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The man who turned
down Duke Ellington

photo
[Times photos: Lisa DeJong
Patrons at the Garden Restaurant seem unaware that there is a jazz legend in their midst as Buster Cooper dances while playing. He leads a band there nearly every Friday and Saturday night.

By TOM ZUCCO

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 13, 2000


Even in his hometown, lots of people have never heard of Buster Cooper, who has traveled the world earning a reputation as a hot trombonist. Buy they should.

ST. PETERSBURG -- Emmanuel Roux would never actually stand up in front of all these people and say it. But he thinks about it.

Thinks about it a lot.

He'd wait until just after the band finished one of its numbers. Then he'd take the microphone, ask for everyone's attention and point to the man holding the trombone.

"Do you people have any idea who this is?"

He'd tell them that his name is Buster Cooper and that he's played with every jazz legend from Duke Ellington and Josephine Baker to Wynton Marsalis. Cooper has performed in front of presidents and kings, and, aside from J.J. Johnson, Slide Hampton and a handful of others, no human being ever coaxed jazz out of a trombone like he does.

Then, Roux thinks, they'd appreciate him.

Or maybe not.

photo
Leanne Cleghorn whispers a song request into Buster Cooper's ear. Cooper likes to showcase new talent, which this recent night is tenor sax player, Zettler Harris, 20, in the background.
Jazz is a tough sell today. Recent record industry surveys show that sales of jazz records and CDs have dropped so low that this uniquely American form of music now makes up less than 2 percent of the total number of recordings sold in the United States.

Holiday music far outsells jazz.

Roux, co-owner of the Garden Restaurant, is leaning against a railing at the back of the patio and watching Cooper finish his first set.

"These days, people have a problem recognizing quality," he said. "It's too bad.

"When I was in Paris three or four years ago, Buster Cooper was the main headliner for three weeks in the Caveau de la Huchette, the oldest and most famous jazz club in Paris. It is the inner sanctum of jazz.

"We are so fortunate to have him here."

Here.

photo
Trombone player Buster Cooper has traveled the world and played with the likes of Duke Ellington and Wynton Marsalis. At 71, he now lives in St. Petersburg, where he grew up.
The Garden on one of those Friday nights when the air is heavy and hot. The tables under the ancient banyan tree are full, and the conversations are animated. In one corner of the patio are the four men -- Larry Camp on guitar, Randall Walton on drums, Greg Williams on bass and Cooper.

Some people watch and listen; others are busy talking and laughing. Somewhere, plates are clattering.

Cooper closes his eyes and sways to the rhythm. His music has taken him somewhere beyond here.

The jazz he plays isn't dark or brooding. He doesn't plumb the depths and then say, "Here, you figure it out."

What comes from his horn and his band is melodic and quick, like rain dancing on a windowsill.

The set ends, and there's a smattering of applause. Cooper smiles and threads his way through the tables. Some people greet him; others continue with their meal.

But that's all right.

Cooper never did keep score.

"Such a beautiful evening," he says.

'I knew what I wanted to be'

The Lefters Music Co. is gone now. The store was on Central Avenue, a few blocks west of the Garden. It was a thriving business in 1944, the day George "Buster" Cooper and his father stopped there. Buster's brother, Steve, was a trumpet player, and his horn was being repaired. Buster was 15. All he wanted to play was baseball.

"I saw a trombone sitting there in the shop," he said, "and you know, I still don't know why I wanted it. But I did.

"And the first time I put it in my hand, I knew what I wanted to be."

His father bought him the instrument, and Cooper socked himself away in his bedroom and taught himself to play. When the noise got to be too much, his parents sent him to the tool shed to practice.

At Gibbs High School (class of '47) he learned music under St. Petersburg jazz icon Al Downing. He also played with his cousin George Cooper, who was the first leader of a big band in St. Petersburg. When he could, he sat in with the swing bands that passed through town and played the old Manhattan Casino.

"Here I am, 17 years old, and I'm up there with guys who'd been playing for 30 years," Cooper said. "I remember shaking so hard I could barely hold my trombone."

After graduating, he joined the Nat Towles Band, which at the time was playing in Omaha, Neb. He saw snow for the first time.

He didn't stay long.

Cooper's brother had moved to New York, the epicenter of the jazz world, to try to make a name for himself as a trumpet player. Seven months later, Buster was there, too.

In 1952, he joined Lionel Hampton's band, which included a relative unknown named Quincy Jones. Next, Cooper sat in with the house band at the Apollo Theater for two years. He played with Ella Fitzgerald, Eartha Kitt, Jackie Wilson and the Platters, and he worked six, sometimes seven shows a day.

