Nov 09, 2015 by Matt Biancardi
After Elvin Jones, John Coltrane’s go-to drummer, died in 2004, his widow Keiko was left with her husband’s absence and the monumental task of managing Jones’ gear collection. But to call it a “collection” borders on injustice to the initiated: It was a veritable pharaoh’s tomb of drums and drum history.
“It was an absolute treasure trove of the most amazing drum gear I’ve ever encountered,” recalls Donn Bennett, instructor and owner of Donn’s Drum School, an industry leader in rare, vintage drums and celebrity-owned drum gear for more than 30 years and arguably the industry leader and adviser on the topic. “You’d hear about this buried treasure; you’d hear stories from those who have been there: piles of old Zildjian Ks, ‘60s Gretsch kits still in the boxes.”
After several bad experiences with dealers looking to pull a fast one, and trying unsuccessfully to sell the gear herself, Jones turned first to friend Gregg Keplinger — a legend for crafting coveted steel snares and working as drum tech to Pearl Jam and Soundgarden’s Matt Cameron — for his know-how and professional connections. And Keplinger recommended Bennett.
In his native Seattle, Bennett has cultivated a name working with Charlie Watts, Steve Jordan, Ringo Starr and other drummers. “I have had the extreme good fortune to have worked with dozens of my favorite drummers over the years,” he says. “I specialize in drums that were owned and used by famous drummers.”
Compared to the markets for vintage guitars or recording gear, the vintage drum market is even smaller in terms of the number of professionals capable of competently assessing a product, Bennett says. As a result determining the value of such pieces, some of which are worthy of the Smithsonian’s attention by virtue of age, rarity and being from Jones’ private stock, can be very difficult.
“There is an extremely small market for this kind of stuff,” Bennett says. “This is where over 30 years of building trusting relationships in the drum world has become very helpful. Most of the drums come to me as opposed to me hunting for them. I’ve bought drums that have taken over 20 years to sell.”
And so began the long-running project of working with Keiko to inventory, catalogue, price and sell Elvin’s leviathan collection. “There were eight drumsets, 20 snares, over 100 cymbals, hundreds of pair of sticks, brushes, mallets. She saved everything; cracked cymbals, broken sticks; bins and bins of Elvin’s sticks,” Bennett says. “There were also were trunks full of his stage shirts, some bongos and auxiliary percussion.”
The process began slowly, with Donn first purchasing the last kit Yamaha made for Jones as well as twenty cymbals — including pre "Green Stamp" Istanbuls, produced before the company split into Istanbul Agop and Istanbul Mehmet, which could fetch a fortune on their own. Since 2005, Donn has purchased a wide swath of the Jones collection. While acquisitions and number-crunching are components of a professional vendor, Donn’s 10-year working relationship with Keiko Jones is what stands out for him.
“It was about five years ago that I purchased the bulk of his stuff. Really, this is an ongoing thing because there’s still more stuff that I’m supposed to be buying,” Bennett says. “This process is always at Elvin’s wife’s pace. When she’s ready to start working on this again, she’ll call me.”
That time invested paid off when Donn eventually gained access to the crown jewels of the kingdom.
Jones was a Zildjian endorser, and the company made a selection of specially-crafted cymbals for him, which are especially notable for the engraving of the drummer’s signature on the stamp where the serial number would traditionally be found.
And Keplinger, master builder of a steel snare that sounds like a small explosion, presented Jones with a custom-made model complete with an engraved badge commemorating the build.
The most striking piece, however, isn’t even something you can play, but holds more than enough merit for a museum display: a cymbal bag from Zildjian for the first-ever set of American Ks. While only the original hats remain in Donn’s inventory, owning them and the bag indicating the very first set of perhaps the most-used and influential cymbal series in history is flooring.
“Probably the coolest thing for me in the whole set is a leather cymbal bag with all gold lettering that says ‘To Elvin Jones: the First Set of U.S. Made K. Zildjians, June 1982.’ It’s like, wow, here’s the case for the first set of American-made K’s.”
When asked his personal favorites from the gear he’s acquired, Donn says: “The stuff that really turns me on are the pieces that tell a story.” With the distinction of being the only vendor deemed qualified to handle the instruments and effects of one of the greatest jazz drummers of the 20th century, the man has quite a story.