The innovators

Submitted by Anon on 17 July, 2004 - 10:37

Bruce Robinson looks at the lives of Ray Charles and Elvin Jones
Two major innovators in African-American music have died in the last few weeks. Pianist and singer Ray Charles (died aged 73) was central to the development of soul music. Elvin Jones (76) transformed jazz drumming and played in John Coltrane's 1960s Quartet which was a major influence on subsequent generations of jazz musicians.

Their contrasting but parallel lives show the richness of African-American music in a period of rapid musical - and social - change in the late 50s and 60s.

Ray Charles learnt music in a school for the blind in Florida, having lost his sight aged six. Dependent on music to make a living from the age of 15, he ended up on the West Coast at the end of the 1940s where a flourishing Los Angeles music scene promoted both jazz and urban blues styles.
Elvin Jones was the youngest son in a large family in Detroit, which produced three great jazz musicians: Elvin and his elder brothers Thad (trumpet) and Hank (piano). Detroit was one of the Northern industrial cities which became an assembly line for jazz musicians in the years immediately following World War Two and Elvin learnt his trade locally.

Both men began to be noticed in the mid-50s. Ray began to get into the Black "Rhythm and Blues" charts, having a breakthrough hit with I Gotta Woman in 1954. Elvin went to New York in 1956 and began playing with major jazz figures such as Stan Getz and Sonny Rollins.

One critic described Ray Charles as "the embodiment of the confusion of category that is soul." Until soul, religious sensibilities had tended to keep sacred Gospel music separate from the blues. Ray mixed them up, taking his vocal style and some musical techniques from Gospel, adding secular lyrics and putting them over a piano style that drew on the blues and jazz. This hybrid took over from rhythm and blues as the popular music of Black America in the 60s and spread across the world.

His material also ranged over musical styles. His first hit to cross over to the national charts was the Gospel-derived What'd I Say but he also had hits with standards such as Georgia on My Mind and Country and Western tunes like I Can't Stop Loving You. He also made several jazz albums.

If Ray Charles was to spearhead a musical shift that quickly became part of mainstream popular music, Elvin Jones chose the smaller stage of the jazz avant garde. When John Coltrane chose Elvin to be his drummer in 1960, jazz was in flux. Coltrane was part of a trend towards freer playing. As part of this bass and drums were liberated from their roles as time-keepers and became more equal partners in an improvised dialogue.

Elvin's style of drumming fitted well with this, abandoning a strict marking of the beat in favour of a pulse that loosely propelled the music. He also pioneered polyrhythmic drumming in jazz in which different parts of the drum kit were used to state different rhythms. This has been seen as a reflection of the African tradition of drumming, which had been an undercurrent in jazz history.

The Coltrane Quartet initially met with much incomprehension from critics and fans who weren't prepared for long improvisations based around scales or for the intensity of the music. However it quickly came to be seen as opening up the music to new forms, with its musicians each pioneering new ways of playing their instruments. Elvin was central to this, adding drama and power to the music and sometimes playing duets with Coltrane's saxophone. He finally left the group in 1966 after Coltrane introduced a second drummer as part of moving his music into even freer ways of playing.

Ray Charles and Elvin Jones continued playing until shortly before their deaths, broadly sticking to the stylistic innovations they had made in the 50s and 60s. Both had a considerable stage presence - Ray hunched over the piano keyboard and rocking backwards and forwards with the music; tall Elvin, smiling and hitting the drums with considerable energy that whipped out of him.

Both men spawned legions of admirers and imitators, having a lasting impact on their musics and setting the agenda for what was to follow. That two such different musicians could emerge and flourish alongside each other underlines the creativity of African-American music at a point where it went out to conquer the world.

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