The passing of the great jazz drummer Elvin Jones at the age of 76 on 5/18/04 marked the end of an era for me. I had seen Elvin live at least once a year from 1990 to 2003, because I considered him the greatest living practitioner of the music. He was a man who created his own style of playing that influenced many but no one duplicated, was the driving force behind one of the all time great jazz groups, the John Coltrane Quartet, a man who sold out clubs and concert halls all over the world performing with his groups, known as the Jazz Machine, and a man who always played with unmatched energy and enthusiasm, even in his weakened physical condition the last two times I saw him.
I saw Elvin many times in New York at the Blue Note jazz club, where he played a week-long engagement twice a year. I always wanted to see him at the Village Vanguard, because of the history, but the first time I saw him at the Blue Note I was informed by Keiko, his wife and manager, that he would never play there again. She didn’t tell me why.
I also saw Elvin in Chicago, Boston, Dayton OH, Indianapolis, and Louisville, KY, the latter 3 cities being short drives from Cincinnati, where I live. I missed my 25th year high school reunion to see Elvin in Indianapolis. I will miss his huge smile, powerful handshake and bone crushing hug, listening to him introduce the tunes before the set in that hoarse whisper of a voice, hearing that powerful cymbal crash and that long press roll that seemed to end each tune, and seeing the smiles on people’s faces after the music ended. While the Jazz Machine was always a mix of veteran and younger musicians, most of whom I was familiar with, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, saxophonist Greg Tardy, and pianist Eric Lewis were totally unknown to me when I saw them with Elvin. Now they are 3 of my favorite younger musicians.
I have a friend who, before she first saw Elvin, was a casual listener of some jazz, and occasionally hung out at the local clubs with myself and other friends. When she heard my brother, another friend, and I talking about Elvin coming to Gilly’s nightclub in Dayton, she sensed our excitement, of course we told her how great he was, and when we bought tickets for both sets 2 months before the show, her curiosity got the better of her. She surprised us on that night by getting to the club before we did. Since that night she has produced 3 CDs, produced several shows featuring the likes of Gary Bartz, Don Braden, and Javon Jackson, whom she met that night, and manages a local jazz musician, Elvin "baptized" her with "jazz fire" on that night in November of 1996.
In February of 1999 my brother and I flew to Boston to see Elvin at the Regattabar. At this club, one has to buy a ticket in order to reserve a seat. I didn’t know it at the time, so I didn’t buy any tickets, figuring I could buy one at the club. When we got to the club, there was a long line of people wanting tickets and both sets sold out before we could get any. When Jazz Machine members Robin Eubanks and Carlos McKinney arrived, I told them our situation, they talked to Keiko and we were given "comp" tickets for the first set. Now one set would’ve been cool, but Keiko came over to us and asked us if we were going to stay for both sets. What do you think we did? Right!. Keiko has always been kind to me since I met her. In 2001 at the Blue Note she let me stay on a Wednesday night without paying. I can still see her snatching that bill out of the waitress’ hand.
The last time I saw Elvin on a weekend at the Blue Note, in December 2000, I sat at a table with 2 well-dressed older couples who, I believe, were from New Jersey. They didn’t seem to be jazz fans, but they heard that the Blue Note had good food and music, so they wanted to check it out. When I told them that I had flown from Cincinnati to see Elvin they were amazed that anyone would do such a thing. Of course they didn’t know who Elvin was, so I told them about him and his stature in jazz, emphasizing his age, 73 at that time, hoping that they could relate to his powerful playing at that age. After the first set ended and they were leaving, one of the men said to me, "Hey, that old guy on the drums is pretty good" and thanked me for the info.
I have other memories of Elvin which will be with me for the rest of my life. As one who came to the music through John Coltrane I have always believed that "Trane" would not have reached the emotional and spiritual heights in his music without Elvin. To me, Elvin represented what this music is all about, and what many have seem to have forgotten. To borrow the title of a recent Jackie McLean recording, he played the music with "Fire and Love". May God rest his soul.