Francis Wolff/Courtesy of Blue Note Records
On July 17, 1967, John Coltrane, the trailblazing saxophonist and bandleader, died from liver cancer at the age of 40. His death not only left a void across the spectrum of Black music; the subgenre of free jazz lost its most visible advocate. He had become intrigued by what was happening in New York City’s underground scene — the so-called “New Thing” that eschewed fixed harmonic structure for atonal chords and free improvisation — and, in the year before his death, released the albums Ascension and Meditations, both showcasing his affinity for this fiery blend. Critics were shaken by the shift. In an appraisal of Coltrane’s artistry published shortly after his passing, New York Times writer John S. Wilson called Ascension a “roaring, barreling assault on the listener.” While Meditations harbored similar smoke, its sound was slightly more subdued than its predecessor and landed softer on the ear.
Drummer Elvin Jones was connective tissue between old and new Coltrane. On acclaimed earlier albums like My Favorite Things, Duke Ellington & John Coltrane and A Love Supreme, his drumming sounded light and graceful, the proper backdrop to Coltrane’s long-winding chords, which often began softly before rising to convey sensuality and distress in equal measure. On Ascension and Meditations, Jones rumbled and seethed, a worthy complement to Coltrane’s equally frenetic wails. The saxophonist’s landmark band — which, along with Jones, included pianist McCoy Tyner and bassist Jimmy Garrison — splintered in 1966 amid Coltrane’s pursuit of more aggressive sounds, a setup that included two musicians playing the same instrument simultaneously. “I didn’t want to leave Coltrane, but the personnel had changed,” Jones told The New Yorker‘s Whitney Balliett in 1968. “He added another drummer, and I couldn’t hear what I was doing any longer. There was too much going on, and it was getting ridiculous as far as I was concerned.” Now, we view Jones as one of the greatest drummers in the history of jazz. But in ’66, he was eagerly assessing his next steps, trying to build a solo career after years of being a sideman for stalwarts like Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter and Miles Davis.
Jones took up residency at Pookie’s Pub — a small venue in Lower Manhattan about a block up from the Holland Tunnel — in June, just a month before Coltrane’s death. He even showed up to a couple of gigs to check out Jones in his new leadership role. Perhaps on purpose then, the music felt resurgent, the sound of a nascent bandleader finding his voice at the helm. That such an accomplished performer would play there for $150 a week to sparse crowds (sometimes as few as 10 people, including the club owner and his staff) spoke to the challenges Jones faced as a new solo act. It didn’t matter that he was John Coltrane’s drummer. By New York standards, he was a rookie, and the residency at the Pub was proving ground for the next phase of Jones’ career. “You get tired of being a sideman, and being a freelancer, and doing things like that,” he once said. “I just tried to get a group and start somewhere. That was a chance to start.”
This moment in Jones’ career is captured on Revival: Live at Pookie’s Pub, a previously unreleased live recording from late July of ’67. Throughout, his quartet — which included Wilbur Little on bass, Billy Greene on piano and Joe Farrell on tenor saxophone — treks a mixture of standards, post-bop and an original tune from Jones himself. Yet he was a benevolent bandleader and the songs chosen for this set reflect his communal approach. Album tracks “13 Avenue B” and “M.E.” were written by bandmates Farrell and Greene, respectively. “Gingerbread Boy” and “Oleo” were plucked from the catalogs of saxophone greats Jimmy Heath and Rollins. Nonetheless, Jones bolsters these compositions with vast drum solos that echo through the nondescript club and push these tunes past the initial scope. In turn, a song like “My Funny Valentine” has more percussive swing than its romantic original, though, with the aid of elegant flute and piano solos, its intended balladry stays intact. “On The Trail,” another jazz standard, is stretched to almost 20 minutes through a sauntering groove led by Farrell’s hard bop textures and Jones’ thunderous drum breakdown. To that end, his powerful drumming is best exemplified on “Keiko’s Birthday March,” a Jones original and the longest track on the album, where his never-ending drum solo is interrupted only by a ringing telephone and a smattering of applause.
At a moment when some jazz luminaries started blending the genre with funk and rock, and others like Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler tinkered with more experimental forms of free jazz, Revival displays Jones’ affinity for the past, playing like a jaunt through traditional modes with room for expansion. Yet he wasn’t always so conventional; he could be playful and carefree, as heard on “Raunchy Rita,” a breezy Latin arrangement with flamenco-infused bass and vocal-style saxophone wails. On an album of hard-charging rhythm, it’s the LP’s most accessible song — the feeling of a band working out new ideas during a late-night set.
Jones played at Pookie’s Pub until the end of 1967, then left to start performing at the more-established Village Vanguard and another spot called the Dom. Few people knew — or, sadly, cared — that he was performing at Pookie’s initially; but, by the time he left, the bar and the residency had secured media coverage, which led to bigger opportunities in the city and overseas. The songs “Raunchy Rita” and “M.E.” arose in studio form for his and bassist Richard Davis’ ’67 album, Heavy Sounds. One can hear a noticeable shift in these songs from Revival to the studio. The live versions sounded raw and untethered, marked by the freedom of playing with few people watching and nothing to lose. And where the studio versions feel slightly buttoned-up, the conceptual vision for the songs were born at Pookie’s.
After his residency, Jones returned to sideman duties for Tyner, pianist Jaki Byard and saxophonist Lee Konitz before assembling a trio with Farrell and Garrison to release the albums Puttin’ It Together and The Ultimate on Blue Note Records. Then in the ’70s, he formed the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine, an ever-changing collective of young and established players that performed various styles of jazz over the course of its existence. Jones trekked on, performing up to a few months before his death in 2004, and has since been lauded for bringing a loose, polyrhythmic beat to the genre — a feat that not only gave Jones his own voice on the kit; it allowed his bandmates to shine as well. His influence also extended to rock drummers Ginger Baker and Mitch Mitchell, who brought Jones’ explosive playing to Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
We don’t get all of this without his time at Pookie’s Pub, an era unknown to many that’s now getting its proper due. While it’s perhaps too easy to shrug off the venue as inadequate for someone of Jones’ stature, it should be celebrated for offering a lifeline when he needed it most. At a time when public interest in jazz waned as funk and psych-rock took off, the pub gave Jones space to experiment without pressure.