Obituary: Johnny Coles
Friday 02 January 1998
"Johnny moves by the moment," said pianist Herbie Hancock. "He plays things with such sheer beauty that I wonder where it's coming from."
Johnny Coles would perhaps have been regarded as one of the jazz greats had he not been so close to Miles Davis in his sound and style. Both Coles and Davis had the ability to express themselves powerfully using a minimal number of notes. The similarities clouded the fact that Coles's inventions were completely original and that he barely borrowed from Davis at all. He was basically a self-taught musician who developed his playing by working in a military band.
The diminutive trumpeter joined a sextet called Slappy and his Swingsters when he was 19, and in 1948 became a member of the band led by the blues- singing alto player Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson. Although Vinson played the rhythm-and-blues so popular at the time, he was in fact a sophisticated modern jazz musician, and his band also included future giants of music in the pianist Red Garland and the tenor saxophonist John Coltrane.
Coles continued to work amidst a mixture of contemporary jazz and rhythm- and-blues during the first half of the Fifties when he played for the drummer Philly Jo Jones, the singer-saxophonist Bull Moose Jackson and, from 1956 to 1958, the tenor saxophonist James Moody.
He first came to the notice of jazz fans with his remarkable solos with the Gil Evans orchestras between 1958 and 1964. In retrospect this proved to be the ultimate setting for his work. When I interviewed him in 1973 he told me:
Gil Evans's composition was easy to read, but it was the interpretation of it which made the music. I remember once asking Gil how he wanted me to play something and he said, "Don't worry about it. You're going to play it right anyhow." He left me a bit mystified, you know.
The 1960 "Sunken Treasure", one of the most haunting performances in all jazz, best illustrates the inspired perfection of the partnership. Evans's composition provided an eerie seabed for Coles's fastidious and plaintive improvisation. "We did it all in one take," he told me with pride. The album in which it is found, one of the most magical jazz collections, was called Out of the Cool on the Impulse! label, and its six tracks brought out Coles's most effective work on disc. Potent, too was his reappraisal in 1959 of Bix Beiderbecke's "Davenport Blues", where again his relaxed choice of notes was inspired by Evans's imaginative setting.
When work with Evans became more sporadic in 1964 Coles joined the Charlie Mingus Workshop and appeared on some of the bassist's recordings, creating music of great fire with the remarkable saxophonist Eric Dolphy.
In 1968 he became a member of the sextet newly formed by Herbie Hancock. Hancock had earlier given up leadership of his own band to become, for five years, the pianist in one of Miles Davis's most influential quintets.
"Herbie Hancock's was the only group I played in that I got to work ahead of time. I'd warm up for at least a half-hour, ready to play. I had a ball with that band. I really couldn't tell you in words how gratifying it was." Coles left Hancock to join Ray Charles's band in 1969. "A man must eat," he reflected.
Hancock lionised the veteran. But Duke Ellington took a more detached view of the trumpeter when Coles joined his orchestra in 1971. "I asked Duke's son Mercer," Coles remembered, "and he said that Duke was considering writing something to feature me."
At the time of our conversation in 1973 Coles had been with Duke Ellington's Orchestra for several years. It seemed odd to me then that Ellington was so remote from the musicians who worked for him that they had to deal with him formally through Mercer.
A few weeks ago the widow of the Ellington trumpeter Ray Nance seemed to confirm this distancing when she told me that her husband respected his leader so much that "Ray would never have questioned a decision of Duke's, musical or otherwise". (In contrast, I was once on a coach with the Count Basie Band when his trumpeter Thad Jones reached over the back of his seat and, to great merriment all round, swiped the Count over the head with a rolled- up newspaper. Nobody could ever have done that to Duke.) Nance had been in the band for a quarter of a century.
"I'll stay with Duke for a while, because it'll give me a measure of prestige that I haven't yet had," said Coles, who was with Ellington from 1970 to 1974.
He gave the impression that, unusually amongst musicians, who normally deified Ellington, he considered working for him to be a routine job. "As far as Gil was concerned, Ellington was the biggest influence on his writing. I enjoy playing in both bands, but I had more freedom playing in Gil's band," he said.
Coles found Ellington's music too confining. "I like to play," he said. This was a rueful reference to the fact that his solo work with Duke was confined at each concert to a fluent two-minute improvisation on "How High the Moon" played on trumpet over a backing of sprightly Be-bop piano from Ellington. There was little or no orchestration involved.
"Some of Duke's writing is sparse. Sometimes he might just write 12 bars and leave it to the guys in the band to fill it up. He has musicians in the band who have been with him for many years and they just about know what he wants without him having to tell them." Coles was lonely because Ellington's band was made up of cliques and he wasn't accepted into any of them.
When Ellington died in 1974 Coles rejoined Ray Charles and in 1976 worked with drummer Art Blakey's quintet.
Settled in San Francisco, in 1985 he worked in the Count Basie "graveyard" band (Basie had died in 1984), having also been a member of "graveyard" bands devoted to the music of the composers Charlie Mingus and Tadd Dameron. His health declined during the Nineties and he moved to Philadelphia.
Coles had shown enormous talent as a trumpet player. He mentioned Charlie Shavers, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis as the line of players who had influenced him. He also acknowledged the fiery work of Freddie Hubbard. "But I'm more of a melancholy player," he said.
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