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Keiko Okuya Jones, Widow of One of Jazz’s Greatest Drummers, Has Died at 85

From 1967 to 2004, she filled multiple roles for Elvin Jones, including business partner, tour manager, and personal gatekeeper

Elvin Jones: Coalition (with Keiko)
Keiko Jones (left) with Elvin on the cover of his 1970 album Coalition

The following is an official statement from the family of the late Elvin Jones, received at the JazzTimes office earlier today, December 14.

The family of the late legendary drummer Elvin Jones is sad to report the passing of his widow, Keiko Okuya Jones. An extremely private individual, she passed away on September 26, 2022, in the Manhattan apartment that she had shared with her husband for many years. She was 85. Her death from a stroke was confirmed by her stepson Elvin Nathan Jones and drummer Alvin Queen, a longtime friend of Elvin and Keiko Jones.

Keiko Okuya was born in Nagasaki, Japan on April 8, 1937, daughter to a father in the footwear business. She studied classical piano and was influenced by her father’s love of American jazz. In 1966, he joined with a number of similarly inspired Japanese jazz fans to help organize a drummer-led tour that featured Art Blakey, Tony Williams, and Elvin Jones as headliners. It was on this tour that Elvin and Keiko met and fell in love. She returned with him to New York City in early 1967, and his career—pivoting from his years as a sideman (including five legendary years with John Coltrane) to the role of a bandleader—soon blossomed.

Many friends and musicians still credit Keiko’s steely resolve and unflinching devotion in helping Elvin revive his career, while bravely facing rebukes and disrespect in a system that still deals unkindly with women, and one speaking English as a second language. In 1971, the two married; they remained steadfastly together until Elvin’s passing in 2004, with Keiko serving as his business partner and personal gatekeeper, band and tour manager, and drum technician. She was also credited as composer or arranger of a few tunes he recorded (including “Mr. Jones,” “The Children’s Merry-Go-Round March,” “Shinjitsu,” “One’s Native Place,” and “Zange”).

In a rare public statement at the 2004 Jazz Journalists Association Awards event, Keiko stood onstage and spoke about her relationship with Elvin: “I feel like my husband is still living with me since May 18 [the date of his passing]. I still make him breakfast every day, and I have been a great friend of his since I met him many years ago in Japan. Carrying on for him is a mighty responsibility.”

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Keiko and Elvin had no children of their own. She is survived by two stepchildren—Elvin Nathan Jones of Seattle, and Rose-Marie Jones of Stockholm, Sweden—and by unnamed relatives in Japan, from whom she was estranged.