In a profoundly moving ceremony at the Frank E. Campbell funeral home on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, friends, family and fans gathered to say a last goodbye to drummer and jazz legend Elvin Jones, who died of heart failure on May 18 after an extended illness. Although Elvin had continued to perform up until a few weeks before his death, often taking an oxygen tank onto the bandstand, he was eventually rushed to the hospital in Englewood, New Jersey, where he was finally pronounced dead at 2:56 p.m. The drummer who changed the face of jazz with his revolutionary work in the 1960s with John Coltrane was 76 years old. At the wake, Elvin was laid out in his coffin with a red kimono and a pair of drumsticks resting in his hands.
The room was stocked with large bouquets of flowers from fans, friends, and jazz industry heavyweights from around the world offering their condolences while the guest book of those in attendance read like a Who’s Who in Jazz. Some of the drummers in attendance included Ben Riley, Roy Haynes, Rashied Ali, Lenny White, Kenwood Dennard, Akira Tana, Mike Clark, Barry Altschul, J.T. Lewis, Michael Shrieve, Steve Jordan, Nasheet Waits, Winard Harper, John Riley, Louis Hayes, E.J. Strickland, Carl Allen, and Roy Haynes, who was so overcome by the emotion of the moment that his knees buckled and he had to be helped to his seat. Another emotional highpoint came when a frail-looking Max Roach was wheeled in during the proceedings, eliciting a hushed sense of awe from the assemblage.
A somber-faced Wynton Marsalis, holding back tears, led a funereal procession of a brass band including Wes Anderson on alto sax, Victor Goines on clarinet, Ron Westray on trombone, Herlin Riley on marching bass drum and cymbal, and Ali Jackson on marching snare drum. They entered with the slow dirge “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” then broke the ice at this profoundly heavy affair with a spirited, uptempo rendition of “Down By The Riverside.” Former Santana drummer Michael Shrieve, who had been working over the past six years on writing Elvin’s memoirs, opened up the floor to casual reminiscing and sharing of genuine feelings about the great drummer. From there, one by one, friends, family, and colleagues got up to testify about the majestic qualities of Elvin both on and off the bandstand. Perhaps Shrieve put it best when he said, “We mourn the passing and celebrate the life of a giant among men, a titan among musicians. We mourn his passing but are grateful for the legacy that he leaves. Words cannot describe how much he has meant to us on a professional, spiritual, and personal level. With his humanity and humor and his ability to make us feel better through his music, he enriched us all immeasurably. And in doing so, he helped us to know our own humanity and give as much to the instruments that we play.”
Young pianist Eric Lewis, who played in the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine from 2000 to 2002 and is now a member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, added this insightful comment: “He didn’t play like an old man. He always pushed me to the limits of my abilities on the bandstand. When I first got in the band and took my first solo with Elvin playing behind me, it was like trying to light a match inside a hurricane.” Others spoke of the love, commitment and dedication that Elvin personified, acknowledging his encouragement of young musicians, his kind and giving nature off the bandstand and the profound level of joy that he brought to people all around the world. After all the heartfelt testimony and outpouring of love had finished, the ceremony closed with Wynton Marsalis leading his band through a Dixieland-styled rendition of John Coltrane’s “Resolution” from A Love Supreme. Long after the attendees filed out into the street, they continued hanging outside the funeral home to talk and reminisce some more about the late, great Emperor Jones. We’ll probably never stop talking about this jazz immortal.
“There will never be a more pure or powerful drumming force, or a higher level of drumming intelligence and passion, than that of Mr. Elvin Jones. Elvin represented everything that was good and great about jazz and life: the swingin’est beat, the brightest smile, the warmest (and most sweat-stoked!) embrace. Elvin was the life force of our music. And as hard as it is to imagine life and jazz without his bodily presence, he lives on in the tremendous body of recorded work he left us, and in the memories of those who were lucky enough to know him or see him in person. Elvin Jones left the world a much better place.” — Peter Erskine