King Elvin, Saluted by his Chicago Knights
As was the case with everywhere he played, superdrummer Elvin Jones left behind an army of admirers and co-conspirators in Chicago. When he brought in his Jazz Machine, you could depend on there being a lot of musicians in the audience. The luckiest of the locals got to play with him: favored players like pianist Willie Pickens and saxophonists Ari Brown and Dwayne Armstrong, who joined Jones in various editions of his band.
Being a distinguished drummer himself, one of Milwaukee's greatest gifts to the Windy City, Ernie Adams, was content to take in Jones' wizardry from the audience. Ten years after Elvin's passing, he describes those shows as if they took place yesterday. "It was like this wall of thunder coming at you," he said. "And that African rhythm he brought to the music, that 12/8 feel – oh man, the first time I heard him on record, he scared me, he was so in your face. There was just so much happening!"
For this year's final JazzCity concert, a group of Elvin acolytes including Pickens, Brown, Armstrong, Adams and bassist Larry Gray will stage a happening of their own in tribute to the drummer who helped one of Brown's enduring heroes, John Coltrane, attain his lofty vision. Expect some high-wire maneuvers through Trane classics and more by this group of excitingly personal stylists.
One can only imagine how thrilled Ari was to be asked to join the Jazz Machine, and not only because of the opportunity to play with Jones. As attuned as Chicago jazz fans were to this saxophonist's greatness, he hadn't had much exposure outside of the Windy City when he went on tour with Elvin. That changed in a hurry after crowds on both coasts and in Europe were exposed to Brown's torrential solos.
Pickens also reaped some overdue national attention with the Jazz Machine; he had been a best kept Chicago secret since his days accompanying the great Eddie Harris. "Being around Willie, everyone stands up straighter," Adams said, laughing. "With Ari, it's like your distinguished uncle just walked in."
And then there is the prodigious Armstrong, a native of Mississippi who has toured and/or recorded with Max Roach, Sam Rivers, Sonny Stitt, Von Freeman – and Bob Marley. The mighty Elvin presided over some memorable moments in Chicago. On December 12, the city will proudly and thankfully answer back.