Dolo Coker was an insider's jazz musician. The pianist was little known except among his peers. Coker spent much of his career playing and recording as a sideman and didn't record his first leadership date until 1976, when he was 49. One of his most interesting leadership albums is California Hard (Xanadu), featuring Blue Mitchell on trumpet and flugelhorn and Art Pepper on alto and tenor saxophones. The album was digitally remastered from tapes by Don Schlitten of Xanadu and reissue producer Zev Feldman.
The album is unique in that it's performing three services at once. On California Hard, we hear Blue Mitchell on flugelhorn, which is a joy. We also hear Pepper on tenor sax, an instrument he rarely recorded on. And we hear Cocker, not as a sideman but with ample solo time. The rest of the rhythm section features Leroy Vinnegar (b) and Frank Butler (d).
Born in Hartford, Ct., Coker was raised in South Carolina and studied in Philadelphia, working there as a jazz pianist from 1944 to 1954. He worked with Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons, Lou Donaldson and Philly Joe Jones. While on tour with Jones in 1959 at San Francisco's Jazz Workshop, Coker traveled to Los Angeles and began playing with Dexter Gordon at the Zebra Lounge. For a year and a half in 1959 and '60, they worked seven days a week at the club with a jam session on Sunday mornings.
Gordon and Coker were in the West Coast version of The Connection, the stage drama about jazz and narcotics. (Freddie Redd composed the music for the East Coast version.) Coker worked as a trio at L.A.'s Memory Lane and the Casbah. At the latter club, Coker met Harry Sweets" Edison, who played with the group on choice songs as a feature attraction.
For whatever reason, Coker was more comfortable in clubs than in recording studios. He recorded with Stitt in 1956 but didn't record Showcase with Philly Joe Jones until 1959. There also was a big recording gap between 1962 and '69. When Muse producer Don Schlitten found Coker in 1974, he began recording him regularly as a sideman. Then on Dec. 27, 1976, he began recording Coker as a leader. The first album was Dolo!, for Schlitten's Xanadu label. It featured Blue Mitchell (tp, flhrn), Harold Land (ts), Dolo Coker (p) Leroy Vinnegar (b) and Frank Butler (d).
The next day, Schlitten recorded Coker on California Hard, with Art Pepper subbing for Harold Land. Pepper plays tenor on Jumping Jacks and Roots 4FB. The album features Coker on a range of songs, from his hard bop original Jumping Jacks to a Red Garland-influenced Gone Again, by Lionel Hampton and Wini Brown. To hear Coker up close, he plays in the trio format on Gone Again and alone on 'Round Midnight. Clearly, Coker was a confident, gentle player who could play tough and pretty.
Dolo Coker died in 1983.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find the reissue of Dolo Coker's California Hardhere.
JazzWax clip: Here's Blue Mitchell, Art Pepper, Dolo Coker, Leroy Vinnegar and Frank Butler playing Gone with the Wind from California Hard...
And here'sTale of Two Cities, with Art Pepper on tenor sax...
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