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Jazz icon, trombonist Buster Cooper dies at 87 in St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg resident and famous jazz musician Buster Cooper poses for a portrait inside his home on Thursday, 08/15/2013.
Published May 14, 2016

Fridays at the Garden were special. Buster Cooper made them so.

Before there was a bustling restaurant and brewery on every corner in St. Petersburg, the veteran jazz trombonist's sets at the Central Avenue restaurant drew regular crowds of admirers and aficionados, and occasionally great touring acts who stopped by to pay homage.

Mr. Cooper, a jazz icon in Tampa Bay and beyond, died at age 87 at his St. Petersburg home Friday after a battle with prostate cancer.

On those humid nights at the Garden, enveloped by a banyan tree and the bricks of the ancient Detroit Hotel, George "Buster" Cooper was the star of the city that spawned him, that put him on a path toward gigs for presidents and monarchs alongside the world's most decorated musicians, including a decade on the road with Duke Ellington.

He leaves behind countless memories at the long-gone restaurant, "of people leaning over the railing and listening to the band," said the Garden's former owner Emmanuel Roux. But he also leaves a legacy as one of Florida's most celebrated jazz artists, both abroad and in his own back yard.

Born on the cusp of the Great Depression and educated at Gibbs High School, he picked up his first trombone from a music store on Central and studied under local jazz legend Al Downing, gigging when he could at "Chitlin' Circuit" venues like the Manhattan Casino. After a few tours of the Midwest he joined his brother Steve, a bassist, in New York, to play with the big band leader Lionel Hampton.

Discerning ears, including Ellington's, picked up on his distinctive sound. His virtuosic talent was deeply rooted in the blues, with a distinct approach to rhythm and melody, pulling deep baritones and squeaky falsettos out of the rangiest positions on the slide.

"He played what he felt and what he heard," said John Lamb, who played bass alongside Mr. Cooper in Ellington's band, and who became a good friend and neighbor. "It duplicated his vocal, and the way he talked. He was singing into his horn."

So unique was his style that Ellington even wrote a song for him: Trombone Buster. But he befriended and backed so many legends over the years: Josephine Baker, Benny Goodman, Ella Fitzgerald, Cannonball Adderley, a young Quincy Jones. Wynton Marsalis revered him. Mr. Cooper was in such demand that he once turned down a personal entreaty to tour with Ray Charles.

"Imagine that," he mused to the Times upon the singer's death in 2004. "But if I wanted to go back on the road, I could have been back with Duke."

Mr. Cooper could have gone out with anyone. He played for President Lyndon B. Johnson at the White House, inauguration parties for Presidents John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, Queen Elizabeth in London, South Africa during apartheid. He spent more than two decades in Los Angeles, booking session and soundtrack gigs, everything from Moonlighting and Murder, She Wrote to A League of Their Own. And he continued booking festivals and cruise ships around the world.

For a brief while in the 1970s, Mr. Cooper and Sarah, his wife of many decades, moved back to St. Petersburg. It didn't work, she said, because even then, "a black musician couldn't get any work." But they always returned to visit family, and in 1994, they came back for good.

Back then, the Garden's jazz night was run by Lamb, who offered Cooper the chance to take it over. He wore suits, charmed audiences, welcomed countless young musicians into his band for a night or maybe longer. He became such a fixture of St. Petersburg's nightlife scene that in 2010, the city proclaimed June 20 "Buster Cooper Day."

He never saw his Garden residency as a twilight gig, something to ease his creative spirit into retirement. One night over drinks at the Garden, his then-guitarist Nate Najar made the mistake of asking him why he chose to retire in St. Petersburg.

"Wait, wait, wait, young man," Mr. Cooper spat. "What do you mean, 'retire?' Retire from what? I'm a musician! I play music! What am I gonna retire to?"

"And he was right," Najar said Friday. "He played until he couldn't hold the horn to his lips anymore. There was nothing retired about him."

His last gig came in February at the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club. But he wished he could play more, practicing two hours a night at home.

Mr. Cooper relished every compliment he got, from fans who knew his impeccable jazz lineage to Central Avenue tourists simply lured in by the sound of his trombone.

"For us to just go partake of Buster's friendship on those nights, and have him there for such a long time, was a real gift," said Bob Seymour, president of the Tampa Jazz Club. "You'd say, somewhere along the way, 'Nice to see you.' And Buster would invariably look back with a twinkle in his eye and say, 'It's good to be seen.' "

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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