My mentor, my main man, has finally broken on through to the other side. Elvin Jones, the polyrhythmic “jazz machine” and the motor behind John Coltrane, has crossed the tracks. He died on May 18, 2004. Elvin blazed a new path for all the rest of us timekeepers. He was the first to free up the job of clockwork, improvising continually, but never sacrificing a strong sense of pulse. He churned rhythms like an eggbeater and served up multi-meals within every four bars. With his beats perpetually on the edge, Elvin sounded like he was going to fall into his drum set, but never did.
His constant “conversation” with Coltrane inspired me to try to have a musical dialogue with Jim Morrison. Elvin played so loose, it gave me the courage to stop the steady rhythm on “When the Music’s Over,” during Jim Morrison’s rap about the earth, and just jab at my kit in quick expressive grunts.
I remember a show at UCLA’s Royce Hall where people were allowed to wander up on stage, so yours truly sheepishly played the role of groupie. This wasn’t a rock show, so the line between artist and fan didn’t involve climbing the Berlin Wall. I still lacked the nerve to actually say anything to my teacher, so I just watched as Elvin used a hammer to remove the nails he’d pounded right into the floor, to keep his bass drum from sliding. The man played hard! He was my teenage idol, and he became a friend. And he remains the most emulated musical thread I’ve got going.
The first time I met Jones it was 1963, and I nervously flashed a fake ID to get into Shelley’s [Manne-Hole] in Hollywood. The jazz club bouncer looked at it, gave me a glance that said he knew it was fake, and let me in to see my hero. Elvin Jones sat behind one of the greatest jazz quartets in the history of the art form, and he did it with a huge grin. The Beatles hadn’t hit yet, and he was my muse.
Between sets at the Manne-Hole, I went back to the bathroom just to get close to the dressing room. I heard voices and laughter from behind the wall. I occupied myself washing my hands until I heard the voices drifting out into the hallway. I spun around and, wiping my hands on my pants, turned the knob. Coltrane was standing right in front of me, looking at who was coming out of the bathroom. My reverence immediately told me to chill, and I quickly shunned eye contact. Trane walked by, destined for the stage. I noticed that everyone sort of quieted down when he passed. I looked then at Elvin’s face, and he smiled at me! When the last set was over, I lingered again in the back, hearing Elvin say to Trane, “Hotel, hotel.” I repeated the phrase over and over to my friends the next few days. They thought I was nuts.
In 1995 I caught Jones at Vine St. Bar & Grill, a jazz club just a couple blocks from the old Manne-Hole. I was especially nervous this time. After witnessing a performance that had as much power on drums as I’d seen 30 years earlier, I headed backstage to actually talk to Elvin, toting my autobiography, Riders on the Storm, under my arm. By this time I had received many accolades about my drumming, but this was jazz. This wasn’t rock ‘n’ roll; this was the roots of all my learning about the craft of drumming. With trepidation, I introduced myself. My name didn’t ring any bells for Elvin, so I quickly held up Riders on the Storm and said, “This is for you . . . it’s my autobiography about playing in a rock band . . . in here I wrote that you gave me my hands.” I was prepared for condescension, jazz being the higher art, but that wasn’t a quality in Mr. Jones’ repertoire. He was so incredibly kind and gracious; I was once again humbled to be in his presence. I felt complete. I had honored the man who had taught me much.
Several years later, the “Machine” was playing the Jazz Bakery in Culver City, and I made another pilgrimage to Mecca. His playing hadn’t deteriorated in the least. After the last set, I befriended another drummer, Len Curiel, who was obviously Elvin’s number-one fan. “You gotta come back and rap with him, he’s very open. He’ll give you his home phone number in New York. Maybe we’ll all go out to eat later. I’ve done that with him many times.”
Wow, hangin’ with my mentor? “I wanna help tear down his set,” I said to Len, while watching Elvin’s wife unscrew a cymbal stand. “Oh, Keiko will never let you do that,” Len chuckled. “She’s his manager and his roadie.” I spotted Dave Weckl from Chick Corea fame and Blood, Sweat, & Tears drummer Bobby Columby, both looking up at the stage with apparently the same idea, but Keiko was very protective. She had lived with her man in a two-bedroom apartment on New York’s Upper West Side for forty-some years. The neighborhood had changed, but their dedication to each other was the same.
At the risk of looking like a 50-year-old groupie, I asked Elvin to autograph some of my old Coltrane LPs. “Don’t be embarrassed by that,” Elvin beamed, as he John Henry’d my collector’s items. Keiko tried to move the party along and get the living legend home—there would be no late-night meals with the godfather of the skins tonight—but as we walked toward their car, my guru let me take the cymbal bag from under his arm and carry it the rest of the way. It only lasted a few yards, but I’d waited 35 years to have the honor.
John Densmore’s autobiography, Riders on the Storm (Delacorte Press), was a New York Times best-seller. He has written for The Nation, The Guardian, and Rolling Stone.