© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Sometimes it’s funny how I arrive at the subjects and themes for the postings that appear on the blog.
I like to think that I am a fairly well-organized person, or at least organized enough to write the name of a Jazz musician down in my list of blog projects notebook so as to have a reminder in place about a future posting.
Such was the case with one “Al Cohn.”
Checking back in this notebook you’d see his musician’s name appear in the sax section of the Four Brothers Band of Woody Herman, as the source of arrangements written for the big bands led by Terry Gibbs, Maynard Ferguson and Gerry Mulligan, a quintet that he co-led with Zoot Sims, and the leader of a marvelous set of small group recordings done for the Concord label in the early 1980s.
I mean given the magnitude of his accomplishments in the world of modern Jazz from the mid-1940s until his death in 1988, how could anyone forget the name - “Al Cohn” - as the subject of a feature in a blog that purports itself to be about “Focused Profiles on Jazz and Its Creators!?”
But somehow, ‘lo these many years, I did.
And you’ll never guess what finally got me to this feature on Al. Give up? It was a 1987 recording, remastered and reissued on CD in 2010 as Al Cohn: Rifftide [Timeless Jazz Legacy Remastered TJL 74505] on which Al appears with pianist Rein de Graaff, bassist Koos Serierse and drummer Eric Ineke.
That’s ironic right? 1987, the year before his death??
Sigh, best laid plans and all that …. But I guess it takes what it takes so whatever the source for the spark of enlightenment, here’s some long overdue thought about Al Cohn and his music.
Cohn was the consummate jazz professional. His arrangements were foursquare and unpretentious and his saxophone-playing a model of order and accuracy. He was perhaps never more completely himself than as one of the Four Brothers, the legendary Woody Herman saxophone section. Later in life, though, his soloing look on a philosophical authority unexciting but deeply satisfying.
As Don Heckman explains in his essay The Saxophone in Jazz which can be found in Bill Kirchner, ed., The Oxford Companion to Jazz:
“The real force of Young's influence first came to the attention of the wider jazz audience with the Woody Herman Four Brothers Band of the late forties. Stan Getz's Young-inspired solo on "Early Autumn" touched listeners outside the jazz arena. And the other tenors in the band — Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Jimmy Giuffre, Herbie Steward (and, later, Ammons) — emulated Young with the same intensity with which other saxophonists were examining Parker.
Equally significant, Giuffre's "Four Brothers" and Ralph Burns's "Early Autumn" brought a new saxophone section sound—one based upon the combination of three tenor saxophones and one baritone saxophone. It was a combination that never would have worked with players possessing the big, wide-vibrato sound of Hawkins. But with each of the Herman saxophonists using cool-toned, relatively vibra-toless Young timbres, the smooth, grainy sound that emerged was so effective that it ruled the Herman book for years to come. Less obviously, it colored saxophone section playing in general, with a Four Brothers—like sound turning up in other band s— Stan Kenton, Buddy Rich, Maynard Ferguson — in which lead alto players in traditional two-alto, two-tenor, and baritone sections adopted a comparably coo land tenor-like tone. (The Basie and Ellington orchestras, their identities already well established, stuck with the more sumptuous textures of the prewar, Hodges-led section style.)”
In his insert notes to Al Cohn on the Saxophone [Dawn DCD 102], Gary Kramer observed of Al:
“AL COHN IS ONE OF THE HARDEST WORKING AND MOST sought-after musicians in Local 802. This isn't just because he is an extremely competent technician and knowing stylist, but because, in addition, he is an "ideas man." Many veins of modern jazz have been so thoroughly worked over that there gets to be a premium on miners like Cohn that can be relied upon to bring up a handful of bright new nuggets every trip down.
With all the bread-and-butter jobs available to jazzmen today, some cynics are saying (with a grain of reason), "More musicians than ever are eating now, and fewer than ever of them are thinking." That Cohn can't be included among the latter is all the more remarkable for the fact that he gets so few breathing spells between jobs. The originality and solidity of his work can easily be documented from his prolific record output. Cohn's undeniable progress is not so much a matter of "advancing" but one of broadening and deepening.
