Al Cohn

A 90th birthday tribute to one of the brothers

Thank God, and Mr. and Mrs. David Cohn, for bringing Alvin Gilbert Cohn into the world 90 years ago today. It’s hard to measure the value of swing and soul, but I’m certain that jazz would feel considerably less buoyant and exciting if Al had never graced it with his musical ingenuity. Cohn is one of the old reliables, a player whose output from start to finish was remarkably consistent and faithful to the ideals of the modern mainstream. The Brooklyn native worked with the bands of Alvino Ray and Buddy Rich before coming to prominence with Woody Herman’s Second Herd in 1948; there he succeeded Herbie Stewart in the illustrious Four Brothers saxophone section that included tenors Stan Getz and Zoot Sims and the baritone master Serge Chaloff.

Like Getz, Sims, and countless other tenor players who emerged in the mid-forties, Cohn was a first generation Lestorian. He began playing piano at six, he told Will Moyle in a 1982 interview, but “didn’t like the practicing. I didn’t like the whole idea of it. My parents never thought I’d be a musician. They just wanted me to be popular at parties. But at the age of twelve I started listening to Benny Goodman, and I got a clarinet. And when I heard Lester Young at the age of fourteen, that’s when I really got serious.”

Cohn was not a featured soloist on records made by the Herman band during his tenure, but Ira Gitler notes in Jazz Masters of the Forties that on the bandstand his “compositional…solos…highly lyrical and behind the beat, invariably lead his band mates to turn toward him and listen intently.” Cohn’s 1950 debut as a leader for Savoy features George Wallington at the piano.

Over time, under the additional influence of Dexter Gordon and Sonny Rollins, his tone took on a harder, huskier edge. In this 1987 performance of “Rosetta,” recorded a year before his death at 61, his sound reminds me of what Lester Young called “baritone tenor.”

In 1947, when he was still working with Rich, Cohn’s original, “The Goof and I,” was recorded by Herman; the tune’s remained in the repertoire ever since. Goof was the nickname Cohn gave his friend Harvey Lavine, who was a baritone saxophonist, and not surprisingly the tune was an immediate favorite of Chaloff’s, who eventually recorded it in 1956. (Marc Myers wrote about Cohn and Lavine in this 2010 article for JazzWax.)

This performance, which appears on an Uptown Records release of Allen Eager air-checks spanning 1947-’53, dates from April 1947. It names Chaloff, Rich, and bassist Jimmy Johnson as sidemen.

Cohn and Sims reunited in the mid-fifties and worked extensively at the Half Note on Hudson Street in New York City’s West Village. For all their lasting renown as a tenor tandem, there is very little film of them together. Here they are on British TV in 1968 playing “What the World Needs Now” and Al’s original, “Doodle Oodle.”

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