He joined Benny Goodman's band in 1958, and then Cooper took his own band to Paris to back Josephine Baker. That's where Duke Ellington saw him.

"When I got back to New York, he called and asked me to join his band," Cooper said. "But I turned him down because I had a group of my own and was working clubs.

"Imagine that," he said with a chuckle. "Turning down Duke Ellington."

photo
[Photo courtesy of Buster Cooper]
Buster Cooper plays while accompanied by Duke Ellington on the piano in 1965 in Afghanistan. Cooper played for 10 years with Ellington, who was so taken with Cooper's work that he named the Trombone Buster song for him.
Ellington called again a few months later. Again, Cooper turned him down. The third time, Cooper gave in. He would remain with the band for nearly 10 years.

Playing with Ellington opened the world to Cooper. The band played in the Far East, in Africa, the Middle East and throughout Europe. Eventually, Cooper would fill eight passports with stamps from the countries he has seen.

Ellington was so taken with Cooper's work that in 1964, he named a song, Trombone Buster, for him.

After Cooper's father died in 1969, he left the band and, with his wife, Sarah, moved to Los Angeles, where he did studio work and played with local jazz orchestras.

"I didn't have an agent," Cooper said. "I just stayed by the phone and . . . boom! That's what playing with Duke Ellington will do for you."

The couple returned to St. Petersburg in 1994 to be close to family members.

He's 71 now, but he looks 15 years younger.

That, Cooper says, is the horn's doing.

Its nickname is "the tailgate" because years ago, when traveling bands performed from the back of trucks, the only place where the trombone players could fit was at the very end, next to the tailgate.

The horn doesn't have any keys or valves, so you have to learn strictly by ear. The sliding section regulates the pitch.

The trombone is older than you might think. It was developed in the 15th century, probably in northern Italy. Trombone, in Italian, means big trumpet.

On a stand in the den of his Pinellas Point home rests Buster Cooper's big trumpet. He's owned about seven trombones throughout his career. They're solid brass and cost about $2,000.

"It's one of the hardest instruments to play in jazz," he said. "You can sound so bad so fast."

He practices three hours every day and still does studio work and concerts.

But the Garden is his main gig. Friday and Saturday nights, from 9 to whenever. He started playing there nearly three years ago when the musician who had the gig had to give it up and recommended Cooper to Roux.

Cooper doesn't need the money. He doesn't have to play in clubs anymore.

But in a way, he does.

"All my life I've been in big bands," he said, paging through one of his passports. "Now I get the chance to call all the tunes. And it's a chance to give something back. I've been so blessed.

"You know," he added, "I've played in front of the queen of England, but I still get a little excited, a little up, before I go to work at the Garden. I have a ball there. I have good players with me, I love to play, and there's freedom to go where we want to go musically.

"Freedom . . . you see, that's what jazz is all about."

His sets are an equal opportunity affair. Everyone in the band always gets a chance to shine. They're all local musicians except for Camp, a Washington, D.C., native Cooper met while playing a show at the beach.

"They're all so good," Cooper said. "And you got to spread it around. That's one of the things I learned from Duke (Ellington)."

photo
[Photo courtesy of Buster Cooper]
Buster Cooper, far right, plays a tambourine in a show with Josephine Baker in 1959 at the Olympia Theater in Paris. Next to Cooper is his brother, Steve, with a guitar.

Cooper made only one record

It's something a lot of jazz lovers find hard to believe.

Buster Cooper has made only one record. And he shared top billing. Cut in 1989 with the late Thurman Green, E-bone-ix on BlueLady Records was recently released on compact disc.

But he has played on more than 200 movie and television soundtracks (you may have heard him on the tracks to Moonlighting, Give Me a Break and Blossom). And he was named Downbeat's Top New Star in 1967.

"When people go to the Garden Restaurant, they see this old guy playing trombone and they have absolutely no idea what this man has done," said Herb Snitzer, a St. Petersburg fine arts photographer and jazz historian.

But for a trombone player, anonymity is not unusual. It's their style. They generally don't seek the spotlight the way, say, trumpet or saxophone players might.

"They are special," said Snitzer. "They really are a great bunch of guys, all steady, all very gracious. They're like a bass player, playing the bottom, laying down the low notes. I guess it takes a certain personality.

"Buster is getting some due now because he's traveling all over the world," he added. "But when you play a place like the Garden and people don't know you . . . well, you get used to it.

"You don't like it, but you get used to it.

"It's like that old saying . . . you're never a hero in your own hometown."

To buy copy of Buster Cooper's E-bone-ix, contact Blue Lady Records, Suite 537, 5042 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90036, or call (213) 937-9066.

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