Obituary: Bob Cooper

Steve Voce
Friday 06 August 1993 23:02

Bob Cooper, tenor saxophonist, oboist, composer: born Pittsburgh 6 December 1925; married 1946 June Christy (died 1990); died Los Angeles 5 August 1993.

WHEN Stan Kenton recorded his million-selling record of 'Tampico' in May 1945 he had that day brought a new tenor saxophone player, Bob Cooper, into his band. The vocalist on 'Tampico' was June Christy.

Cooper and Christy married in 1946 and, until her death in June 1990, were one of the best-liked couples in the Los Angeles jazz community. 'Coop', as he was known, matured into one of the finest but least praised tenor saxophonists, easily ranking with Stan Getz, Zoot Sims and Al Cohn in his talents.

'Temperamentally Bob Cooper and June could not have been less alike,' Carol Easton wrote. 'Coop neither smoked nor drank; he was quiet, boyish and virginal with an absolutely even disposition.' If Cooper ever read those words he must have squirmed, for he was also an intelligent and sensitive man. But Easton was correct and for almost 45 years Cooper looked after June Christy through her severe alcoholic and medical problems. He temporarily retired from music in the late Eighties so that he could nurse her. 'Bob', wrote Art Pepper, 'was one of the warmest, most polite, pleasantest people. He was completely good, if you can imagine such a thing, just a sweetheart, and he got embarrassed easily, and he blushed a lot.'

Cooper began to study the clarinet in High School in his home town of Pittsburgh in 1940. The following year he began work on the tenor saxophone. He joined Kenton in 1945 when he was 20, almost his first professional job, and stayed as principal tenor soloist with the band until 1951.

He married June Christy in January 1947 whilst the two were in Washington DC on tour with the Kenton band. Kenton and the entire orchestra attended the wedding.

A naturally swinging jazz musician, Cooper didn't approve of Kenton's heavy-handed methods. Like the trumpeter Shorty Rogers, his fellow tenorist Bill Holman and other skilled composers, Cooper wrote for the band and managed to make it swing. This was a quality which Kenton, who gravitated to the ponderous and grandiose in his own writing, ignored. 'I think all the jazz soloists enjoyed it much more when Shorty Rogers and Gene Roland wrote for the band,' Cooper said. 'They enjoyed it much more than Stan did. He still liked the flashy type of arrangement and I never felt that Stan really knew when the band was swinging at its best.'

But Cooper admired Kenton's dedication to the music.

'Stan brought the band out of the saloons and the dance halls and put it on the concert stage,' Cooper said. 'Stan hated dance music. He used to tell dancers in a joking manner: 'This music isn't particularly suited to dancing and if you try you're on your own. I'm not insured.'

'Stan was like a father to us. He worried about people's problems and tried to resolve them when he could.' When Kenton died in 1979 the drummer Shelly Manne wrote of him:

He was a friend to all musicians.

He was like a father.

He was like a psychiatrist.

He was the guy next to you on the band bus.

He ate the same lousy food you did at a rest stop.

He waited with you for the room to be made up at the hotel after 300 miles of road.

He was the guy who was first to fix a flat tyre in the rain.

He was loyal.

He was dynamic.

He would lift his arms and make you want to play.

When Kenton's band broke up in 1951 Cooper and some other ex- Kenton men were hired to play at the Lighthouse Cafe in Los Angeles by the bassist Howard Rumsey. The Lighthouse became one of the most famous jazz clubs in the world, and the band, Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse All Stars, made powerful recordings which allowed Cooper and the other musicians to show how they were able to swing when unleashed from Kenton's domination.

The steady job allowed Cooper a long period - until well into the Sixties, when he could work from home, giving him the chance to study and to expand his playing of the oboe and the English horn. The difficulties of mobility on the oboe, which Cooper managed to surmount, meant that he was the only jazz soloist to use it. He made many momentous recordings while he was at the Lighthouse, unique amongst them his oboe and flute partnership with Bud Shank. During this period Cooper composed a 12-tone octet for woodwind.

His association with Kenton continued. In 1954 the bandleader, who was under contract to Capitol for most of his career, launched a series of long- playing records under the title 'Kenton Presents'. The series gave Cooper, a modest man who was what Bill Perkins has described as 'a born follower', his first chance to lead his own group. His writing and playing on the album and its successor, Shifting Winds (1955), were seminal in the creation of what was to become known as West Coast jazz. Imaginative writing and a well-lubricated polish characterised the session and Cooper's singing and stomping tenor style on his arrangement of 'Strike Up The Band' boosted the record sales


Cooper took time off from the Lighthouse to tour Europe, South Africa and Japan with June Christy and when he eventually left the Lighthouse All Stars he worked as a studio musician in Hollywood. He developed his writing further and composed film scores. He joined Kenton's huge Neophonic Orchestra and in 1966 had his composition 'Solo For Orchestra' premiered at one of its concerts.

Much in demand for big-band work, which he loved, Cooper played regularly in other Los Angeles orchestras led by Shorty Rogers, Terry Gibbs, Bill Holman, Bill Berry, Bob Florence and Frankie Capp / Nat Pierce. In 1980 while I was in Los Angeles he provided me with the greatest name-dropping opportunity of my life. He asked me one day if I would like to go with him to a rehearsal by Bill Holman's band. I had to refuse because Shorty Rogers had already invited me to his home in Van Nuys.

Rogers, then in retirement, could not at first believe my exhortations that a huge welcome would await his return to jazz playing. Almost reluctantly he did return and he generously gives me credit for the revitalised career which he has enjoyed ever since. In 1985 Rogers put together a band to bring to Europe which included Cooper, the altoist Bud Shank and an ailing June Christy. The success of the band at that year's Nice Festival encouraged Rogers to keep it together and it reassembles annually to tour. Re-titled Shorty Rogers and Bud Shank and the Lighthouse All Stars, the group recorded two albums in 1991 and 1992 which are natural extensions of the classic West Coast style of the Fifties and Sixties - the band being perhaps the only remaining one to play in this idiom. Most of the compositions were written by Rogers, but the 1992 album includes a typically contrapuntal composition of Cooper's, 'Stray Horns'. Cooper's playing throughout shows a man always at the top of his game, and his exuberant, inventive solos demonstrate why he was always so much in demand.

Cooper also played on some of the sessions produced annually in Los Angeles by the British band leader Vic Lewis, most notably on the one recorded in April last year under the title Shake Down the Stars. Lewis was delighted that he had persuaded Cooper to return to Britain next year to tour and had already booked several dates for the man who was one of the best-loved jazz tenor saxophonists of them all.

(Photograph omitted)

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