Sunday, May 27, 2018
Music News, Concert Reviews

Buster Cooper has carved out remarkable jazz career with the trombone

They've been partners for going on 70 years. And oh, the places they've been. They worked the hottest jazz clubs and theaters in New York, Los Angeles, Paris and countless other cities around the globe. Now they're pretty much content to play the Garden Restaurant on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg. You can find them there most Friday nights.

A grin ambles onto Buster Cooper's face as he remembers the day they met. It was 1944, and he was 15.

Cooper and his father had stopped by Lefters Music Co. on Central to pick up a trumpet for his brother. And there it was. This long, shiny piece of brass tubing that looked like it jumped off a Salvador Dalí painting.

A trombone.

"My father saw me looking at it,'' he recalled. "And boom! He bought it for me. It was about $20, which was a lot of money back then.''

Cooper has been with his wife, Sarah, for 61 years.

He's been with his trombone eight years longer.

If there was a Tampa Bay Musicians Hall of Fame, a list of people who rose to the height of their profession, Buster Cooper's name would have to be near the top. He was still a student at Gibbs High when he sat in with the legendary bands that played St. Petersburg's fabled Manhattan Casino. Later on, he joined forces with, among others, Lionel Hampton, Benny Goodman, Josephine Baker, Miles Davis, Jackie Wilson and Ella Fitzgerald. When Duke Ellington asked him to come on board, he turned him down. Twice. Cooper had a band of his own and wanted to remain loyal.

But the third time Ellington asked, Cooper gave in. He remained with the band for almost 10 years.

Al Williams, a retired St. Petersburg dentist, is one of two surviving members of the Manhattan Casino house band that performed from 1941 until the mid 1960s. The other is Buster Cooper. Williams, who is 85 and was born "where third base is now at Tropicana Field," played trumpet, saxophone and organ.

"Buster played with Duke,'' Williams said, "and when you do that, that's the very top. You don't get any better than that. That makes him No. 1.''

With a resume nearly unmatched in the jazz world, Cooper and his wife moved to Los Angeles in 1969 where he kept constantly busy doing studio work and occasional orchestra gigs. The couple returned to St. Petersburg in 1994 and live in a Pinellas Point neighborhood that he wasn't allowed to visit as a child.

"He's one of the most interesting people St. Petersburg has ever produced,'' said University of South Florida St. Petersburg history professor Ray Arsenault, a major Cooper fan. "Without question.''

A good trombone player is to jazz music what a good relief pitcher is to baseball: usually not the star attraction, but vital to a performance. Some older jazz musicians still call the instrument "the tailgate" because space requirements dictated that is where the trombone player had to sit when bands performed on the back of trucks. The trombone, which has no keys or valves, likely was developed in northern Italy in the 15th century. Trombone, in Italian, means large trumpet.

These days, Cooper's trombone rests on its stand in his music room at home, waiting for the man with the twinkling eyes and ready smile to reach over and bring it to life.

"God plays the instrument through me,'' Cooper said.

Even so, Cooper still practices two hours a day. Because, he said, the trombone is one of the most difficult jazz instruments to play. And because he never copied anyone else's style of playing.

"You see if I did that,'' he said, "I couldn't turn the corner until they turn the corner. No ... I gotta be me.''

He has no health issues and looks 20 years younger than his actual age. He plans to keep playing the Garden for as long as people come out to listen.

"I've been there 17 years,'' he said. "It's an excellent place to work.''

And to learn. If you're lucky.

"I let beginners sit in,'' he said, "just like they let me do at the Manhattan Casino when I was young. I try to pass it on, you see, because I know what I went through.''

He turned and looked at his partner.

"The trombone has been very good to me,'' he said.

Then he smiled again and clasped his hands together.

"Now I'm not bragging,'' he said. "Just blessing.''

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