Tribal Elders



Elvin Jones


The Long Goodbye


By Chip Stern




The French have a phrase for it.

The bastards have a phrase for everything and they are always right.

To say goodbye is to die a little.



Raymond Chandler



Relating to human beings involves basic truths, both positive and negative.

They have never changed and never will change. That’s why I read poetry.

It’s universal. I like human beings. That’s why I play music



Elvin Jones




Soul.  It’s undeniable, yet indefinable.  I suppose, when all is said and done, soul is a direct connection to the spirit.  Least ways, that’s what I believe.  


I was ruminating about the nature of soul all the way home from Elvin Jones’ wake last spring at the Frank Campbell Funeral Home on Manhattan’s upper east side: during a long walk and talk through Central Park with drummer Barry Altschul; in a conversation with the young Albanian doorman at Max Roach’s old building on Central Park West; and on a bizarre subway journey uptown as I sleepwalked my way through one wrong train after another, and got lost in the Bronx. 


It’s hard to say goodbye, even when you’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop, and it’s only a matter of time. 


Elvin Jones At 75

A Gloriously Wild Child, An Indomitable Lion Of A Man

© Jos L. Knaepen


It’s hard to let go, even if it’s actually a blessing for your loved one to be relieved of needless suffering. 


It’s hard to accept that they’re no longer among us, even a year later, though in a sense they are always here, immortal in our memories, forever young in our hearts. 


Elvin Ray Jones was a vital part of countless lives, let alone my own, a fountainhead of joy, energy and inspiration—and not merely as a drummer.  Elvin was a charismatic, iconic figure, a wise, generous, loving spirit as illustrated by the testimony of one speaker after another inside the chapel.  And as my fellow drummers exchanged tall tales and ribald stories out on the street, a picture emerged of uncommon creativity and celebratory extravagance: of disciplined genius and hedonistic abandon; a textured, complex, larger than life figure—at once a gloriously wild child and an indomitable lion of a man.


Seeing Elvin laid out in his coffin amidst a sea of flowers was an oddly disquieting experience.  Elvin had always exerted such a profound command over time: to observe how time had in turn reduced this giant of a man to a gaunt shadow was humbling in the extreme. 


As I took in the noble outlines of his face, I had to remind myself that this really wasn’t Elvin—only his trap case.  His soul had swooped the sphere and morphed seamlessly into eternity. 


I felt blessed to have seen him play live at Manhattan’s Blue Note back in December of 2003, where I had the opportunity to say hello, give him a hug and let him know that he was always in my heart.  And while I did note the absence of drum solos, I thought he seemed pretty damn vital for a 76-year-old man—I should only be swinging that hard at 53, let alone at 76.  Thus the reports of Elvin’s rapid dissolution in the months preceding his death were rather unsettling. 


Max Roach And Elvin Jones

The Emperor Jones Applies A Submission Hold To The Mad Max

After An Epic Steel Cage Drum Battle At The Keystone Korner

© Tom Copi


I don’t know whatever gave me the idea that Elvin would always be here for me.  Maybe because he always had been, much as Max Roach had.  Then to see fellow-giant Max in the on-deck circle as it were, a broad smile on his face as he greeted well-wishers in the lobby of the Campbell Funeral Home from his wheelchair, well…I guess I kind of lost it. 


All things must pass.  Not exactly a revelation, that, but from time to it’s driven home in a deeply personal way.  For all the love and camaraderie of the event, for all the joyous memories of Elvin I got to share with my drummer friends, I came home feeling a little vulnerable and lonely.  So I called my daughter Jennifer in San Diego. 


Metaphysics Alert


“You know, it’s a funny thing,” I told her, more or less thinking out loud to console myself, “but about a week after Tony Williams passed away back in 1997, I sat down at my drum set and was surprised to find that all of a sudden I was able to execute his signature eighth note hi-hat beat, this sashaying sort of heel-up-toe-down motion that’s kind of like snuffing out a cigarette.  I guess I always understood technically how he did it.  But I was never able to coordinate it to the point where not only could I actually feel it, but could hear how to incorporate patterns around this basic pulse.  And it made me suspect that when we die some part of whatever comprises our eternal soul goes to wherever it is our souls go when we throw off this mortal coil, while some residual scraps of it linger in the moment, and are divvied up amongst those of us that are in tune with that spirit.”


