The youngest of three brothers, the others were pianist Hank Jones (born 1918) and cornetist Thad Jones (1923-1986). Elvin became well-known in the Detroit area, accompanying many visiting stars at the Bluebird Club, as a member of Thad's band.
He toured with Charles Mingus and Bud Powell and then moved to New York, where he became one of the most in-demand freelance drummers of all. In the late 1950s, he continued to play with Bud Powell, and with pianist Tommy Flanagan (whom he knew from Detroit days), before joining John Coltrane's quartet in 1960.
He remained with Coltrane, McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison until 1965. The group became the leading modern jazz group of the period, Trane's passionate and spiritually inspired playing backed up by McCoy's modal chording and Jones's incredible rhythmic force.
After leaving Coltrane, Jones briefly joined Duke Ellington, worked in Europe and then returned to New York to lead a succession of his own groups. Some of his major sidemen included saxophonists Joe Farrell and George Coleman in due course, his group took the name the Jazz Machine. Jones' intense drum style, full of polyrhythms, has been one of the main elements in defining jazz drumming from the 1960s onwards.