My path and Elvin’s came together in the 1970s in the beautiful country of Venezuela, in the cities of Maracaibo and Caracas. I had never met or worked with him before and my knowledge of Elvin had always been from a previously great distance. As a musician, I learned of and began absorbing Elvin’s energetic gifts many years before our actual meeting.
Thanks to Pat LaBarbera for answering my recent messages to him in refreshing the right time frame of this get together. At that time in the 70s, Pat was playing with Elvin. Immediately prior, Pat had just come off a few years playing with the Buddy Rich band.
Making this particular blog entry was the suggestion of my longtime friend Barry Greenspon following a recent conversation together. Barry is owner of New York’s famed ‘Drummer’s World’ drum shop. Barry and I have known each other and been doing business together since 1972.
Note about Barry today; as many know, Barry has moved his drum shop out of the second floor space on West 46th in New York City, following the attacks of 9/11 in that city and neighborhood. Today, Barry’s business, ‘Drummer’s World’ continues ‘alive-and-well’ as the online percussion business, https://drummersworld.com.
Barry remains a treasured, walking encyclopedia of percussion and drums. He is an irreplaceable resource for percussionists and drummers everywhere. And, he still sits down to a set of drums or piano keyboard and stretches out.
Where I first found Elvin . . .
In the 1950s I was a little kid just finding my way to music. I loved the sound of melodies and harmonies and rhythms and drums and percussion. I was beginning to play piano and drums right around my fourth and fifth birthdays.
Sometime during these early years my dad became the recipient of a substantial and sizable collection of LP vinyl records. They were all classical and jazz recordings. These records came from a friend of my dad’s at church. This friend owned a record store in Mission, Kansas. The store had been flooded in one of the major water disasters in the Kansas City area of the early 1950s. His friend reported that his in-store LP collection was being replaced by insurance due to the flood, and that many of the records were untouched by the flood. Still, they were to be replaced as a requirement of the insurance policy. This LP collection became my earliest ‘school of music’ through my grade school years and beyond. Notably, mixed in there were recordings of Elvin Jones laying down his explosive and brilliantly colorful time. He was working with Charles Mingus, Teddy Charles, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, and others.
Fast forward to the early 1970s; I became the timpanist in the Maracaibo Symphony Orchestra in Venezuela. At the time, I was mid-stride studying with George Gaber at the University of Indiana. I was playing everything I could get my hands on in Bloomington at the amazing Indiana University School of Music, and I had been working long-weekend tours with Bob Hope and Johnny Mathis by way of Al Cobine out of Bloomington/Indianapolis. That’s when this timpani gig opportunity showed up. After a thoughtful conversation with George Gaber, I took the job.
This orchestra in Maracaibo, (and Caracas), was part of the very aggressive cultural and performance program started in Venezuela in the 1970s to begin building the classical music culture of the country. Ubiquitous pedagogy was part of the plan in the country, and very young Venezuelan players were being brought into the studied world of serious training, practice, including solo and ensemble performance. The state department tours were another cultural outreach of the same, and Elvin was part of that flow.
Remarkable national Venezuelan performance program success:
Today, the current musical director and dynamically inspiring conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel, is 100% Venezuelan, and a direct and brilliant result of this remarkable cultural program and dedicated effort. Gustavo was not even born, (1981), when we were all in country. Now, that’s conviction by those aiming to develop national, home grown Venezuelan talent!
Here’s a concert program cover from one of the concert series we performed in Maracaibo, and Caracas, Venezuela, where I first met Elvin. Around the time of Elvin’s visit, we were playing Stravinsky’s ‘Right of Spring’ in concert. Fitting prelude: while not free-running, high flying jazz, Stravinsky was definitely the right warm up and gathering energetic hurricane for what was to come.
We all quickly learned that being part of an orchestra in a country like Venezuela, the music hall and we were often the toast of the town. The staff of the local American Embassy frequented the concert hall and performances, befriending those of us who were American citizens abroad, and making sure we were always invited to the frequent activities and parties at the American Embassy and consulate. That orchestra was an amazing mix of musicians from many countries throughout the world.
Enter Elvin Jones
From all of these events and opportunities, someone came in to rehearsal one day from the American Consulate, and announced that Elvin was arriving as part of a state department tour. This legendary jazz musician was headed for our part of the world, with his band in tow. Our US Ambassador asked if any of us knew of Elvin. I instantly had this rush of rhythmic and textural memories from the thousands of hours I had spent in the basement of our home, listening to and playing along with those LPs, notably among them, Elvin, as I was growing up.
I remembered very clearly the name Elvin Jones, and the explosive energy that I connected with his memory and legend. I remembered playing in David Baker’s lab bands/jazz bands at IU Bloomington, and David talking to me about Elvin, and pointing me to other recordings to listen to.
Then, in Maracaibo, it was shared that some musicians were needed to play with Elvin and his band, and that there was something to be televised. I jumped right into the opportunity, and it didn’t disappoint. On some of the tunes I played timpani when there were written parts and charts, and on other things I played some native, handmade drums I had bought in Venezuela that Elvin really liked. I first learned about and then began playing these drums with night club bands in Maracaibo and Caracas. The music was their national blend of Venezuelan rhythms, with other influences; some jazz, some Afro-Cuban blends, and a lot of Brazilian rhythmic colors, all mixed together. It was ‘Venezuelan fusion’ .
