford Marsalis, 3/2/05).
Copyright © 2013
Thomas R. Brown
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