AL COHN LIVES ON

The critical eye will find many flaws in the video clip below.  It takes place at a jazz festival (not in itself a bad thing) and the cast of characters is stellar: Dizzy Gillespie, Buddy Tate, Harry Edison, Woody Herman, Urbie Green, Jake Hanna , and Al Cohn.  But the end result is not all it might be: several musicians seem bored, detached.  Tate, during his better-than-average late-period solo, even glances around him for a second to mutely ask, “Aren’t any of you jazz all-stars going to play a riff or a background behind me?  Do I have to do all of this myself?”  Herman, pursued to his death by the IRS, looks exhausted and frail.  The composition, IN A MELLOTONE, Ellington’s line on the 1917 ballad ROSE ROOM, is mis-identified by the translator / subtitler: it’s not BERNIE’S TUNE.

But then there’s Al Cohn, who makes up for it all when he enters, around seven minutes into the performance.  In the Forties, Cohn was identified not only as a Woody Herman’s alumnus, but as one of the Caucasian Lestorians — tenor players who memorized all of Lester’s performances and offered them forth in their own way.  Many of them apparently emulated Lester’s delicacy.  Here, Al’s playing has energy and sinew.  He’s onstage to say something important.  He doesn’t shout.  But his solo has an easy majestic urgency all its own , even though one thinks of Ben, Bird, Herschel, preaching about mellow tones.  All of this takes place in ninety seconds.  And when the group of somewhat jaded jazz titans hears what Al has to say, they wake up and launch a suitable riff.

That’s one aspect of Al Cohn — inspiring by his fervent example.

But even posthumously, Al is an inspiration.

That’s not an empty phrase, and it’s not limited to tenor saxophone players or to listeners with good music libraries (I am thinking of the Xanadu recording HEAVY LOVE, an imperishable duet of Al and Jimmy Rowles.)  Next to me as I write this post is the Fall 2008 issue of THE NOTE, the journal of the Al Cohn Memorial Collection at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania.  (The collection’s website is www.esu.edu/alcohncollection, and their email address is alcohncollection@esu.edu.)

Their mission isn’t purely archival: they want to “stimulate, enrich, and support research, teaching, learning, and appreciation of all forms of jazz.”  One of the ways they have done this — for twenty years now — is by making the collection’s resources available “and useful to students, researchers, educators, musicians, historians, journalists and jazz enthusiasts of all kinds.”  Commendably, they preserve what they have already collected “for future generations.”  The collection includes records, books, photographs, oral histories, sheet music, art,memorabilia, and ephemera.  Although their definition of jazz is broad and inclusive, the collection focuses on Al Cohn and his many friends, chief among them Zoot Sims.  Other collections draw on the life and music of bassist Eddie Safranski, the rare acquisitions of the jazz scholar Coover Gazdar, and research materials about the history of jazz in the Pocono Mountains.

(As an aside, I sent the collection — some years back — a copy of a private tape where the noble participants were Al, Zoot, and Bucky Pizzarelli.  I have some candid jazz photographs that I’ve been saving for them, too.)

I started this second half by mentioning THE NOTE.  It’s no sentimental valentine to days-gone-by, nor is it a dry academic wafer.  Professionally done, it’s a pleasure to read.  The front cover of the current issue is a beautiful color photograph of David Leibman; the back cover a 1985 shot of Hank Jones by the always-surprising jazz photographer Herb Snitzer.  In this middle, rather like a jazz fan’s chaste version of a Playboy centerfold, is a two=page candid shot of Al and Jimmy Rowles in concert in Kansas City.  In the middle — a long hilarious screed of a column by Phil Woods, who writes as vigorously as he plays.  There are also brief comments from Bob Bush, the collection’s co-ordinator, “Thinking of Al” by Doug Ramsey, and an interview with Manny Albam done by Flo Cohn, Al’s wife, memories of jazz in Disney’s “Magic Village” by Jack SImpson, photos, letters, and hilarious anecdotes.

I can hear my readers murmuring, “How can I get a copy of THE NOTE for myself?”  Well, the journal is available free to those who ask to be placed on the mailing list.  But enterprises of this sort require some support — so a little contribution (if you don’t have a large one at hand) would be appreciated.  Email or send your best wishes and checks to

ACMJC – Kemp Library

East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania

200 Prospect Street

East Stroudsburg, PA 18301-2999

And if your basement is crammed with rare tapes, acetates, photos, or charts, call Bob Bush at 570-422-3828.      

3 responses to “AL COHN LIVES ON

  1. I heard the call of the Al Cohn Memorial Collection a few years ago myself & pledged to Bob Bush my entire library of jazz LPs & CDs (about 4000 of each, & growing). I also have about 100 jazz books. Hope it’s another 20 or 30 years before they come into this bequest, but I think I hold a copy of every commercially-released album by Al & Zoot. I hope other fans join me in arranging for disposition of their holdings in similar fashion. Incidentally, it’s not easy finding a university willing to accept such bequests; most expect a handsome endowment to cover cost of housing & maintaining any collection donated by an aficionado. The fan who has virtually impoverished himself acquiring a sizable collection will be glad to know ESU is willing to accept jazz record collections without further demands upon the donor.

  2. Folks – this is a sea of nostalgia. To address the issue at hand – Al was perhaps the most durable of the 4X40 Brothers that preserved the Lesterian legacy, and better than any of the others, he is able to play in these punishing outdoor curcumstances.

    I first saw Jazz at the Philharmonic in DC, 1946, with Hawk, bored as always, Bird et al – outdoors. It’s murder. No sound reflections off walls, the rhythm section is diffuse – you see as great an artist as Dizzy struggling here, and poor Woody. As you say, a tragic picture of a dying man. I had the questionable fortune to record his band for RCA while he really was dying (“Ebony” 1987, Dick Stolzman, soloist) and got the whole story. Buddy Tate – as I remember him – struggling a bit, but a true friend – invited me to blanket sit-in privileges in his club upstairs at 125th and Lenox in the 60s.

    The lesson ? Jazz really does belong in an unamplified small club. with or without smoke. Even in , for instance, Symphony Hall, 1943, where across the stage Hawk, Roy Eldridge, the huge and wonderful Pete Brown – so big his alto looked like a curved soprano – all seemed faintly silly, utterly out of context – in a huge concert hall. OK if it was Duke or Woody Herman, but not a semi-organized jam session. HPPY NW YR all – sam parkins

  3. All true, Sam, and a pleasure to have you sharing memories and perceptions. But I don’t know: I wouldn’t mind being time-traveled back to 1943 for a few hours to see Hawk, Roy, and the elusive yet bouncing Pete Brown. Sometimes the musicians were and are so extraordinary that they transcend the hall: I submit as evidence ten minutes at a Newport in New York concert in 1975, “Hall of Fame,” with this band: Hackett, Vic, Teddy, Milt, Jo Jones, doing JUST YOU, JUST ME, a slow blues, and BODY AND SOUL (with one of the bridges given over to a slow-motion brush solo from Jo). That band could have played in the Sahara and electrified the nomads, the dunes, and the camels. Or so I thought then and still do. Cheers and more, Michael

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