This is the story of a kid from Brooklyn who dreamed an impossible dream. He didn’t know that it was impossible so he did it; he made it come true.
Born in Brighton Beach on October 3, 1922, Paul Cohen was but 8 years old when his Father handed him a cornet and said simply, “Here, play!”.
Paul was into sports and what he loved the most, was to play ball with his pals. Being a smart kid, he caught onto the situation quickly. He understood that the quickest way he would be able to join his pals outside, was to follow his Father’s orders and learn to play that musical instrument. He claims that it came naturally to him. But, as anyone who ever picked up an instrument and endeavored to learn to play it while learning to read music at the same time knows that it takes real concentration, perseverance and practice, practice and more practice.
And so, that’s what he did. Paul learned to play the horn and he played it with confidence at an early age. He kept at it, playing through his early years while attending P.S.209 and right into Lincoln High School where he played trumpet in the school’s Marching Band, at assemblies and at every opportunity there was, to play music. He graduated from Lincoln High in 1940 and one thing he knew for sure, his life from then on would be, ‘music’.
Just a few months after graduation, he took a courageous giant step. He left his home in Brooklyn and moved into the Forest Hotel, a residential hotel at 8th Avenue & Broadway in Manhattan, populated by musicians who could only afford to pay a couple bucks per night, for a room. Next, he joined the American Federation of Musicians Local 802 in NYC in 1940 and he began to pick up jobs.
At this point, let me explain: Attempting to do a full, chronological history of Paul Cohen’s 80+ years in the music biz, would mean writing a very thick book – and that’s not what I’m about, here. The way I’ve chosen to provide the reader with a sampling of this man’s experiences as he traveled the long road to the top of the music profession, is to present a few episodes just as I jotted them down in a series of impromptu conversations and informal interviews primarily, at the NW Focal Point Senior Center in the lovely little town of Margate, Florida. Paul indulged me as I would take opportunities to pop questions at him, in between his warm-up exercises on the trumpet, as he awaited the 15-17 musicians who straggled-in and took their places on the stage for his weekly rehearsals.
I formed the habit of attending these rehearsals shortly after moving to Florida in late 1998. I always arrived early to voluntarily set up the chairs and music stands in preparation for Paul’s every-Thursday rehearsals. Once a big-band groupie; always a big band groupie. The Big band sound has been my music since I was about 13 years old; it’s still my passion.
The musicians come and go but, the Paul Cohen big band still continues to rehearse in the spacious Multi-Purpose room at the Center, just as it has for nearly the quarter of a century that Paul has been leading this gig.
The room holds about 125 enthusiastic seniors who remember the long-ago days when they danced to the music of the big name bands. Now, there is no dancing permitted and no requests are tolerated. Paul Cohen’s band rehearsals are serious rehearsals, designed to keep the musicians sharp and to prepare for the next concert date. There is no charge to Members of the Senior Center who attend the rehearsals. They love the music of Count Basie and other great bands of the 1930s-40s and through the WWII years, as played by Paul Cohen. So far, no one has asked for his money back.
Paul with the DORSEY BROTHERS Orchestra: Paul had good things to say about the musicians he played with when he joined the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra. Paul played ‘Lead Trumpet’ for the majority of the five years he was with that organization. He sat next to Flea Campbell, Johnny Amoroso and numerous others – always the very best; each one a top-notch trumpet player.
When I asked about his impressions of Tommy Dorsey, Paul’s brow furrowed a bit and his language became decidedly more ‘salty’. “TD” was an extraordinary trombone soloist and orchestra leader who was known for being deadly serious about every aspect of his orchestra - and slightly less serious about his tipping the bottle to ward off the ‘chill’ of night after night of one-night-stands on the road with a big band.
On the bandstand however, he was keenly aware of how his band sounded. He had a reputation to uphold as one of the top popular big bands of the Golden Era of big bands and so, woe unto the musician who didn’t measure up or who didn’t give his best effort at every performance.
Tommy was not above using harsh language to express himself. Although he didn’t always bother to call out a player by his given name, there was never any doubt about who was the target of his ire at the moment. ”TD” could summon up his Irish temper in a micro-second, and he often did. He called Paul Cohen, “Callahan”, as if he couldn’t remember his name, when he was unhappy for whatever reason. Also, he has some choice nicknames for the Italian musicians in his band. Tommy Dorsey could be rough.
On occasion, things would get contentious. And within the orchestra, there was a private feud between boy singer Frank Sinatra and the talented drummer Buddy Rich, that often erupted while they were on the bandstand. It is the stuff of legends. After their time with the Dorseys, they did become quite close and were known to help each other advance their careers. Paul liked them and kept in touch with both Frank and Buddy.
Paul says that he learned a lot from “TD” about being a key player in a big band during his time with the Dorsey Brothers organization.
Paul joins the Charlie Barnet Orchestra: Charlie Barnet was the first big name band to take young Paul Cohen ‘on the road’. In just two short years after graduating high school in Brooklyn, Paul was such an accomplished trumpet player that he was invited to join Barnet’s band. He played in that group for two years. He learned to meet and overcome the challenges.
Charlie Barnet’s recording of, ‘Skyliner’ is one of the classic swinging numbers that every big band aficionado loves; I’ve never met anyone who knows that number who doesn’t love it. Although, I have noticed that whenever Paul includes that chart in one of his rehearsals, it seldom fails to send the musicians into a tizzy. It is a complex and extremely demanding chart. Sounds great when played properly but, if you were to ask the guys in the band, they would tell you that it is a ‘bear’ to play – and play right.
During one of our interviews, I asked Paul about, ‘Skyliner’. He rolled his eyes toward the ceiling and said, “Barnet really had a tough time settling on a tempo for that number.” Paul recalled that the band was at a venue well in advance of the starting time, when Barnet decided to rehearse, ‘Skyliner’. He couldn’t find a tempo that satisfied him even though according to Paul, he kept the band working on that number over and over, for nearly two hours. Sometime later, Barnet finally hit on a tempo that pleased him and the number was included in the next recording session. Paul was there and played on that famous recording.
Evidently, all the effort was worth it because that tune became a runaway hit and one of Charlie Barnet’s all-time big sellers. Next time you hear Barnet’s version of ‘Skyliner’, take note of the tempo and listen very carefully for the trombone ‘chase’. It is a prime example of musical precision. I’m guessing that after you hear it, you too will be able to appreciate how handsomely all that rehearsal time paid off. Charlie Barnet, Paul Cohen, perfection - - they seem to go together.
By: Mort Kuff
(To Be Continued Next Week)