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The Jannus Landing Project | A block on the brink

Jazz legend Buster Cooper's Garden gig nearing an end in St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG

The kid wore a gray fedora and a black leather jacket. Musician's etiquette. He'd learned that from Buster Cooper. That, and how to blow into his horn.

The kid was grooving on Bessie's Blues while Cooper sat on a banquette along the wall, bopping to the sweet riff. At 80, Cooper was enjoying himself at midnight on a Saturday. That's Buster. This is Buster, too: gracious to others, humble about his own gifts.

On this night, he was again giving the limelight to a young protege even as his own days at the Garden Restaurant were ending.

Friday. Saturday. Then it will be over. The Mediterranean bistro is closing after 16 years at 217 Central Ave., and its church of jazz, all that is left of its kind in the city, is ending, too. On Jan. 8, Cooper's trio will move across the street to Jo Jo's in Citta restaurant. It remains to be seen if the magic that started at the Garden will follow.

• • •

For years, the city's jazz musicians came to the Garden to learn from a local treasure, a godfather who was born here and returned after traveling the world and playing with masters. Duke Ellington named the tune Trombone Buster after his longtime bandmate, who has had the ear of the queen of England and the president of the United States. But at the Garden, he's just Buster, Gibbs High School class of 1947, student of the legendary Al Downing, who taught Buster the rules. You play, then let others play. The jam is the thing.

When other jazz titans pass through town, they pay homage. Guitarist George Benson. Pianist Freddy Cole. Trumpeters Wynton Marsalis and Randy Brecker. Brecker's brother Michael, the late tenor saxophonist. Trombonist Slide Hampton. Producer Quincy Jones.

"For me, this is my jazz home," said the kid in the fedora, Jim Morey, 31, of St. Petersburg. "This is where I learned it. The Garden's always been here. Buster has always been here every Friday and Saturday. There's nothing else like this."

Emmanuel Roux and Frank Bouvard took over the Garden in 1993 and hired Cooper a little over a year later. Roux has always marveled about Cooper. He's famous around the world — he is huge in Roux's native France — yet somewhat unknown in his own town. This is what the pop charts will do.

Jannus Landing's new owner is not renewing the restaurant's lease. Roux and Bouvard are also tired. They tried to sell the place in recent years. Roux never imagined the Garden would just disappear.

From the beginning, Cooper loved the Garden's groove. He says the crowd here is just as appreciative as any other. He and the owners call each other family.

This weekend Cooper will be there with his wife, Sarah.

"It's been beautiful, wonderful, fantastic," he said. "It hasn't sunk in to me yet. It was such a ritual thing, you know? It seemed like it would go on forever, which I wish it would have."

• • •

As midnight approaches, they are playing the last set at the Garden. Two veteran musicians, bassist Michael Ross and drummer John Jenkins, are grooving with budding tenor saxophonist Jeremy Carter, 30.

Someone has called for Cooper to pick up his brass King 2B trombone. He's comfortably sitting this one out, watching from behind amber-tinted aviator glasses. Morey, the kid in the fedora, has arrived and will join in.

Morey was 16 and learning his art when he was sent to the Garden to sit with Cooper. Morey was too young to be there, and stunned that Cooper didn't mind. At first, the kid was intimidated by the older musicians. His trumpet stuttered.

"Blow into your horn, boy!" Cooper encouraged the youngster, slapping his shoulder.

Over the years, through the bloodlines of music, an older black man became like a grandfather to the younger white man.

"I'm going to miss this," Morey said after the set. "It's like your roots."

Cooper's laugh fills the air. They gab about keeping this jazz thing going. A waiter brings him another white zinfandel on ice. Everyone is talking about what's next for this hallowed space. Word is that a "Wing House/Hooters" concept is in the works.

A young couple stops to exchange hugs and snap a photo with the old-timer.

"This man has brought a lot of joy into my life," says Jake Westphal, 31. "I got a culture shock here, and all of a sudden, I'm losing my culture shock. It tears my heart."

"We're from Indiana," explains his wife, Kristy Westphal, 28. She mimes a folk violinist and rolls her eyes.

Cooper thanks them and stays as long as anybody else will talk. Then he picks up his old leather duffel bag and trombone case and heads to his white Ford Escort station wagon, as he will do on Saturday for the last time in this place.

Luis Perez can be reached at (727) 892-2271 or [email protected]

Listen in

To experience Buster Cooper's music, go to [email protected]

Jazz legend Buster Cooper's Garden gig nearing an end in St. Petersburg 12/08/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 8, 2009 4:45pm]
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