Elvinquest: The Drummer who didn’t come to dinner

(This is an article I published in the Montreal Gazette on July 7, 1992. Reposting at a friend’s request.)

All the best stories have a quest in them. Ulysses. Indiana Jones. Don Quixote.

John Fraboni. Sort of rhymes with Don Quixote, doesn’t it?

John Fraboni is a 22-year-old drummer, a student at McGill University. A quiet, personable fellow, and a solid young jazzman; you’d probably enjoy hearing him play sometime.

Sunday was quest day for Fraboni. He was on a mission to invite Elvin Jones over for dinner.

This makes perfect sense if you understand Jones’s place in the history of jazz, and the almost messianic role he plays for younger musicians.

It all started 10 years before Fraboni was born, when Jones joined the quartet of an up-and-coming saxophonist named John Coltrane. There began one of those musical relationships that soon become the stuff of legend. The Coltrane Quartet with Elvin Jones was a scorching, spiritual band that logged so many musical innovations I just haven’t room to describe them here. Anyway, a lot of people will tell you the Coltrane Quartet with Elvin Jones was the greatest jazz band ever. In history.

Fraboni will tell you that. “This guy’s so heavy,’’ he said of Jones yesterday. “He’s done so much for music and art and culture in this century. I mean, if we didn’t have Elvin, we’d have to redefine the concept of beauty.

“Me and a lot of my friends, other musicians, feel that way. We just thought all we could do was give him some food, be nice to him - to just try and f — ing thank him.’‘

We interrupt this story to emphasize that Fraboni is not some nut.

“It’s weird to talk about it, because people think you’re going overboard,’’ he said. But this sort of behavior has a long and honored history in jazz.

Nineteen-year-old Miles Davis enrolled in the Juilliard School of Music in 1949 just so he could hunt the New York clubs looking for saxophonist-god Charlie Parker. In the early ’70s, a young trumpeter named Jon Faddis carted a wheelbarrow full of Dizzy Gillespie records to a Gillespie gig, hunting for autographs. Later that night, the legend goes, Faddis played with Gillespie for the first time — blowing his solos into a nightclub from the street outside, because he was too young to get into the bar.

And as anyone who attended Sunday’s sold-out Spectrum gig can tell you, 64-year-old Jones walks among us like a man blessed. Always smiling hugely, he seems somehow hooked into a higher level of consciousness.

It’s said he can spot other drummers as though they had a special aura. One local drummer likes to talk about the night in a Toronto bar when Jones — who’d never seen this fellow in his life — walked right up to him and said, “I just got a new bass-drum pedal. Wanna see it?’‘

Back to Fraboni. He got the idea for Elvinquest a few weeks ago, playing a job with McGill music prof Kevin Dean. Dean, a trumpeter, used to invite musicians like Herbie Hancock and Charlie Haden to his New York apartment for dinner in the ‘70s.

Fraboni picked up the idea. He went with a posse of friends to Jones’s sold-out Spectrum show Sunday evening. They tried everything they could to get backstage afterward. “We were trying to be mature about it. We weren’t trying to be kids or geeks.’’ No dice.

He tried pulling rank. “I gave (the bouncer) my McGill student card. ‘On behalf of McGill University … .’ ‘’ Nope. Back to the Meridien Hotel, where most of the musicians playing at the festival stay. Fraboni and four other young musicians rode the elevator to every floor, hunting for the tracks of a big drummer.

Nothing. “Then this guy got on at the third floor — the elevator was packed — and he was carrying a suitcase with a tag that said, ’Elvin Jones.’ Steve (Kaldestad, a saxophonist) was the only guy who saw the tag, and he just went like this,’’ Fraboni said, holding up three fingers. “We all knew what was going on.’’

When the elevator emptied, our intrepid crew hightailed it back up to the third floor, and camped out until Elvin Jones himself strolled out of one of the rooms. Fraboni launched into his pitch. “On behalf of the music students of McGill University … .’‘

But, like some of the best quest stories, this one has a bittersweet ending. Jones had to leave immediately for a concert in Glasgow.

But “he was really into it,’’ Fraboni said. “He was happy that we’d made the effort. He said thanks for coming up.’‘ No dinner. (What were they going to serve? “I was thinking boneless breast of chicken. It would depend on his diet.’‘)

They chatted for a few minutes. Jones’s wife and manager, Keiko Jones, handed Fraboni the drummer’s business card. Next time, Jones said. “He got the drift that we were into him — without getting spit all over him,’’ Fraboni said.

Back now to real life. Fraboni and saxophonist Kaldestad hope to perform A Love Supreme, the Coltrane quartet’s most famous work, at McGill next year. Fraboni would go through Elvinquest again in a second.

“We just wanted to give back to him something he gave to us: some nourishment.’’