Elvin Ray Jones
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Requiem For A Titan

I spent a couple of weeks traveling/living in Europe. I don’t watch much television in general but while traveling, not at all. While burning through a pile of books, I also write to friends. Long letters which avoid the mundane “The weather here is...” Sometimes though I miss the instant gratification of a phone call which can be a hassle when on the road. Next best thing can be emails though.

I went into a cyber cafe to check my emails. I had spent the entire day happily wearing out my shoes. After signing on I was surprised to see that almost everyone I knew had sent me an email. A second later I realized how odd that is. The first one I opened told me what all the others in various detail would.

May 19, 2004 Elvin Ray Jones died of heart failure. He was 76.

A lot of my heroes are jazz musicians and most of them are dead. For reasons I can’t articulate this passing still hit me hard. A lot of my heroes are jazz musicians long gone before my birth. Echoes of another era. Yes, Coltrane means a lot to me, but despite how much one can get from his music, how much it makes you feel, to some extant he is frozen in time, the music and it’s power a living thing but the body reduced to the image on an album cover.

Elvin I had seen in concert, twice. The first time was one of the greatest nights of my life as a music aficionado and in general. It was a concert for his birthday, a double bill with McCoy Tyner big band. After two smoking separate sets McCoy came out to join Elvin for Afro Blue. This was not two old lions resting on their laurels giving an abbreviated performance which would still be critic proof because of their musical pedigree. It managed to have power but also the extra depth and finesse that can come only with years of practicing their craft. An advantage of age and artistic evolution not every jazz master necessarily lived to achieve.

The second time I saw Elvin he had been doing a week long stint at a small but modern jazz club in California, the same club that for a decade McCoy has done a two week residency at.

Much has been written about not just these last concerts of Elvin's, but this last mini tour. That he shouldn’t be doing this, shame on his wife for allowing it etc. etc. I saw what would be Elvins last appearance. He didn’t look well. I had gotten there early to get one of the little tables right by the stage. The entire band was on the micro stage. Elvin came out assisted by his wife and connected to an oxygen tank. His playing wasn’t fantastic but he did not embarrass himself in anyway (think final years of Miles)

These concerts were important for Elvin, not from an artistic point of view but as a way to have a final exchange with the audience with whom he had always had a symbiosis of both energy and inspiration. I sat so close I could hear him sing along as he played. His eyes would go from table to table resting several seconds on each face. Smiling when heads moved to the music. This was important, a final gift, a way for us to thank Elvin for all the years of great music and for a great but sick man to get one final infusion of energy.

That night, having learned of his death, while making dinner for some friends I wanted to put something on with Elvin doing his thing. I had plenty of classic Coltrane quartet, but what is easy to forget was how many great Blue Note sessions he had worked his magic on. The list is impressive in both its diversity and scope of talent. Wayne Shorter, Larry Young, Grant Green, Freddie Hubbard and many, many more.

Originally for this column I was going to do a biography and career over view of Elvin. Much information is readily available about Elvin both solo and his years in Coltrane’s classic Quartet. I decided to makes this less an obituary and more my way of saying thank you. In truth he will live on in his music as all the best artist always manage to.

His passing was not a great shock but still a tremendous loss.

A titan possessed of such grace and talent will not come our way again. Pick up something with Elvin doing his circles of sound and know the part of him we still need is here, always.

Maxwell Chandler June01,2004


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