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Linking music and history

February 17, 2005|by KATE COLEMAN

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - George Thomas "Sonny" Cohn was born and raised in Chicago. After more than 30 years traveling and playing his trumpet with the Count Basie Orchestra, he retired to his hometown.

Cohn, 79, still plays sometimes and said his most recent gig was at a Chicago club about a month ago. He's booked for another - the third annual Jazz Heritage Concert in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

At 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 23, Cohn will share the Clarion Inn Ballroom stage with the Howard Burns Quartet and another legend of jazz, Buster Cooper.

Cohn knows Cooper, but he said they have not played together. The program for the Shepherdstown performance had not yet been discussed at the time of this interview, a couple of weeks before the show.

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"It don't make no difference," Cooper said with a laugh.

Hagerstown sax man Howard Burns agreed.

"Music is the universal language," Burns said. It doesn't matter if you speak English, Japanese or Greek, he added. "You just name the key. You got it."

Burns' quartet - Jon Ozment on keyboard, bassist Jeff Hiner and drummer Jesse Moody - will play with Cooper and Cohn.

Music spans time as well as cultures.

Jazz was the first American art form, said Charles Cranford, associate director of Eastern Management Development Center, which is celebrating Black History month by sponsoring the Jazz Heritage Concert for the third consecutive year. The performance is free. "It's our gift to the community," Cranford said.

Although the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia is miles away from the big city jazz clubs where the art form flourished, there's a direct link between the music and its history.

Don Redman, who is known as the first great arranger in jazz history, was a 1920 graduate of Storer College. Storer, one of the first schools founded to educate freed slaves after the Civil War, flourished for almost 90 years and is preserved as part of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park in Harpers Ferry, W.Va.

Todd Bolton, branch chief of visitor services at the park, booked this show as he has the two previous jazz heritage concerts.

A longtime jazz fan, Bolton said he saw the Basie and Ellington orchestras more than 30 years ago. He grew up listening to his parents' big-band 78-rpm records and has a sense of the music's significance and the size of the individuals' contributions.

Cohn and Cooper have rich histories, Bolton said. They were part of two of the most important big bands in American history.

Cohn was about 7 or 8 years old when his father, who had "kidded around" with the trumpet, handed his instrument over to him. As a teenager, he formed a band with his sister - Frances and Her Rhythm Kings. He started his professional career in 1942, and in 1959, sat in for Basie's ailing trumpeter during a gig at Chicago's Regal Theater. Basie hired him a few days later, and he came to be called "mainstay" by the bandleader.

Cohn was modest about not naming a trademark tune, but he said he loves playing ballads.

Trombonist Cooper also was acclaimed for his ballads, and his playing has been characterized as brilliant and humorous.

How can a trombone sound witty?

Cooper's explanation is simple. He said he plays to satisfy the people - his audience. "That's the bottom line."

As for a trademark song, Cooper wouldn't name a particular composition.

"Good music - any kind of good music. That's my trademark," he said.

George "Buster" Cooper, who grew up in a musical family in St. Petersburg, Fla., played drums before he picked up the trombone at about age 16. He said "I'll be darned if I know" why he chose the instrument, but, he said, "It's been good to me."

He's played it in several ensembles, including Nat Towles' Texas-based band and the Lionel Hampton Band. He played with Benny Goodman for a couple of years in the 1950s, and spent a year playing for Josephine Baker in Paris with his group, The Cooper Brothers.

Cooper joined Duke Ellington in 1962 and was with the orchestra for seven years. The bandleader wrote a song for him - "Trombonio-Bustoso-issimo" - its title becoming his nickname.

Cooper later spent a couple of decades playing with Los Angeles orchestras, and returned to his native St. Petersburg, Fla., 10 years ago. He has a regular gig at The Garden, where he's been joined by guest players such as George Benson and Wynton Marsalis.

Cohn and Cooper are legends, Bolton said.

Though Cohn doesn't mind such a label, Cooper observed that calling someone a legend usually means he's "on the way out."

He approaches it differently.

"Today is the first day of my life," he said.

As for his take on the upcoming concert: "Everybody will have a good time," he promised.

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