09/11/02

Elvin Jones' 75th Birthday Party Concert

For the ever-ebullient Elvin Jones, the walk from the dressing room to the stage is often a long one: so many hands to shake, so many friends to greet! As a tuxedoed Jazz Machine—saxophonists Pat LaBarbera and Mark Shim, trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis, pianist Anthony Wonsey and bassist Gerald Cannon--plus special guest Wynton Marsalis calmly waited the trek was longer than usual on September 9 at New York's cramped, crowded and sold out Blue Note. It was Jones' 75th birthday.

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Keith Major

Wynton Marsalis

Decked out in a formal white kimono, Jones smiled and worked through a gauntlet of longtime fans and fellow drummers like Lenny White, Jack DeJohnette, Charli Persip, Jimmy Cobb, Adam Nussbaum, Jeff Watts, Dennis Chambers, Michael Shrieve--even erstwhile stickman Bill Cosby.

"He'll be on the stage soon ladies and gentlemen…" kidded Cosby.

Cosby kept to the role of star emcee, teasing the VIP-heavy crowd ("Thanks for coming…for free"), roasting his old Birdland buddy ("Enjoy this one Elvin because when you're 85 it's gonna be all ballads") and berating him for his slow walk of fame.

"He just passed the Village Vanguard I heard. Look, he's had to kiss every woman!"

Between the night's preliminaries (glass-raising remarks from Jones' longtime sponsors Yamaha and Zildjian; gifting a few lucky friends with signature snares and cymbals) and the requisite candle-blowing ceremony, the drummer eventually thrilled the packed club with an hour's musical celebration. A romping version of a Louis Armstrong standard ("Hello Brother") kicked off the set, yielding to two tunes that left Marsalis alone with the rhythm section: a satisfyingly moody "I Can't Get Started" and Coltrane's upbeat "Resolution." Finally, a rousing, artfully sectioned take of the Japanese folk-song "Soran-Bushi," replete with Jones' thunderous drama—all tom-tom beats and cymbal crashes—and each Machine member showing off his mettle (Wonsey's bright articulation was a standout, as was Shim's fluid inventiveness and dry tone).

Too soon it was over. All rose, applauded and whistled for an inspired 60-minute performance, and for a still resonant and virile 62-year career. And pity those who lined up outside for the late set. Jones' retreat from the stage seemed twice as long as his entrance, calling to mind Cosby's good-natured acerbity.

"Take your time Elvin—by the time you get up here it'll be your 76th!"

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