Today is the birthday of Al Cohn (1925-1988), a major tenor saxophonist and one of the most admired composers and arrangers in modern jazz. Cohn’s career began with Joe Marsala’s big band when he was 18. He played and wrote for several of the most important bandleaders of the forties and fifties, among them Boyd Raeburn, Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, Artie Shaw and Elliott Lawrence. He replaced Herbie Steward in the Herman band’s Four Brothers saxophone section, joining Zoot Sims, Stan Getz and Serge Chaloff.
Cohn’s style, like that of many of his saxophone contemporaries, owed much to Lester Young. Toward the end of his life, he added darker colors to his tone and firmer spring to the rhythm of his phrasing. Employing a variety of rhythm sections over the years, Cohn and Sims were one of the best known tenor sax duos in all of jazz. Here they are at Birdland in 1960 with pianist Mose Allison, bassist Bill Crow and drummer Nick Stabulas in “Ah Moore.” Cohn named the ballad after his first wife, the singer Marilyn Moore. Sims plays the introduction. Cohn plays the melody and the solo, with occasional obbligato by Sims.
Al Cohn’s quick, mordant wit produced lines that musicians and fans repeat to this day. Bill Crow collected a few of his ripostes in his book Jazz Anecdotes. Here are a couple of them.
In Europe, Al was drinking at a bar with some friends who recommended the local beer.
‘Have you tried Elephant Beer?’ he was asked.
‘No,’ said Al, ‘I drink to forget.’
A disheveled man accosted Al at the bus terminal and asked for a dollar to buy a drink. Al started to hand him the money, and then said, ‘Wait a minute. How do I know you won’t spend this on food?’
A couple of those anecdotes also show up in this personal recollection of Al from the antedeluvian period of Rifftides. Maybe you won’t mind the repetition.