Sitting in a restaurant in Tokyo in the mid-1980s with executives from Yamaha, Jim Coffin noticed that people at an adjoining table were pointing at him excitedly. He asked one of the Yamaha guys what was going on. After a quick conversation with the people at the next table, the Yamaha exec told Coffin, “They think you are Colonel Sanders [of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame].” Coffin was quite willing to play along. “Ask them if there’s anything they want,” he replied. After another conversation, the Yamaha person reported back, “They want the KFCs in Japan to have drive-through windows.” Coffin looked over at the next table with a big smile and gave them a thumbs-up.
Coffin’s sense of humor is only one aspect of the man that will be greatly missed in the aftermath of his death on April 9, 2015.
Coffin was born in Waterloo, Iowa, in 1931, and received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Northern Iowa (UNI). After playing professionally in Los Angeles, he returned to Iowa and taught high school starting in 1956. In 1964 Coffin joined the UNI faculty, where he instituted the jazz and percussion programs. He was the author of The Performing Percussionist I & II and Solo Album, published by C.L. Barnhouse. As a clinician, soloist, adjudicator, and conductor he appeared in forty states and five Canadian provinces. One of his many honors was being noted as an outstanding university jazz educator in Duke Ellington’s autobiography, Music Is My Mistress.
In 1972, Coffin joined the Selmer Company, where he managed marketing, education, and artist relations for Premier. Ten years later, he joined the Yamaha Corporation and was responsible for the development and marketing of its percussion products until 1993.
One of the Yamaha endorsers he worked with was Peter Erskine. “Jim bridged the worlds of the music school and the music business more effectively than anyone else I’ve known,” Erskine says. “He was an inspiring and authentic educator at the University of Northern Iowa as well as a pioneering force for Yamaha Drums. Both institutions still resonate and thrive thanks to his passion and vision. He was also a fun-loving and generous man who proved to be an integral part of every Yamaha drummer’s career and life during those halcyon days when Jim was at the helm of Yamaha Drums in the USA. His passing marks the turning of a very big page. We will all miss him—his wisdom, his wit, his patience and impatience, that sparkle in his eye plus his infectious laugh—but, like all good souls, he lives on in our memory.”
Coffin was often spotted in the company of two close friends, Lennie DiMuzio of Zildjian and Lloyd McCausland of Remo, and Jim coined the term JEWOPS (“junior executives without power”) to describe the trio. He helped DiMuzio write his memoir, Tales From the Cymbal Bag.
After retiring from Yamaha, Coffin was a contributor to Drum Business magazine, editor of the drumset column in the Percussive Arts Society journal Percussive Notes, a marketing consultant, presenter of music business seminars sponsored by NAMM, secretary of the PAS executive committee, and a published fiction writer. He played on and produced a CD, The Seasons of Our Lives, and was interim symphonic band conductor at California State University in San Bernardino.
Outside the music business, Coffin was an avid Sherlock Holmes fan. He wrote and edited a newsletter for a branch of the Baker Street Irregulars that he founded, which was made up entirely of drummers. The group was called the Frenzied Hands (a phrase from one of the Holmes stories), and its members included Peter Erskine, Ed Soph, and Ed Shaughnessy.
In 1999 Coffin received the President’s Industry Award from the Percussive Arts Society, and in 2005 he received the Outstanding PAS Supporter Award.
“Jim was a renaissance man,” says Ed Soph, who endorsed Premier drums when Coffin was at Selmer and then followed Jim to Yamaha. “He was a player, an educator who wrote a foundational percussion methods text, an astute businessman, and a Baker Street Irregular. Jim instilled trust by simply being himself—a good person with a wonderful sense of humor, genuinely devoted to promoting a product without pandering to the lowest common denominator. Jim upheld standards of educational excellence and integrity that are still the benchmarks for those lucky enough to have known him.”