For almost 30 years whenever Elvin Jones brought his band to Ronnie Scott’s I would almost always be present. Elvin’s unique polyrhythmic style, his propulsive playing, and his long association with John Coltrane’s classic quartet where he played such an important part in driving Trane’s improvisation to new heights made attending his regular residencies at Ronnies a must see.
Two of those many gigs stand out. The first from the late 70’s when, unusually I stayed for the 3rd set which kicked off well after 1AM with the club more than half empty. Elvin played Love Supreme, Coltrane’s signature album, and he played it in full. I think that Dave Liebman may have been on tenor that night. It was one of the most moving and inspirational live sets that I have so far heard.
The second occasion, less memorable musically than the first in many ways was a version of Elvin’s Jazz Machine which included Ravi Coltrane, John’s son on tenor sax. Ravi would have been in his early 20’s and fresh out of music college. It seemed entirely appropriate that Elvin would help launch Ravi on his jazz career, that continues to this day.
Thinking back to the juxtaposition of Elvin the jazz elder with Ravi the jazz newcomer and their respective links to John Coltrane got me thinking about other jazz dynasties; fathers and sons who both made careers in jazz. Since for much of the last 100 years jazz has been heavily male dominated (and I may well return to a fuller reflection on this subject in a future blog), I am only able to feature one mother and daughter; singers Dee Dee Bridgewater and China Moses, and two fathers and daughters; Don and Neneh Cherry, John and Jacqui Dankworth.
The Marsalis Family
The term dynasty is most applicable to the Marsalis family. Ellis Marsalis, an accomplished modern jazz pianist who rarely strayed beyond his hometown of New Orleans was, evidently so influential that each of his sons became jazz musicians; Wynton on trumpet, Branford on sax, Delfeayo on trombone and Jason on drums. This particular dynasty may also merit a future blog.
What I’ll focus on here are parents and children that I have heard play separately and, for both Ornette & Denardo Coleman and Stan and Clark Tracey, together.
In the following cases sons followed their fathers on their own instruments.
- John and Ravi Coltrane – Saxophone
- Jackie and Rene McLean- Saxophone
- Von and Chico Freeman – Saxophone
- Dewey and Joshua Redman – Saxophone
- Dave & Darius Brubeck – Piano
- Dee Dee Bridgewater & China Moses -Voice
- Kenny Drew and Kenny Drew Jr. – Piano
While in this grouping the next generation established their jazz credentials on a different instrument to that associated with their parent
- Stan and Clark Tracey – Piano and drums
- Henri and Sebastien Texier – Bass and sax
- Don Cherry and Neneh Cherry – Trumpet and voice
- John Dankworth and Alec Dankworth & Jacqui Dankworth – Sax, bass, and voice. Jacqui is following in the footsteps of her legendary mother Cleo Laine a supreme vocalist.
- Chico and Adam O’Farrill – Piano and trumpet
It is hard to draw firm conclusions on which of the pairs made or are making a bigger impact within jazz. Fathers are generally better known than sons, but that is probably not the case with Joshua Redman, one of the leading contemporary saxophonists.
My thoughts go out to the now little known Mercer Ellington whose father was not very encouraging of his musicianship and who nevertheless took on the leadership of the Ellington orchestra for many years after Duke’s death.
In two cases the appointment of young sons in the bands of famous fathers had, at least contemporaneously seemed controversial.
The jazz world was shocked when 10 year old Denardo Coleman occupied the drum chair in Ornette’s Empty Foxhole album in 1966, particularly as Ornette had a reputation for hiring the cream of drumming modernists from his early days on the west coast-notably, Billy Higgins, Ed Blackwell, and Charlie Moffett. Ornette obviously heard something fresh and exciting in his son’s playing and Denardo remained a fixture in many of Ornette’s line ups for the remainder of his life. In an interview around the time that the album was launched Ornette said, “I felt the joy of playing with someone who hadn’t had to care if the music business or musicians or critics would help or destroy his desire to express himself” At the same time drummer Shelley Mann who played (very well) on one of Ornette’s earliest albums described the Empty Foxhole as” unadulterated shit “and suggested that Denardo might one day” make a good carpenter”!
I vividly recall my own surprise when the highly distinctive UK pianist and composer Stan Tracey replaced Bryan Spring on drums, who at that time was the closest approximation on the British jazz scene to Elvin Jones and was a distinctive presence in Stan’s various bands in the 1970’s, with his son Clark who at that time was barely out of his teens and was completely unknown within the jazz world. Clark Tracey writes movingly about his induction into his father’s musical world and the initially hostile reaction it caused in his recent book, The Godfather of British Jazz- the Life and Music of Stan Tracey. As with Denardo, Clark remained a fixture in his father’s many line ups for the remainder of his career and no one now doubts his jazz chops. Interestingly Clark has developed an important role in mentoring emerging UK talent within his own bands and recordings.
The curated playlist gives you an opportunity to hear recordings of founding and succeeding generations back-to-back and will encourage us draw our own conclusions as to any musical influences that the sons drew from their fathers. The playlist kicks off with two quite different versions of John Coltrane’s civil rights anthem Alabama, the first from the son, the second from the father.