"We were all influenced by Lester (Young). Listen to the records that he made with Basie. Nobody's got what he's got. He's still the daddy".—Zoot Sims
"A gentleman is someone who knows how to play an accordion, but doesn't."—Al Cohn
Tenor saxophonists Zoot Sims and Al Cohn were both 22 when they met in a Salt Lake City parking lot one night before a gig. It was January, 1948. Al later said, “We hit it off as soon as we met." That night Al joined Woody Herman's Second Herd, known as the Four Brothers band and launched a friendship and musical collaboration with Zoot Sims that would last a lifetime.
Zoot and Al, Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, and Paul Desmond were jazz saxophonists who came of age in the post-World War II era. They shared a common jazz language: the light, airy approach of Count Basie tenor sax legend, Lester "Prez" Young. Zoot said later, "We were all young and had the same ideas. I'd always worried about what the other guys were thinking in all the bands I'd been in, and in Woody's band I found out: they were thinking the same thing I was."
This week on Riverwalk Jazz tenor saxophonist Harry Allen joins The Jim Cullum Jazz Band with our own Ron Hockett on tenor sax for a tribute to the musical legacy of the "Brotherhood of Prez." Also appearing is former Jim Cullum Jazz Band pianist John Sheridan.
After leaving Woody Herman's band, Zoot and Al were briefly with Artie Shaw’s band in 1949. They found many opportunities to perform together in small groups and informal sessions. Finally in 1957 they formed their own quintet, which became very popular at a Lower Manhattan club called the Half Note.
Ira Gitler wrote, "It was the appearance of the Sims-Cohn Quintet that changed the [Half Note's] fortunes....It took a free-wheeling, hard-booting, joyous kind of music like the two tenormen to form queues outside the club on Saturday nights and keep it reasonably filled during the week."
Zoot said, "Playing with Al inspires me. I'm a big fan of his. Yes, a kind of telepathy does happen. Pretty soon you know what the other is thinking, more or less, and it just comes out." Zoot and Al each went on to highly successful individual careers in jazz, but they continued to perform together occasionally throughout the years and remained close personal friends.
To this day, when jazz musicians gather to swap favorite stories about their heroes, Zoot and Al are frequently remembered for their wit. Here is one example: Al Cohn was touring Europe when one of the fans tried to get him to try the local beer, called Elephant Beer. Al said, "Elephant Beer? No thanks, I drink to forget!"
The Al Cohn Memorial Jazz Collection has been established at Kemp Library, East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania.
Photo credit for Home Page: Saxophonists Al Cohn and Zoot Sims ca.1965. Photo courtesy artsjournal.
Text based on Riverwalk Jazz script by Margaret Moos Pick © 2010