The most impressive thing about Cohn is his sense of heritage, his awareness of what elements of traditional jazz are worth preserving and synthesizing with the modern idiom. His fundamental beat, his dynamic tone and his extrovert spirit arc reincarnations in modern dress of some of the permanently useful ingredients of the older jazz. Observing the frantic efforts of some musicians these days to be "modern" at any cost, Cohn remarked, "Sometimes I feel I don't belong in the modern school at all. Lots of people try to be modern and lose sight of the path." Cohn has a conscious pride in being in the "mainstream" and is not ashamed of his debt to Armstrong, Young, Hawkins and the other giants who antedate Charlie Parker.
Cohn, even though he records frequently with modernists of the more "advanced" sort, admits that when he is at home, he prefers usually to play records for his own pleasure that go back 10 years or more. "They had a happier, more relaxed sound. In general, the solos were much more memorable and 1 think that that is a necessary mark of great ]azz." Cohn is a product of the Swing Era and its big bands, and without feeling that he is a reactionary, goes back to that music for enjoyment and inspiration. It is not a matter of copying anything done in the early Forties, but of being re-infected by the spirit of a less inhibited musical atmosphere.
Al was born and brought up in Brooklyn. As a youngster, he had eyes only for the piano and the clarinet. Lester Young was the great influence of his teenage years, he recalls, and was his inspiration to take up the tenor saxophone. He learned to play tenor by himself, and even though he never took a lesson on the instrument, at 18 he landed a job with Joe Marsala's big band . Then for several years, until the end of 1946, Cohn played with Georgie Auld off and on and Boyd Raeburn . Stints in the Alvino Rev, Buddy Rich, Woody Herman [1947-49], Artie Shaw  and Elliot Lawrence bands [on and off from 1952-58] followed.”
Leroy Ostransky in The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz picks up the story of Al’s career
“During the 1950’s Al often worked as a freelance arranger, writing straightforward arrangements in the manner of Neal Hefti: his version of Stardust is a good example of his work in this field.
From 1957 into the early 1980s Cohn led a quintet with Zoot Sims, also a former sideman of Herman's. The two players formed an interesting combination: they were both influenced by Lester Young, but Cohn's tone was slightly warmer than his partner's. After successful stints in NYC, notably at the Half Note in the 1950s and 60s, they reformed their quintet and toured Scandinavia in 1974 and Japan in 1978.
Cohn was principal arranger for the musicals Raisin (1973), Music, Music, Music (1974), and Sophisticated Ladies (1981), and he played solos on the soundtrack to the film Lenny (1974). In the 1980s he continued to perform in clubs in New York and appear at European festivals.”
Other than his tenure in the Woody Herman Four Brothers Band, perhaps Al’s most famous association was in the quintet he co-led with tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims. The esteemed Jazz author and critic Ira Gitler details the evolution and continuance of the Al-Zoot collaboration in his insert notes to Al Cohn- Zoot Sims: From A to Z:
“Earlier in the 1940s, in New York, they had been briefly introduced when one was entering and the other leaving Charlie's Tavern, famed watering hole for musicians on 7th Avenue, but the official meeting of Al Cohn and Zoot Sims took place in a Salt Lake City parking tot when Al joined Woody Herman's band in January of 1948. It was the beginning of one of jazz's most beautiful and productive friendships.
Bom three and a half weeks and three thousand miles apart in the fall of 1925 — Al in Brooklyn and Zoot in Inglewood, California — each began musical studies on the clarinet but eventually gravitated to the tenor saxophone as his main instrument.
After serving as sidemen in various big bands, Cohn and Sims became linked fraternally in the 1947-49 edition of Herman's Herd called the 'Four Brothers" band. It derived its title from the composition of the same name by Jimmy Giuffre who had played with Sims, Herbie Steward and Stan Getz in Gene Roland's band at Pontrelli's Ballroom in East Los Angeles. The three-tenor-and-baritone-saxophone sound was carried into Herman's band when he reformed in California in the fall of 1947. Sims was not widely known as a soloist, but this was soon remedied when he was featured with Woody.
Cohn had been capturing the ears of the New York cognoscenti that summer in Buddy Rich's band. When he replaced Steward in Herman's orchestra, the "Four Brothers" sound became really established, as Herbie had been mainly playing alto, picking up the tenor only on "Four Brothers" and 'Early Autumn."
