The Ascension of Elvin Jones by Harold Smith
I received a link to the above video from my good friend, bassist Jonathan Wires. The introduction features a few interesting thoughts from Elvin Jones on the colors and visual elements he experiences on his drum set.
“I get images sometimes… Color images. The lowest, the bass tom, say a low D, will be purple. C will be red. F will be yellow.”
“The hi-hat can be like inside your body – your heart beat – and always moving and always very definite”
“The snare drum can be like a mish-mash of colors. It can be a small kaleidoscope where colors change very rapidly… Very high, and very pastels, and flickering, like a diamond.”
“The symbols are like pebbles that splash in a pool of water. A big splash and a ripple… This is the kind of image you get from the cymbals. You can see the colors flow out, like that, in circles.”
“So there is more related in reds and yellows here (points to splash cymbal). (Hits the Ride Cymbal) That’s more blue and green I think.”
When I was undergoing the literature review portion of my dissertation, I remember reading a number of interviews with jazz musicians where they mentioned, often in passing, the concept of “painting” images or colors in their playing. One of the frustrating things about these interviews is that the journalist or interviewer often doesn’t follow up on this type of response – leaving a question on the response as an actual experience or simply a metaphor to describe music making.
Drumming is such a physical endeavor and there are so many similarities to painting. There is the canvas (drum head or cymbal), the sticks/brushes (a paintbrush), and a number of sounds to choose from (a palette).
After watching this video and doing some additional research, I’m developing a new perspective as a listener on Elvin Jones’ style and approach to the drum set. Much of the academic research on Elvin’s playing focuses on his perception of time and the poly-rhythmic aspects of his drumming. Barry Elmes wrote a particularly thorough thesis on Elvin’s cymbal groupings and unique rhythmic devices. However, I can’t help thinking that the difference between Elvin and those that now play in the style of Elvin or are influenced by him may be visual perception and how it informed his playing.
Elvin is one of the well-known Jones brothers (including pianist Hank Jones) and trumpeter Thad was an influence in the writing of my paper. When I brought up the subject of visualization to Jon Faddis, he mentioned that Thad would visualize his entire solo ahead of time. Thad was a very thoughtful and clever improviser and this seemed like a very distinct possibility. I also broached the subject with Tim Hagans, who spent time with Thad while living in Europe. Tim had a different take on the subject, but did describe a similar experience in relation to Thad’s writing and arranging.
“I used to hang out with Thad Jones quite a bit when we both lived in Scandinavia. I went to his house one day and he showed me the room where he writes – which just had a table with score paper – and this is in the late seventies – with some pencils and erasers and that was it, no piano. He said that he just visualized it, and he had so much experience that he really didn’t need a piano. He would run downstairs to check things once in awhile (on the piano).
He said that if he was writing a lead line, he would have the chord progression written – and Thad worked primarily in song forms (32 measures, twelve bar blues, vamps, etc.), he didn’t really work in through-composed until the very end. So he had the chord progression on the score paper and he would say “Okay, I’m going to write a lead line for the shout chorus, what would I improvise right now?” and then he would write that down as quickly as he could.”
“You can hear it in his writing - that it’s all coming from his improvisational language. He would maybe go back and edit it to make it more practical – if what he wrote was perhaps not a perfect lead line for the shout chorus or saxophones. However, the basic core of that line came from his improvisational language.”
Did you ever talk (to Thad) about the improvisational process? I remember discussing this topic with Jon Faddis a couple of years ago, and he mentioned that Thad told him (Faddis) that he would visualize an entire chorus of what he was going to play before he actually played it.
“(Laughs). Well, I never actually talked to Thad about that, but it wouldn’t surprise me that he would have a general framework of what he was going to play, but still keeping it improvised. I heard him play a million times, and I never really heard him repeat anything. I’m sure there were phrases he played in certain spots, but he was one of the most “improvising” guys I’ve ever heard.”
The following are a few quotes from a DRUM! magazine interview with Elvin published in September of 2004. Again, there are a number of references to color and tuning.
“When I played a cymbal, for instance, I used to close my eyes a lot — I pretended I was blind — and I could hear all the colors that I knew were there,” he explains. “It added another dimension to what I was trying to express. A color has a sound, and a sound has a color, and that applies to all the components of a drum set. The way I hear it, there are millions of colors in sound, and I wanted to try to find another way to arrange the sounds.”
This kinesthetic sensitivity began to suggest new ways of relating to other musicians. When thinking in terms of color, Jones points out, “You try to blend with what the other instruments are doing. The sound is what I think of: What sound would not conflict with what this flute player is playing, or this clarinet player or that trumpet player? What sound can you produce that would enhance and give them support for what it is you feel that they’re doing? That’s one reason why I started to tune my drums a little bit differently.”
I’m not a drummer, so one of the first tasks in researching Elvin’s Visual Experience involved interviewing some of my drummer friends (big thanks to Jim White, Bob Harsen, Marcus Finnie, and Bob Mater for their insight). Although I can aurally identify the stylistic elements of Elvin’s drumming, I was more interested in his drum tuning and if there were any identifiable characteristics that separated Elvin from his predecessors and influences.
One of the first “tuning” aspects I noticed is that, for the most part, Elvin’s drums are tuned fairly consistently throughout his career. Keep in mind this wasn’t exhaustive research – I just took a small sample of a few recordings from different eras. Bob Mater (Nashville Studio Pro and drummer with the Nashville Jazz Orchestra) mentioned that the middle part of Elvin’s drum kit tended to remain the same, although the extremes (snare and bass drum/lowest tom - sometimes Elvin would use 3 toms, other times 4) would move a little. He suspected that this can often have just as much to do with head tension and the comfort of a specific pitch for a sized drum. Even with slightly different sized drum-kits, Elvin’s drums were tuned closely to the pitches he mentions in the video. Most of my rhythmic sources (including Bob and Marcus Finnie) mentioned the sound of Elvin’s cymbals as unique, particularly the crash cymbal and the intensity with which he plays. There is less information available on how Elvin’s drums sounded or may have been tuned historically in contrast to his peers.
I asked Jim White (Professor of Jazz Studies at Northern Colorado University) about drum tuning and specifically the source video. He mentioned that an interesting tonal aspect of Elvin’s early playing is the smaller and “tighter” sounding bass drum, although this is likely more to do with practicality and less an artistic statement (smaller bass drums fit into the back of station wagons). Jim also mentioned that Keiko (Elvin’s wife) tuned Elvin’s drums before shows. I’m not sure how long this may have been the case and if she was following specific instructions from Elvin regarding pitch or feel.
I haven’t located any firm quoted evidence or anecdotes that infer that Elvin may have had perfect pitch, or that playing different drums and tunings may have affected the way he played. However, I do find it compelling that someone with such an individual musical voice experienced visualization in an integral way.
If anyone who reads this blog has experience performing with Elvin Jones or insight into this topic, please feel free to contact me at the e-mail address I’ve set up for this blog: supervillainjazzblog (at) gmail (dot) com
Furthermore, if you experience visualization while improvising and feel comfortable discussing it, feel free to contact me. Thanks for reading.