March 15, 2017
Are jazz musicians born or are they made? This topic was touched upon in a post here when writing about the Caceres family from the 1930s through to the early 2000s. There, the leaning is toward the belief that environment does the trick rather than blood. Until, that is, the names of the true giants are mentioned. Did Louis Armstrong’s genius spring from his blood or his childhood environment? It appears not to have been either (the Waif’s Home notwithstanding). Or how about Charlie Parker? Or Billie Holiday? Neither the blood nor the early childhood environment of those three artists was particularly conducive to the creation of a musical life. On contrast, the effect of blood and environment inevitably come to mind when considering the lives and careers of the Jones brothers: Hank, Thad and Elvin.
Their father, Henry Jones, worked in the construction industry (he was a lumber inspector) and was also a Baptist deacon. Their mother, Olivia, sang but not professionally and Hank (Henry Jr.) and two older sisters, were encouraged to study piano. In his case, he progressed rapidly and as he entered his teens he began performing semi-professionally close to the family home in Pontiac, Michigan (he was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, on 31 July 1918). He also led his own band, in one of which a younger brother, Thad, played trumpet. Hank played piano in various territory bands and was heard by Lucky Thompson who urged him go to New York where he worked with Hot Lips Page. This was in 1944 and while in the city he not only played with musicians such as John Kirby, Coleman Hawkins, and Andy Kirk, he also began drawing into his style aspects of bop through men like Howard McGhee and the future stars of bop who worked in Billy Eckstine’s band. He also worked with Benny Goodman and Milt Jackson and toured extensively with Jazz At The Philharmonic. He then spent several years as a staff musician at CBS Records. This job, which he held into the mid-1970s, meant that he was often working in non-jazz areas but subsequently he returned to jazz. He played most often as a soloist, sometimes accompanied singers, and he also played in piano duos with artists including Tommy Flanagan and George Shearing. Hank’s performances, live and on record, were always elegant, reserved almost, his playing always hinting that beneath the urbane surface lay a massive, smoldering talent.
Relevant to the blood -vs- environment theme, Thad Jones (born Thaddeus Joseph on 28 March 1923 in Pontiac) was a self-taught trumpet player. He played a little with brother Hank but his technique and knowledge were advanced during military service. Early in the 1950s he worked in Billy Mitchell’s band in which the youngest of the Jones boys, Elvin, played drums. After a short spell with Charles Mingus, from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s he became widely recognized through spending several years with Count Basie. In the mid-1960s, Thad teamed up with Mel Lewis to form and co-lead The Jazz Orchestra Mel Lewis. In many respects this was a turning point in Thad’s career because it was here that his playing began to take second place alongside the development of his work as composer and arranger. At the end of the 1970s, Thad emigrated to Denmark, where he continued his writing, now for the Danish Radio Big Band and his own band, Eclipse. In 1985 he was briefly leader of the Count Basie Orchestra, a role that ended a few months before his death. Like his brother Hank, Thad was influenced by bop and was a gifted and harmonically advanced soloist, his sound being especially attractive when he played flügelhorn. (Late in life, a lip injury prompted him to occasionally play trombone.) This said, Thad’s legacy is the large library of big band compositions and arrangements that vividly demonstrate his skill that extended over many aspects of jazz and popular music.
Four years younger than Thad and nine younger than Hank, Elvin (born Elvin Ray in Pontiac on 9 September 1927) played drums with local bands and also in the army before joining Billy Mitchell. From the mid-1950s he was one of the foremost drummers in bop, working with musicians such as Donald Byrd, J.J. Johnson and Sonny Rollins, before joining John Coltrane’s quartet. The five years he spent with Coltrane secured his place among the most notable and influential of jazz drummers. Thereafter and for the rest of his life he was mostly leader of small groups, toured internationally, playing concerts and festival dates. Musicians who fronted the groups Elvin drove included George Coleman, Joe Farrell, and Wilbur Little, and he also recorded with Art Pepper. Elvin’s career as small group leader continued with the Elvin Jones’ Jazz Machine and he worked to within a few months of his death. The last two decades of his career showed Elvin to be a hugely accomplished drummer, his style ranging from bop to free, his technique being exceptional. This last-named quality allowing him to become far more than an accompanist or a mere setter of the beat. A powerful and dominating presence on the bandstand, Elvin Jones created cascading yet intricately formed sheets of sound far beyond the grasp of most of his fellow drummers in jazz.
So, in the case of the Jones boys was blood or environment the factor that drove them to become exceptional and significant figures in jazz? A simple answer is not easy. Clearly, the same blood ran in the veins of them all and their early childhood years were spent in the same environment. This said, and perhaps clouding rather than illuminating the picture, a strong argument can be made that sibling inspiration was one of the keys to their success. Whatever the answer, there can be no doubt that Hank, Thad and Elvin Jones were important, valuable, admired and much-missed musicians
Hank Jones: 31 July 1918 – 16 May 2010
Thad Jones: 28 March 1923 – 20 August 1986
Elvin Jones: 9 September 1927 – 18 May 2004
The album covers illustrated above are just a few of the dozens of albums made by each of the Jones brothers, all of which can be found at walk-in and on-line stores, including Amazon.