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Drum Therapy: Elvin Jones 9/9/27-5/18/04

Elvin Jones

I stepped into the thick-curtained darkness of Yoshi’s at noon, right on time for the soundcheck. Keiko was already onstage, setting up the drums; in the six years I’d spent as his drum tech, Elvin’s wife, manager, and guardian angel had proven impossible to beat to any kind of physical labor.

I said hello and looked around for Elvin; throughout the 38 years of their marriage, one had seldom been found far from the other. Even when Elvin was onstage, Keiko was never farther away than the dressing room: palming a cup of tea, nodding with undiminished appreciation for the sheer genius of her husband’s music, basking in the warmth that radiated from Elvin when he played.

As it turned out, I’d walked right past the man without seeing him.

I’m accustomed to being greeted by Elvin’s wide grin and sparkling eyes, his rumbled “Hey, Brother Adam,” his bearhug. But now, after three and a half months in a New York City hospital, after three dire prognoses and three fired doctors, Elvin was sitting swathed in shadows, looking strikingly slight. My first thought was that Time-which seemed to have forgotten all about Veen for the last 30 years, perhaps as part of some bargain struck as a result of his unmatched ability to bend Time to his will on the trap kit-had come back to settle up.

The hospitalization, Keiko told me, had been hell.

I gave Elvin a smile and a pat on the shoulder, and when he barely stirred I turned back toward the stage, not wanting to disturb his rest or let him see my eyes tear up. Elvin stopped me-reached out and clasped my hand, squeezed and smiled. I squeezed back and we stayed like that, grinning and squeezing, for a solid minute, as my mind rifled back through all the smiles and stories and glasses of red wine I’d shared with him backstage, over dinners and in airports.

I thought of the first time I met him, at a master’s class at the Manhattan School of Music, and how Elvin had responded to an eager student’s question about the technical specifics of a 1969 recording date by leaning over the microphone and intoning the simple phrase, “You got to remember, music is all about love.” I thought of the rollicking, long-lasting laughter that so frequently erupted from him, of the way Elvin looked you dead in the eye the whole time he laughed and how you felt compelled to laugh as long and stare as hard, wanting to share anything with him you could and feeling momentarily privy, every time you laughed together, to the powerful, sincere richness of Elvin’s appetite for life.

The musicians of Elvin’s generation came of age at a time when society was geared toward the propagation of black men with strong backs and weak minds. They managed to thrive in the face of some of the most pernicious pressures imaginable, and they simply do not quit. They don’t retire. They go until they go. The love of music-and the music of love-is what always kept Elvin alive, and it continued to do so for the duration of that week at Yoshi’s, the string of gigs that would be Elvin’s last. Every time he eased down onto that famously high stool of his, drum sticks like matchsticks in his enormous, weathered hands, a little more of Elvin’s energy, his life force, seemed to suffuse him.

The truth of Elvin is that he was born, and lived, to play. I traveled the world with him, saw the joy Elvin brought people in every town and city, saw the happiness he felt when he was on stage, swinging, and the satisfaction it gave him to pass his wisdom on to the next generation of musicians. Seldom does one encounter a man so utterly committed to communicating with his fellow human beings, so perfectly in love with what he does, and thus for many people, watching Elvin play transcended music and became a spiritual experience. To bear witness to the intense power and terrible majesty of his solos-to see and hear Elvin grimace and growl like an ocean god, pounding tridents against drums to build a cresting tidal wave of sound-was to be as close as most of us ever come to a pure moment of creation.

Elvin’s music wedded peace to struggle, opened lines of dialogue between order and chaos, humanity and the infinite. He tapped into something ancient and ageless when he played, an energy volatile and benevolent, immediate and wise. Here, I often thought as I watched him, was the living embodiment of the artistic impulse that defines humankind at its best: the beauty and the brilliance, the pain and the sweat, the clenched, love-drenched, intricate ordeal of existing and of giving birth. Sometimes watching Elvin was like watching Jacob wrestle the angel. Other times, it was like watching a man cradle his newborn child for the first time.

No one understood Elvin as well as Keiko. Her commitment to ensuring that the world be granted the gift of his music was as pure and profound as Elvin’s own. The couple had no children together; instead, they were the parents of Elvin’s music. And the truth of Keiko, of this tiny woman whose body hardly seems capable of containing her enormous vigor, is that she always did right by Elvin.

In the ’60s, new to America from Japan, Keiko lugged his drums downtown to clubs on the subway. She kept him alive and his affairs in order. She composed and arranged tunes, booked gigs, hired musicians and managed four decades of tours. And four weeks ago, in what can only be described as a supreme act of love and understanding, Keiko brought Elvin to Yoshi’s. She knew what was most important: that Elvin play. That he spend his final days, if that was what they were to be, as he had spent the last 60-plus years of his life: spreading love.

The fact that Elvin was on stage at all from April 21 to 26, an oxygen tank by his side, constituted such a victory of the human spirit that grown folks were in tears at almost every table in the club. What Elvin was trying to convey was infinitely more powerful than his ability or inability to say it, but still each song, each brushstroke, was electric with the communal intensity of a crowd willing a hero forward, and a hero drawing strength from their love. Elvin seemed to grow stronger as the week went on-as if the music itself, and the energy of the people, was restoring him before our eyes.

His final performances were breathtaking, courageous, triumphant.

After each set, Keiko took the microphone and apprised the audience of Elvin’s condition, thanked them for their years of support, even brought a touch of levity to the proceedings with the story of her dismissal of a prospective physical therapist: “I told her I got the best physical therapy in the world for Elvin-the drums!”

One night, in perhaps the most touching moment of all, Keiko remained onstage throughout the band’s encore, kneeling behind Elvin, hugging him around the waist as the Jazz Machine played Coltrane’s “Dear Lord.” Throughout his hospitalization, Keiko said, Elvin had spoken endlessly of John.

It gives me comfort now-as I listen to the recordings that have been such an important part of my life for so long, and which have taken on new meanings, become tinged with new emotions, since Elvin’s passing-to think that perhaps the greatest partnership in the history of jazz has been restored at last.

Amazingly, several of Elvin’s sets culminated in surprise 20-minute solos-played with the house lights up, after the band had left the stage and Keiko had delivered her speech. Elvin simply did not want to get up from the drums, and any suggestion that he should be made to, that he should conserve his strength, was quickly dismissed by Keiko: “If Elvin wants to play the drums, I’m gonna let him play the drums. Go ahead, Jonesy, play!”

Nor could any amount of urging by the club’s staff convince the audience to file toward the exits; instead, they clustered four-deep around the stage, cheering and shouting “We love you, Elvin” as the greatest drummer in the history of Planet Earth did what it is he does. When Elvin finally stopped playing, only Keiko and I-poised behind the trap kit, ready to help him back to the wheelchair waiting at the bottom of the stairs-were close enough to hear Elvin’s whispered benediction to his fans: “God bless you all.”

Adam Mansbach is the author of the novels Shackling Water (Doubleday, 2002) and Laugh/Riot (forthcoming from the Crown Publishing Group in January). He was cowriting Jones’ memoirs at the time of the drummer’s death.