Pittsburgh Jazz Legends 7: Bob Cooper

Thursday, 07 June 2012 06:06 AM Written by 
In July 1945, Stan Kenton had a problem.  His fast-rising California-based Orchestra was on tour, playing Kennywood just as their newest single about to break: the novelty "Tampico," sung by June Christy.  Kenton arrived here short a tenor sax.  Enter 19 year old West End resident Bob Cooper. A sax player steeped in the swing of Goodman, Ellington and Basie, Cooper filled in for the show. Kenton hired him the next day. For the rest of his life, California would be Cooper's home.

Despite being born here December 6, 1925, Bob Cooper isn't often thought of in terms of Pittsburgh jazz greats. Though s rarely mentioned in the same breath as Hines, Strayhorn, Marmarosa, Blakey, or Turrentine, his name figures prominently in the fertile post-World War II "cool" West Coast Jazz scene that thrived in Southern California into the 1950's.

Cooper's dad came to Pittsburgh from Canada to play pro hockey.  Bob later started on tenor guitar as a kid before studying clarinet in school when he was 15.  A year later, he switched to tenor sax, his earliest heroes were Coleman Hawkins and Don Byas. He fit into the Kenton band well enough that he stayed until 1951, and in 1946, married June Christy, who later became one of the greatesst of the "cool" female jazz vocalists.

You can see Cooper in the sax section in front at far left on this 1945 performance film (a Soundie) of "Tampico," with Christy, herself new to the band, on vocals.

This is one of the Kenton band's stroner numbers, the 1945 "Southern Scandal," Cooper again at the  far left. You see Cooper at 1:40 next to alto player Boots Mussulli.  Oh, and the hot bass player, upholding the aggressive traditions pioneered by Jimmy Blanton?  That's another future subject for this series: Pittsburgh Jazz Legend Eddie Safranski.

During his six years with Kenton, Cooper, a non-smoking teetotaler, unlike many jazz players of his generation, became a major voice within the band and remained so until he left in 1951 when he left to freelance. He became a regular with the Lighthouse All-Stars, a loose confederation of West Coast jazz greats organized by ex-Kenton bassist Howard Rumsey at a Hermosa Beach club called the Lighthouse.

The lineup varied and they often worked in varying combinations. Among the members were drummers Shelley Manne and Stan Levey, trombonists Frank Rosolino and Milt Bernhart, vibes player Vic Feldman, trumpeter Shorty Rogers, multi-instrumentalist Bud Shank, alto sax  genius Art Pepper, the trumpet-blowing Candoli Brothers (Pete and Conte), guitarists Barney Kessel and Howard Roberts and pianists Carl Perkins, Hampton Hawes and Claude Williamson.

Cooper and his Sextet circa 1954, playing "Excursion" with Williamson,   Shank on baritone sax, guitarist Roberts, bassist Curtis Counce and drummer Levey.

Here's a partial clip showing Cooper (not soloing, unfortunately), with the All Stars in 1958 playing "All The Things You Are."  He's at far right.  With him are drummer Levey, Rogers, Rosolino, vibes player Victor Feldman,  Rumsey, bass and Shank on alto sax.

Meanwhile, Christy's solo career was thriving. The couple did US and overseas tours together. As the California jazz scene began to contract, Cooper followed many of his friends into the well-paying Hollywood recording session work, backing all types of artists on record, playing on movie and TV soundtracks. 

He continued working with Christy. On this 1961 Capitol LP, Do-Re-Mi, the couple shared billing playing songs from the Broadway musical by Jule Styne and the team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green. The song: the future standard "Make Someone Happy." Cooper, who did the arranging, is playing tenor sax and oboe. The flautist is Shank.

This excellent 1970 film (warning--it's half an hour) features Cooper with Manne's Quartet at his LA club, Shelley's Manne-Hole.  Fellow Burgher Ray Brown's playing bass with the incredible Hampton Hawes at the piano. The songs: a blues jam, "Stella By Starlight" and the Miles Davis standard "Milestones." It's an outstanding document of his skills in the presence of equals.

In the 1980s, as the recording scene changed, Cooper, Rogers and their longtime associates returned to clubs, concerts and recording. Despite his recovery from heart valve surgery, Cooper wasn't as active at first. Christy's failing health required his attention.  After she died in 1990, he joined the reunited Lighthouse All Stars. That's what he did up until a sudden heart attack claimed him in 1993 at 67.

This final clip (again, only partial) was recorded in June 1993, two months before his death. It features him with trombonist Carl Fontana, another Kenton alumnus, playing Dizzy Gillespie's "Ow!" Backing them are pianist Keith Greko, bassist Warren Jones and drummer Dave Cook.  Even at the end, Coop's skills were undiminished.

Bob Cooper was indeed a mainstay of West Coast Jazz. Nonetheless, he got there by way of the West End.


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