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
“I can hear Elvin’s influence in a lot of rock drummers from the ’60s — Ginger Baker, Mitch Mitchell, John Bonham. When I was 12 or so I sat in on his drum kit when he came through Boston, and he was very supportive from that age on. I was fortunate to play with him at Zildjian’s American Drumming Achievement Awards ceremony in 2000. It was a very nice, beautiful time that we had together. Wayne Shorter said something about himself that also applies to Elvin: ’I’m not what I do, I do what I am.’ What Elvin played was a direct reflection of how he was as a human being. And to me, he was definitely a medicine man, a wise man, a chief.” — Terri Lyne Carrington
“I remember playing at Bradley’s [fabled but long defunct jazz room in Manhattan] one night when Elvin came down and sat in on my kit, and afterwards he said, “Allen, I like these drums. But they won’t stay still,” because every time he would hit the bass drum it would just go flying under the piano. He just had so much power it was incredible. Everything about his playing — his way of comping, his way of orchestrating — was so profound. People hear Elvin and they mistake him for just being a basher but what they don’t realize is how great of an orchestrator he was. Plus, Elvin had that ability to make everyone around him sound better than they would without him. That’s a sign of a true master.” — Carl Allen
“The first time I saw Elvin Jones play was at the Jazz Workshop in Boston in 1972. My folks took me to the club since I was underage. I had grown up mainly on big band jazz and seeing Elvin’s group blew my circuits! That concert was my wake-up call to the depth of jazz music and jazz drumming. After that I started to explore small group jazz, especially the music of John Coltrane with Elvin on drums. I saw Elvin many times after that and he was always swinging and creative and the whole experience was deeply moving. Elvin’s approach touched me profoundly and his influence lives deep inside of me. I feel it every time I play.” — Steve Smith
“When I was old enough and smart enough to really start looking into how Trane’s music works, I started to see that the phrases got longer and longer and the extrapolation harmonically, melodically, and rhythmically got further and further, which required more faith in the 1, in the tonic, in the center. And that required more and more openness and fearlessness. In order to play on that level, you really need to give it up, you need to have faith. And more than any other drummer, Elvin embodied that for me. When musicians get to that point, the line between dexterity and technique and faith and intuition begins to blur. It’s that courage of exposing your heart on the bandstand. That’s what I’ve learned from Elvin.” — Franklin Kiermeyer
“One of the major impacts that Elvin had on me was carrying the African root into American jazz music. As a young man, listening to Elvin and Trane on records scared me to death because what they were saying through their music was, “This is the commitment, and it goes beyond even death.” I remember one time being backstage with Elvin at the Greek Theater in Berkeley, and you could tell by looking at him that time was passing for Elvin, he was showing his age. But by the time he hit the stage it was like he was magically transformed. Suddenly, he was like a monster man. Elvin could transform the molecules in a room through his playing.” — Babatunde Lea
“We were like brothers. One of the things that some people realize is that Elvin was related to me musically. If they were really hip, they could tell. Trane knew. In fact, the last time I had seen him, Elvin was telling me that Max [Roach] was not answering the door anymore [due to a prolonged illness that he’s had]. They lived in the same building in Manhattan and so Elvin and I made a plan where I was going to come by and we both were going to see Max and cheer him up, which didn’t happen. The next time we were all in the same room together was at Elvin’s wake, which was really rough. Anyhow, the beat goes on.” — Roy Haynes
“Everybody thinks about Elvin as being just powerful and loud. And, of course, when he opened up on the drums it was definitely strong but it was a beautiful ’loud.’ It was something warm that showered over you; it didn’t hit you. But also, he probably played the lightest on the cymbal of anyone. Elvin’s right hand, man, the way he played a cymbal is textbook perfect. And the beat that he had happening with the brushes was incredible. There’s a Kenny Burrell record that he plays great brushes on where they do ’Drum Boogie,’ and he plays his ass off. How he could shape the beat with sticks or brushes was pretty unbelievable.” — Matt Wilson
“We go way back. I met Elvin in his early days with Trane. I was fond of him and I’m happy to say that we were friends. He was an original, which is saying a hell of a lot, because during that period, man, to be an original wasn’t easy. But he had his own personal style. It’s like whenever you heard him play you knew who it was, and he stayed that way throughout his career. He wasn’t influenced by anybody, as far as I know — he just did his thing. He was one of us. Just like Max, Roy, myself, Jo Jones, Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones; one of the cats.” — Chico Hamilton
“To experience his whole paradigm-shifting concept of time was just an epiphany. You got the feeling like he was ahead of the beat and behind the beat at the same time. He was the beat. He was wrapped around the beat in a way that was just stunning. He had all that plus his most beautiful range and his ability to coax the sound out of the drums in different ways. Just the way he touched the drums was spiritual. People come along sometimes and just change the entire landscape and the way that other people think of everything. Elvin was one of those people, no doubt. You were not the same after you listened to him.” — Bobby Previte
“Elvin’s innovation was to triplitize the swing feel, which definitely made it more African and just wider. He had the widest groove of anybody, I think. And to watch him play was just the most inspiring. How he moved on the drums was so free and so loose and so beautifully physical. I mean, his dance was the most thrilling thing to watch. If you were a deaf person you could tell how great Elvin was playing by watching his body language. We’re not all the natural genius drummers that Elvin was because he was one of a kind and irreplaceable and untouchable. But it’s within our power to follow Elvin’s example — and the truth is, from now on, all my hits are dedicated to Elvin.” — Rakalam Bob Moses
“The first time I hung out with Elvin was at Logan Airport in Boston. He had a layover and I had a layover so we had lunch and talked. I was working with Wynton [Marsalis] at the time and maybe he knew that, but it really didn’t matter what level I was on. Just the fact that I was trying to play was good enough for him. He would stare at me for a while without saying anything, which was kind of mysterious, but then at some point he said, ’It appears that you have a propensity for dealing with an abstract conception,’ and it came out of nowhere. And I was like, ’What do you mean? About music or about life?’ And he said, ’Aren’t they both the same thing?’” — Jeff “Tain” Watts
“I went to Ipolito’s Drum Shop when I was about 15 years old and had a lesson with Elvin. And so he said, ’I really don’t know why you’d want to come and have a lesson when you can just come down to the Vanguard and see what I’m doing.’ And he also said, ’I can’t show you what to do, I can only give you some ideas about what not to do.’ And when you’re 15, that’s like ... huh? But then years later the clarity of that statement was so obvious. It was like I was at the fight and they rang the bell — ding! I realized what he was talking about.” — Adam Nussbaum