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In Memoriam: Keiko Okuya Jones

Alvin Queen reflects on Jones (April 8, 1937–Sept. 26, 2022), who filled multiple roles for her husband, Elvin Jones.

Keiko Okuya Jones (left) with Elvin on the cover of his 1970 album Coalition. In Memoriam: Keiko Okuya Jones (April 8, 1937–September 26, 2022)

I was still pretty young at the time when Keiko first came around in 1967, around 16 years old. I was already getting known by then and part of the reason was that Elvin had adopted me, more or less. That’s what he told people. “Have you heard my son? He’s playing with Horace Silver.” Keiko started working as his manager, like getting him the gig at Pookie’s Pub, which was a dump, really. At least at Slug’s they had sawdust on the floor. At Pookie’s they couldn’t afford that. Keiko helped build up Elvin and Pookie’s too! 

I don’t think I would be where I am today without Elvin helping me out and, at the same time, if it wasn’t for Keiko, I don’t think Elvin would have been Elvin after he left Coltrane. That’s how I look at it. Before Keiko came on the scene in the ‘60s, you couldn’t keep up with him. He’d say, “I’ll be right back” and he’d disappear. “Where did Elvin go?” 

Keiko was the grip Elvin needed. It was love and it was a partnership. Elvin played music—that was his thing and all he had to do. Keiko did everything else. She helped get him prepared, fed him, set up the drums. She kept an eye on the time and dealt with the musicians and the promoters. Collected the money. She even wrote some of the songs they played and put the setlists together. 

I remember once in Chicago a musician saying to me, “That’s a damn shame that a full-grown man has a woman taking care of the drums for him.” I didn’t see it that way. People didn’t realize that was Keiko doing what she saw as her role. They didn’t appreciate it was a whole life change for her. She paid her dues, learning the business from the street level up. That’s the love she had for Elvin. 


I heard Keiko first met Elvin in Tokyo when he had some problems during that tour with Art Blakey and Tony Williams [in 1966]. They had him locked up over there, and she helped him get out. Apparently, she had a father and a brother over there in the shoe business, so I heard they had some kind of money. But she let all of that go to be Mrs. Jones. He never told me much about that, but when Elvin came back to New York she was with him. 

There are so many wives who had a very important role in jazz: doing management duties, carrying the load. Sue Mingus, and the wives of Woody Shaw, James Spaulding, Ronnie Cuber, Lonnie Smith. What would we do without them? I dealt with many of them, like Gladys Hampton, when I played with the Golden Men of Jazz. So much of this business is about fighting—fighting for the gigs or for the money you’re owed, or for respect. We get beat up—ripped off and kicked around. But as musicians, I feel that we’re not fighters, we’re creators, and you can’t fight and create. It just doesn’t work. So if we have someone to step up for us, we’re lucky. I live now in Switzerland with a woman I met here and married forty years ago. She helped me get on my feet and I wouldn’t be living like I am today and still making music if it wasn’t for her. 

God bless Keiko. I know some people had their issues or problems with her. She could be difficult. A lot of people didn’t understand her. They had their thing together, two cultures working together. I got to see the beautiful side of it. I remember sitting at a hotel once in Bern, Switzerland with Elvin, Eddie Vinson, Sweets Edison, and Al Grey, and Keiko came down to the lobby and said to me, “Come say hello to your mother.” She always treated me like Elvin did, like family. Keiko took care of my man, and that was the most important thing. [As told to Ashley Kahn.]