May 17, 2016

Buster Cooper, 1929-2016

“Being in a band” usually means you’re part of a four, five, or six piece group. But during the Swing Era a band meant an organization of up to 20 people — saxophone, trumpet, and trombone sections supported by a rhythm section. The best of the bands, such as Basie, Ellington and Miller lasted beyond the big band years and provided employment for a significant number of musicians. Among them was George “Buster” Cooper, trombonist.
Buster was born in St. Petersburg, Florida on April 4, 1929 and passed on May 13, 2016. Like many working jazz musicians, he made a life on the bandstand and in the studios. He rose to the top of the big band world during his seven year stint with the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
Buster was interviewed along with fellow Ellington alum Bill Berry in a 1995 interview for the Fillius Jazz Archive. They spoke about Duke Ellington, his persona and his special relationship with co-composer Billy Strayhorn:
Buster Cooper, in 1995
BC:  Well it seems to me like a perfect collaboration. And okay, Duke and Strayhorn was fantastic. I’ve seen Duke, he started tunes, he’d say, “Here, Stray, I can’t turn the corner now on this one. Fix this for me.” You can tell.
Bill Berry, in 1995
BB:  Or over the phone, “Strayhorn, I’m stuck here, you know with this, do something with it,” and the way the stories go I’m sure it’s true, is Strayhorn would send something out that was like perfect, like as though they were reading each other’s minds.
BC:  Exactly. Fantastic.
BB:  The perfect solution, you know. Also, Duke Ellington was the smartest, brightest person I’ve ever met. Period.
BC:  Exactly. I used to sit and watch him man and I’d try and figure him out, you know. I used to be looking at him and he wasn’t aware of watching or nothing like that because he didn’t even know what the time was. That didn’t mean nothing. Obviously he thought maybe that’d make you rush through the day, you understand what I’m saying? And I used to sit up on the bandstand and I’d just watch him you know. And I finally came to the conclusion one night. I said Duke Ellington knows who Duke is. Period. Believe me.
BB:  He’s the only one that knew.
BC:  Believe me. He knew what Duke was all about. Fantastic man. I’ve just seen people come into a room you know, after Duke would walk into this room right now, and it would be something like a halo right around him.
BB:  Yeah. The room lights up.
BC:  Really. It does.
BB:  There’s very few people like that. He was one of them.
BC:  He’d walk in this room and — boom — the whole room would go up.
BB:  Yes. I was at the White House for his 70th birthday. And there were like not only a bunch of great, world famous jazz musicians, but there was the President, the Vice President, the Cabinet, the Supreme Court and heaven knows who else. And the spotlight was on Ellington at all times. I mean you’d have sworn there was somebody following him around with a light, and there wasn’t. You know I mean this is in very fast company. You know the most powerful people in the country, in the world.
After Buster’s tenure with Ellington, he followed the familiar path for big band players and entered studio work in Los Angeles. As a sideline, he played with big bands led by Bill Berry, Frank Capp, and Nat Pierce. His nickname, “the bumble bee” apparently was derived from his ability to play at a furious tempo.
If you’ve read my blog in the past you may know that I’m an ardent fan of Cannonball and Nat Adderley. In Chris Sheridan’s book Dis Here, a Bio-Discography of Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, Buster has a brief but significant mention. According to Sheridan, in June of 1955 the Adderley brothers drove to New York City from Florida to test the waters with a professional career in jazz in mind. On their first night in the Big Apple, Nat’s friend and former band mate from the Lionel Hampton Orchestra, Buster Cooper, took them to the Café Bohemia in Greenwich Village. A band led by bassist Oscar Pettiford was in residence. Saxophonist Jerome Richardson was missing from the bandstand and Cannonball was invited to play a few tunes. For the Adderleys, the rest is history. So thank you Buster for your role in that fortuitous meeting.
Throughout Buster’s life he remained humble and acknowledged where he felt his talent came from:
BC:  Actually I don’t play the trombone. Okay, a supreme being plays the trombone through me. I am the instrument. You understand what I’m saying? So I mean I just put that clearly now, you understand what I’m saying?

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