And God knows Elvin certainly portioned out a beaucoup of spirit to all of us while he was here.  Not surprisingly, when I got off the phone with my daughter, sat down at my kit, and began lightly swinging, I found myself falling into this circular motion on the ride cymbal…Elvin.  Sometimes it seems as though out of every ten beats I’ve ever played, nine of them were Elvin’s.  How many years of my life did I spend trying to cop his groove on the “Acknowledgement” section of A Love Supreme?  I still couldn’t quite comprehend that he was actually gone. 


A Love Supreme: Acknowledgement

© Kerry Mitchell


A point driven home when I finally checked my answering machine, and found a call waiting for me from my good friend, Mike Clark, one of the most soulful, swinging drummers I’ve ever known.  Somehow we’d missed each other at the wake, and he was calling to give me a shout, and let me know he’d been looking out for me— although the wan, subdued tone in his voice was something new to me.  “It’s really weird,” he said slowly in a hollow, hesitant monotone, “but I’m just devastated by the whole thing.  I thought I was okay with it, until I went down there and saw him, and…Christ.  How weird is it to think about being without him…just normal, everyday life I guess.  Jesus, he was like…a King, you know.” 




I too was numbed by the finality of it all, but then the Spring of 2004 was quite the season of loss, as one American original after another checked out: guitarist Barney Kessel, drummer Elvin Jones, soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy and my old friend, guitarist Robert Quine (still despondent over the unexpected death of his wife last summer, he committed suicide over the Memorial Day weekend).  Then there were Ronald Reagan and Ray Charles—the Father of Soul for God’s sake—and mastering engineer John R.T. Davies (British I believe, but why quibble), whose restoration of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Hot Seven recordings as released on JSP Records was a work of genius.  All things must pass or as Papa Jo Jones used to put it, “Into every reign a little life must fall.” 




Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most

L-R: Robert Quine. Ray Charles. Ronald Reagan, John R.T. Davies, Barney Kessel, Steve Lacy


Part of what made Elvin’s passing particularly distressing, was the sense that he had been going down slow.  All through the winter and spring of 2004 reports filtered back which indicated that his health was failing…rapidly.  It all came to a head about a month before his passing when an anonymous E-mail spread across the internet like wildfire, telling of a harrowing gig at Yoshi’s in Oakland.  Clearly the end was near. 


Well, the band came out (two saxes, pianist and bassist) and the place went crazy Elvin...and no Elvin...and no Elvin. After about five minutes of constant applause, Elvin Jones came out, couldn't walk and had to be helped by his wife and the band members. We were a group of physicians and nurses and we all looked at each other with the same expression in our faces: "He is dying of heart failure."

His wife gave him the sticks and the band started playing a bebop-like tune. It was quite an experience seeing him playing that night. The stick in his right hand (hitting the cymbal) kept slipping back and he needed to reposition it. He was certainly off, considering the timing of the tune. I couldn't see his left hand, [and] I could not hear any beats. Similarly with the hi-hat, I did not hear it all night long. As the performance continued, he looked more fact, he closed his eyes once, and grabbed his stomach as if he was in pain, and everybody in my group got up because we though that he was going to fall. He finally woke up and continued playing. He took one solo all night long, and basically what he did was to drop the sticks on the drum one at a time, at a very slow speed. He did not have the strength or energy to lift up the sticks from the drum fast enough. The band sounded great, though. I guess he is like Art Blakey and [has] surrounded himself with the best young players available. The bassist kept the rhythm going all night long, working super hard, and the pianist would take very long solos, as [did] both sax players. Elvin could still swing at a very low speed, [and] was well complemented by the bassist and pianist.

At the end of the performance, his wife whose name I couldn't catch, came out and said that Elvin Jones was very ill, dying from heart failure. She also said that he had not eaten anything that day, but that she had fired his prior three physicians when they said that he was dying and
decided to take care of things herself, booking him continuously until July (she also went on and on talking about medical insurance, doctors, etc).  Elvin did not [say] a word all night long, and I actually wondered if [he] was still coherent enough (which is a common, late event in patients with heart failure). He stayed there, sitting by his drums for about twenty minutes after the performance was over.


Fading Light

Mill Basin, Brooklyn

© Chip Stern


We all gave him a standing ovation; I guess this is the way of thanking him for what he has done. He did wave goodbye as he was helped out of the stage. We sent him our cards, as there are some options for patients with advanced heart failure (which we happen to specialize in our group).

