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 firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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.