I remember first hearing, then recognizing, and then feeling Elvin’s unmistakable, inextinguishable energy burning with unstoppable intensity, right there in Venezuela. Almost immediately during those first early rehearsals I met Elvin face-to-face for the first time during a break. We were figuring out what and how we were going to play, and Elvin liked my different drums and what we were playing. He was so personable to us, powerfully leading with his iron-grip handshake which went on for some time, and which I did my best to return in kind. He genuinely seemed to appreciate matching crushing-hands for a suspended (long) moment, all while he beamed and effervesced.
Elvin was a living powerhouse, a genuine musical legend, larger than life. He was up close and personal in Venezuela, and I was looking right into his jet-black powerful face with his almost fluorescent-white teeth gleaming back at me, with his signature perspiration dripping from his all-consuming smile and countenance.
When we finished the first night, he came back and once again extended his powerful hand. We shook hands and he was again ‘radiating’, soaked with perspiration after the first concert. Then he asked, “Ron, are we going to play like this every night”? I said “absolutely”, and he laughed with a genuine and deeply felt expression. I had made a terrific and overwhelming, (to me), connection with this legendary post be-bop American icon of jazz.
The political climate and back drop:
During this time politically and economically, Venezuela was working aggressively to nationalize their oil industry and production. I don’t know the fine details of how this was all working, or not working, though I do remember there were terrific tensions between the American oilmen and the Venezuelan nationals working to take ownership of their own national and natural resources. Sitting in one of the many international cafes and bars, I often read articles in US News and World Report magazine about what was happening in Venezuela. I remember thinking, “wow, this doesn’t seem like what’s happening here”. These were some of my best and most vivid lessons in global political structures and practices. I was totally OK to be on the performing arts side of things. Even after just my two years playing there, the political and social tensions were really starting to ramp up. Walking around as a North American from the USA was not always something you wanted to do without a little, or a lot of forethought, depending on where you were and what time of the day or night you were out, and who you were with.
I also learned a lot about being an ‘American’. In Venezuela, we were ‘North’ Americans, as the Venezuelans would sometimes point out. And, they were ‘South’ Americans. They were saying, “hey, we’re all Americans here”.
In response to these tensions one evening when we came out on stage to play, someone in the audience shouted something anti-American in Elvin’s direction. It was a comment about the oil industry transition and something about “where’s your American flag now Elvin”? I will never forget watching Elvin spring to his feet from behind his drums, thrusting his clenched fist in the air, and returning, “come on up here and I’ll show you my American flag”. Today, I realize that with current social media, that lightning-fast flash of an experience would have instantly been part of world news, racing around the globe in images and tweets at light speed.
Following more expletives and exchanges, there was a rush of humanity onto the stage from the wings and curtains. This consisted mostly of those from the American Embassy and US representatives to Venezuela, rushing to calm, slow, and cool the intense flash of explosive emotional heat. After some seemingly very long minutes and careful surveying looks around the music hall, things settled. We started playing.
Indelible memories of Elvin . . .
I realized I had just seen a great deal more of the core of Elvin and his fierce commitment to things he believed in. It was part of the fabric of Elvin’s immense emotional range. He was an intense human being on many levels, who directed that uncommon energy and more, into and through his playing and musical expressions. He was a freight train of powerful presence, and most often, of elegance and beautiful rhythmic beauty and complexity during the fairly brief time I was around him.
I always thought of, and still think of Elvin’s playing to this day as often being ‘without bar lines’. This seemed especially true when he played breaks for 2 or 4 of more bars. Elvin erased bar lines, creating rhythmic and melodic ideas that started when they were supposed to, and concluded when they were intended, though never following any sort of conventional line or path. His colors were always more brilliant. His ideas and phrasing were terrifically blended in poly-rhythmic expressions, or as Elvin would say, “you know, poly . . . poly-rhythmic . . . many . . . many rhythms, . . . all together”. His energy was always more explosive, at his control and intension. And his multi-rhythmic language clearly was all his own well before I spent my time playing with him and getting to know him in the hall and at shared hotel meals together.
Elvin’s rhythmic and melodic creations were like long arching ideas. They would connect and mix with, and reflect off of the close internal, interchanging lines he would create with the members of his band and all of us moving through those tunes together. He was always playing the melody, somewhere. Sometimes right there on top, out front. And sometimes blended so deeply into the fabric of his expression, though always there. You could always hear and feel it as he wove his inextinguishable musical flights.
That energy and those colors have stayed with me ever since. When I returned to the US a couple of years later after my performance contract commitment was up in Venezuela, all these highly charged and super vivid rhythmic colors and ideas were deeply embedded in my mind and hands and feet. I came back to IU Bloomington to wrap up my performance degree. When I played a little more in David Baker’s bands, those Elvin colors were indelibly everywhere, influencing my playing.
The fact that I got to know Elvin a little and spent real time with him and played music with him was a true gift to me. In years following my Venezuelan adventures with Elvin, he remained a true friend. The few following times when our geographic paths could cross again, I would stop in back stage in his dressing room before he would start a set in New York. Elvin always greeted me with that iron-grip powerful handshake, and his brilliant, effervescent smile. He always remembered and recalled what we played together in Venezuela with such great energy and enthusiasm, illuminating again how much fun that was. And Keiko was always at his side when I knew Elvin, there in New York, always setting up his drums for him every night, and ‘playing’ them to make sure everything was just as he liked it to be, just as she did for him in Venezuela years before.
I remember my time with Elvin like it was yesterday, and his powerful rhythmic influences and brilliant colors still flavor my playing today.
Stay tuned for more on all of my instruments and equipment, playing and music business experiences and history. If you have questions or other requests, send them along.
Practice, prepare, always play your best!