Although Herman used Conn's charts (“The Goof and I" and, later, "Music To Dance To") he didn't let him solo beyond the Guiffre number. Getz and Sims had a monopoly on the tenor solos, but if Woody didn't fully appreciate Al's playing at the time, the rest of the band did. Zoot and Al formed a mutual admiration society on and off the stand.
Both men left Herman at different time in 1949, Al returning to his native New York and Zoot putting down new roots there. They played together briefly in Artie Shaw's orchestra and did a lot of jamming in small Manhattan studios that they and other musicians could rent cheaply. There was the historic five-tenor date for Prestige in April 1949 with Cohn, Sims, Getz, Alien Eager and Brew Moore; and a three-tenor group with Al, Zoot and Stan that gigged one night on Long Island and recorded a May '49 session for Savoy.
In September 1952 Al and Zoot recorded for Prestige with trombonist Kai Winding in the front line. The sound of the two tenors, particularly on "Zootcase,” where Kai dropped out, was the first recording that predicted the group they would co-lead later on in the decade.
After playing with Elliot Lawrence's orchestra in 1952, Conn became very active as a writer for radio and TV. At the same time Sims, who had toured Europe with Goodman in '50 and Kenlon in '53, went back to California, returning to New York in 1955 as part of the Gerry Mulligan sextet.
In October 1954 Cohn began recording for RCA with Jack Lewis as his A and R man. The Natural Seven date was done in February of 1955 and Freddie Green's Mr Rhythm in December. In that same December Al and Zoot were booked into Birdland and Jack Lewis decided to record them on January 24,1956. The gig and the record stimulated Sims and Cohn to take a group on the road for the first time. "We had two cars," says Al. "He took the bass and drums—Knobby Totah and Ray Mosca—and Dave McKenna rode with me."
This was a short-lived effort and the two did not try a group again until 1957 when they did a second album, this time for Coral in March. Their quintet really didn't leap ahead until 1959. They appeared at the Randall's Island Jazz Festival and began a long association with the now legendary Half Note club. In the '60s they played there several times a year, once doing a five-week engagement. A Sims-Cohn booking over the New Year's holiday became a tradition. I spent many a happy New Year's Eve down at Hudson and Spring. In fact, in those days I never thought of being anywhere else as December 31st came to a close.
On the elevated bandstand their great rapport and mutual respect were there for all to see and hear. If one was "hotter" at a particular time, the other would play a shorter solo than usual in deference to his partner. For the most part, however, each man's solo inspired the other's; and the eight- and four-bar exchanges would roil and broil to peaks of excitement.
In the 70s Cohn and Sims did not team as often as they had in the '60s. Al stayed extremely busy as a writer for TV and Broadway. Each traveled on his own, picking up local rhythm sections, but they did tour Scandinavia in 1974, and there were a couple of Sunday nights at Eddie Condon's, where they had people lined up on West 54th Street, waiting to get in. Shades of the old Half Note.
In the '80s both men continued to play clubs and record as separate entities. One place where they were able to hang out and play together was at Dick and Maddie Gibson's Colorado Jazz Party. I'll never forget a set at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs when the two tenors backed Sarah Vaughan. It was black tie night and everyone was looking and feeling elegant. Sassy, Zoot and Al translated the sublimity of the evening into musical terms. I wish I had a video.
When Zoot died in March 1985, so did one of the special partnerships in jazz, even if by then it was a sometime thing. It didn't matter how seldom they played as a team in the '80s; the Conn-Sims entry had long since been immortalized.”
To my ears, Al Cohn had a broad, heavy tone; he played in an uncomplicated style, employing regular phrase lengths and idiomatic bop figures. At times, you could hear the earlier influences of Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins creeping back into his “roughened” sonority.
Cohn wasn't always the most convincing soloist, leaving his own most compelling ideas rather hanging in the air. But this tendency to incompletion may have been due to the fact that Al heard more ideas than most and, as a result, was confronted by too many choices. Maybe this is what Ira was alluding to when he described “... Al’s strongly, sagacious, swinging style.”