I am not sure I can actually describe the feeling I had that night. The music was good, and seeing him on the drums made me happy and sad: happy because I got to see him before the inevitable. Sad because somebody like him should be at home, spending the last few days of his life surrounded by family and friends. I know he also needs our support (income as his wife put it). I haven't heard anything about his health in the news, and patients with heart failure have good and bad days, but I can actually say that he is in bad shape, weakened by his illness (already cachectic). I will forever have the image of an elderly Elvin Jones playing the drums that night.


Five Hundred Percent More Man


Cachexia refers to the appearance of widespread wasting of the body, pale color, dry wrinkled skin and mental depression—it is a clinical sign of chronic disease.  Word later got back to me that the likely reason this particular set at Yoshi’s had been so traumatic, was because Elvin didn’t have his oxygen tank on stage that night.  I was simply horrified.  Furthermore, it was explained to me how this is what Elvin wanted.  I mean…I’m sorry, but that image was very hurtful to me: the notion of this larger than life figure paraded out on stage like a goddamn dancing bear—dying with your boots on…sorry, I can’t get with the program. 


Paul Robeson

A Larger Than Life Figure

An Indomitable Force For Justice And Joy

© Nikolas Muray


Elvin was strength, vitality and spirit incarnate, a larger than life figure.  His music was a force of nature and the joy in his creations has proven more than equal to his mortality.  It’s instructive to recall another giant amongst 20th Century men, who like Elvin was—to paraphrase the Bo Diddley song—500% More Man: the great singer, scholar, actor, athlete, social activist and patriot, Paul Robeson.  During the McCarthy Era, the U.S. Government literally set out to destroy this man because of his support for the labor movement, his uncompromising stand on civil rights, and his avowed friendship for peoples of all hues throughout the globe.  Most disturbing of all to odious reactionaries like J. Edgar Hoover and his ilk was Robeson’s unapologetic support for citizens of the third world and his longstanding affection for peoples of the Soviet Union.  Robeson had the noxious red taint, and was widely perceived to be a communist.  He steadfastly refused to confirm his affiliation, one way or another, nor would Robeson knuckle under and mute his demands for human and civil rights at home or abroad.  And so they set out to destroy him, taking away his passport and drying up all sources of income.  Not that Robeson went down without a fight.  But at the point where his health was finally broken, he receded from the public eye and retreated into the privacy of his sister’s home—this mountain of a man didn’t want people to see him as an empty shell of his former self during his shadow years of gradual dissolution. 


God knows I’m sure glad I wasn’t in attendance at Yoshi’s that night.  


Still, what’s done is done, and I’m just glad that Elvin is at peace.  However, my prologue is now an epilogue, and Elvin has joined the honest ancestors, a tribal elder for the ages. 


Elvin Jones and Johnny Smith were two of my earliest inspirations as a drummer and a guitarist, let alone as a devoted jazz fan.  They are also two of my favorite human beings…warm, beautiful, funny cats.  The notion of launching my own all-music web site with extended pieces on two of the people who had pulled me into music in the first place signified in my mind how we’d all come full circle.  Ironic that the circle should thus be broken: after all the work I put into a Website-wide suite of pieces on Elvin, what had originally been intended to function as an appreciation, had morphed into something of a tribute...a remembranza—of him and me. 


Still, while I accept the reality of his death, I remain unaccustomed to the notion of speaking about Elvin Ray Jones in the past tense.  And so I have attempted to maintain the active voice throughout: both in my Sound Signature essay, The Emperor Jones: A Lifetime Of Inspiration, and in the loving record of our conversations dating back to a spring afternoon in 1990—Elvin Jones: The Formative Years.  Likewise, there is saxophonist and Jazz Machine alumnus Dave Liebman’s brilliant Musician’s Corner analysis, The Presence: The Head, The Hand and The Heart, which speaks from the soul and intellect about a living, breathing creator in the here and now.  And of course, we still have all of our treasured Desert Island Discs to keep Elvin Jones’ spirit alive: a spirit predicated in the power of rhythm and melody, the thrill and immediacy of creation, the joy of love and sharing and human interplay. 


“With the Coltrane Quartet, we enjoyed what we did tremendously,” Elvin once told writer Michael Zwerin. “None of us got rich playing that music.  I know I didn’t, and I don’t think Jimmy Garrison or McCoy Tyner did.  If not for the joy we took in the music, there’s no other way we could have made that contribution to each other.  When there was no one else to play for, we played for each other.  There was a lot of love and compassion and in that group.  That’s the rapport we had and how we inspired each other.”





Back To Top