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In the Cookers, collective centuries of heat

George Cables, from left, Billy Hart, Donald Harrison, Eddie Henderson, David Weiss, Billy Harper and Cecil McBee of the Cookers. (John Abbott)
correction

A photo caption with an earlier version of this article misidentified one of the members of the Cookers. Donald Harrison, not Craig Handy, is pictured third from the left. This article is corrected.

“The Night of the Cookers” is a classic live document of one of the most storied performances in jazz history. Recorded by Blue Note Records at the now-shuttered La Club Marchal in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood on April 9 and 10, 1965, it positioned Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan, two of the era’s leading hard-bop trumpeters, front and center.

The concert and ensuing album helped garner more recognition for the borough as a destination for jazz. James Spaulding, Hubbard’s frequent collaborator and one of the recording’s surviving members, recalls the mood of those two nights at the venue. “It was a small club, filled up with people drinking, smoking, [just] enjoying themselves,” says the 84-year-old saxophonist and flutist whose memoir was published in 2019. “There was a lot of energy in the audience, and people were really excited, especially about Lee’s [arrival].”

Over 35 years later, in 2001, trumpeter David Weiss, an arranger and sideman for Hubbard, was approached by a longtime admirer about a Cookers reunion concert to take place at Brooklyn’s Up Over Jazz Café in Park Slope. “It was a small club just above a chicken place on Flatbush Avenue — a storefront with an apartment right above that he made [into] a jazz club,” says Weiss.

“His family also had a wings place somewhere else that was also called Night of the Cookers because as a kid, the owner’s first concert he ever went to was the Cookers show,” Weiss says. “He loved everything ‘Night of the Cookers’ and everything Freddie Hubbard, and he always tried to get Freddie to come.”

While Hubbard didn’t perform, several of his former bandmates were there, including pianist Ronnie Mathews, trombonist Kiane Zaradi and original Cookers group members Spaulding, bassist and educator Larry Ridley and drummer Pete “La Roca” Sims.

“Spaulding and La Roca sounded so good,” Weiss adds. “Those guys personally never reached the stardom the other guys did, but they also didn’t take the forays into more electric stuff. For better or worse, they remained [themselves], which means playing great, refining, and improving. . . . They were just continuing to perfect their craft in the way they always played.”

What started as just a few random nights in Brooklyn has since evolved into a real working band, simply known as the Cookers. With “Look Out!,” the septet’s first album in five years, the group continues to seek out new ideas within the music that they have collectively been playing for centuries between them.

A band built live

The earliest version of the Cookers grew out of what eventually became a live series held at Up Over Jazz Café. Built around Spaulding and La Roca, you could also catch tenor reedist Craig Handy, Dwayne Burno on bass, pianist George Cables and trumpeters Jeremy Pelt and Eddie Henderson depending on the night. “With the ‘Night of the Cookers’ stuff, we were doing Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan music, which was a lot of fun, but [in order] to be something, it’s got to be original music,” says Weiss.

By 2007 a loose collective began to resemble a group. Weiss was joined by Henderson, Cables, Handy, saxophonist Billy Harper, bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Billy Hart. Armed with compositions penned by McBee, Harper and Cables, the Cookers were now fully formed.

“I’ve written a lot of music and a lot of different people have recorded it,” Cables says. “With most pieces, I don’t try to dictate how to play the song unless it’s another bandleader. I just like people to take whatever I write and make it their own.”

The improvisational spirit of the Cookers can be attributed to many things, one of them being that each member remains a perpetual student of their influences while still looking ahead.

Trumpeter Eddie Henderson, a longtime member of Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi group, was born into a show business family. His mother was a dancer at the Cotton Club and his father was a professional singer. At 9 years old, Henderson got an informal trumpet lesson from Louis Armstrong and was set on his career path, even as his doctor stepfather urged him to follow a career in medicine. While studying classical trumpet at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, he met Miles Davis, one of his chief influences.

“When I was coming home from my junior year of high school, Miles was appearing in San Francisco — he was my stepfather’s patient and staying at our house that whole week,” says Henderson during a phone conversation with The Post. Davis later drove the teenage Henderson to his gig where he watched him perform alongside his First Great Quintet — John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Wynton Kelly and Philly Joe Jones. While he ultimately practiced general medicine part time from 1975 to 1987, Henderson could no longer deny his true calling and soon shifted the focus to music full time.

Henderson met his fellow Mwandishi bandmate drummer Billy Hart while attending Howard University. Hart, a D.C. native, who was recently named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts, credits his early exposure to jazz as a young man from his frequent trips to the Spotlite Club in D.C. “Where I grew up, I lived in a residential area, except for one building that was a huge apartment complex,” says Hart by phone.

“In the bottom of that building was a jazz club that was five blocks from my house, but I was too young to get in. Instead of air conditioners in those days, they had these huge fans. And in the wintertime, the fans didn’t move so I could actually just look into the space of the fans and see the music.”

“I started seeing [Lee] Morgan then and I was interested because he was near my age,” Hart says. “That was basically how I began to learn the music because I was able to see Miles, Art Blakey and Ahmad Jamal, I mean the whole nine yards. I could just stand over by the fan, watch and just listen to the music.”

Stretching out for 'Look Out!'

“Look Out!” is the sixth album by the Cookers and was recorded in August 2020 at the famed Van Gelder Studio. The facility’s cavernous size allowed for ample room for each musician to stretch out, literally, during the height of the pandemic.

“I think we used the studio at Van Gelder’s because it was so big,” says Cables. “It’s not like during the pandemic we were going to go in a small space like those usual rehearsal studios, just crammed in there and bleeding all over each other. Even though we were going to wear masks, there’s still an enormous space and I was able to move around.”

Harper, McBee and Cables all wrote songs for the release, which is highlighted by Harper’s “Somalia,” a track that harnesses both the frenzy and chaos everyone felt over the past 18 months.

“I think that’s the way the music sounded and felt, very rhythmic and African-like,” Harper says of the song’s origins. “That’s how I got the name. I wasn’t thinking so much of the politics of Somalia or what was happening over there. It’s just that it feels like Somalia.”

Donald Harrison is the relatively new addition to the group, having joined the Cookers in 2013. Like Hart, he was also recently named an NEA Jazz Master. In the 1980s, Harrison rounded out the front line of the Jazz Messengers in the 1980s, alongside trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard, who recently became the first Black composer to have an original work performed at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. At 61, Harrison is a youngster compared with his Cookers bandmates, which is why he offers great deference to them.

“I was listening to these guys when I was still in high school,” says Harrison by phone. “When I [first] met them, they were like elders to me, like seasoned veterans who had been in all the bands already. I was asking them a million questions, and I still do.”

“But now, we share ideas,” he continues. “It’s fun to play with people who love a language backward and forwards; if you say something, they understand what you’re talking about. There’s no need to teach them anything or to try to get them up to speed.”

“And when they do certain things, I have an understanding of where it came from, like Billy Harper with his phrasing,” Harrison continues. “I listen to those records with Lee Morgan, and now I get to stand next to Billy Harper and get an idea of what that phrasing is like. I never played with Lee Morgan, but now, it’s like I’m getting the chance to play with Lee and all the [other] people that they played with.

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