Interview with Elvin Jones

Elvin Jones gave a clinic for the Black Academy of Music on August 24, 1974 at the Pioneer Banque jazz club. The following interview was published in On the BAM Line.

Joe Brazil introduced Elvin Jones by stating that Elvin had changed the whole concept of modern drumming. The dialogue of the Workshop which followed was centered around the technical aspects of drumming and percussion. Here are highlights from that Workshop:

Q. What size bass drum do you use?

A. I had a 24" when I first started out. I now use an 18" drum; it is compact and easy to carry. I don't have a valet so I have to carry my equipment myself and hauling these drums from city to city gets to be a very heavy job. I can get the same effect on the smaller drum as I can on the larger one.

Q. What do you tune your drums to?

A. It is not necessary to tune your drums to pitch, but I tune mine to the third or sixth interval. Rely on your own ear. Make sure that your instrument sounds good to you.

Q. When did you start playing?

A. At 13, I went out and bought myself some sticks, a pad and a book of rudiments. I started practicing on a pillow in order to develop flexibility of my wrist. A pillow does not bounce. I practiced brushes on a stack of Life magazines. And I recommend this as a technique for practicing brushes. As a child, I learned the 26 Rudiments and I practiced these until I mastered them, practicing as much as 8 hours a day because I had nothing else to do. I won awards in competition on the 26 Rudiments.

It is important to establish a routine of practice for yourself. Set aside a time of day and practice every day at that time. Work on the areas that are your weakest. Practice until you have mastered a technique.

Q. Who is your favorite drummer?

A. There is something that I like about everyone. In fact, my favorite drummer doesn't even play professionally. His is an aeronautical scientist down in California, somewhere in San Francisco. I recently heard a 19 year old drummer who is with Woody Herman's Band, and he is bad! Some of the younger dudes have really got it together, Billy Cobham, Buddy Miles, I like. I knew him when he was a kid.

Q. Have you written a book on drumming?

A. Yes, I have written two but I've given them away. I haven't written any technical books--there are enough technical books. You can walk into a store anywhere in the world and by a book on rudiments. The next book that I write you will be able to read. It will be on my thoughts. Dialogue just like what we are about here.

Q. How important is it to learn basic music theory?

A. You would be doing yourself a favor to learn as much about music as you can. If you've got the time, take the time. One's inclination is important. Denzil Best was a fine drummer. He played trumpet too, but then he had a tragic accident. He then started to write and arrange. The more you know, the more you can do.

Q. Is your use of polyrhythms premeditated?

A. Yes, to the extent that the use of polyrhythms is an important part of my style--my interpretation of the music.

Q. Explain the use of accents in a composition.

A. In order to play music, you must have accents, otherwise you would be playing a march. Accents are a natural relationship to any composition. A drummer should know enough about the melody to be able to establish a frame of reference for the other musicians to relate to.

Q. How would you explain a drummer's relationship to the soloist?

A. A drummer must be in rapport with what the soloist is doing and this means that he must listen to the soloist and have a sensitivity to what the soloist is doing. He should know enough about the composition to support it, to keep the time. The drummer should be able to respond instantaneously to what is happening. He develops a strong rapport with the soloist during the composition.

Q. How would you describe your experience of playing with Trane?

A. How can one describe something that happens which is completely unique in one's life experience?

Q. Can you tell me how you achieve that floating motion, a floating look when you play?

A. No. I can't. No (emphatically). For me to pretend to would be phony of me. NO. the visual phenomenon that you see when I play is my total involvement in the music. The total immersion of a musician into the music means that he is responding to what he feels. You don't "act" drumming, you play. What you see is my complete love for what I am doing, not some kind of an act.

Q. What advice would you give to young drummers?

A. PRACTICE, and play. Play any kind of music anywhere, weddings, carnivals, dances, circuses. Play and make sure that you give it your best. Be the best out there. I've played burlesque shows and recently I played a parade, right down Broadway in New York. Get a job, take it, be there on time.

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