Elvin & Me

The Doors’ drummer, John Densmore, remembers his hero, Elvin Jones (1927-2004)


| November-December 2004


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.