COOKING WITH DAVETHE LONGTIME VALLEY JAZZMAN WANTS TO STIR UP THE SCENE ANY WAY HE CAN
Up on a shelf in the living room of Dave Cook's small Tempe apartment, next to a large, plastic crow wearing a felt beret, there are two Pringles cartons, each held together with packing tape. Why does this man have two Pringles cartons held together with packing tape on his living-room shelf? "Oh, man! I was trying to find something to do one day, so I put some rice in 'em," he gushes, grabbing one and shaking out a quick samba tempo.
It's not like the 60-year-old jazz drummer sits around trying to fill his days with creative ways to make percussion instruments at home, but, then again, he's a musician for hire. And, as he says, "I manage to make out pretty well, but it's up and down. That's the way it always is in music."
Cook should know. He's been at it for most of his life, and at it specifically here in Phoenix ever since he took the stage at Bob Tate's Rose Room in 1959. Over the past 35 years, he's seen the local jazz scene dwindle from an exciting, thriving thing in the Fifties and Sixties to something that he currently describes as "terrible." But that only seems to fuel his mission: dispensing as much jazz--and his version of its attendant ethos--as possible.
"I'd like to generate as much interest as I can in music that has some substance," he intones from his seat in a plastic chair under a portrait of Miles Davis. "I get very disturbed when I look at TV--which I try not to look at too much--and very little jazz is represented. I look at bullshit like Geraldo and Oprah Winfrey, and those shows are doing fine, making money off showing the weirdest cats in the world. But people like it; it's a reflection on our society. We live in a visual world, and if people don't see it on TV, it ain't real.
"I think jazz is one of the greatest things that provides introspection, and that's something that people today don't think is necessary. One thing about jazz: People who are serious listeners, people who support jazz, are of a higher consciousness."
Intense and sincere, Cook gives off his own particular vibe of homespun higher consciousness; even his incense-perfumed crib has a monkish, Spartan feel to it. The immaculate kitchen is marred only by a hypnotic drip from the faucet. The centerpiece of the living room is an electric keyboard atop a black drum case. The walls hold a few awards, a portrait of Cook and a fake Hollywood sidewalk star with his name on it. There is a book in the corner, Gambling Secrets of Nick the Greek. "Basically, what you learn from that is how to lose and not cry," he says. "It's all about losing with grace."
A metaphor for Cook's career? Graceful, yes, but no loser he. Over the decades, Cook's gigged from coast to coast, played with names like Milt Jackson, Stan Kenton, Ben Webster and Sonny Stitt and now leads three groups, including the 15-piece Atlantis Big Band. He even has his own TV show (every Sunday morning at 1:30 on cable Channel 22) devoted to clips of his bands. Cook is one of the most respected jazzmen in the Valley, but that brings up an inevitable point: Why is Dave Cook still here? Phoenix is not exactly known as a fecund hotbed of jazz.
"First of all, New York and L.A. are overpopulated with good musicians," the drummer reasons. "I don't want to be anyplace that I can't play. And there's a lot of cats out there who don't have roots, and I have to have a home base. I might not make the same amount of money every month, but in the long run, I'm better off, because I've worked hard to establish a reputation in Phoenix."
Cook's pre-Phoenix years began in his hometown of Pittsburgh, where he was coerced into playing the violin--widely acknowledged as an instrument for sissies--at the tender age of 7. "I had an uncle, and he had this violin," Cook says. "He'd been beggin' my mom and all the sisters in the family to play it, but no one would touch it. His daughter ran off with the circus, and nobody ever saw her again. Finally, he said to me, 'I'm not going to be living too much longer, and everybody been refusing me all these years'--he actually started crying--and he begged me to learn how, and he'd pay for lessons."
And so it was that Cook found himself learning at the hands of "some Hungarian guy. . . . He'd slap you upside the head if you messed up. And I was actually physically scared of the violin, because when you'd tighten up the string, the damn thing would pop off and hit me in the eye."
Yet Cook soon learned that a violin string in the eye is nothing compared to a human fist. "One day, I got off the streetcar with my violin, and these ruffians was sittin' on some steps. They said they wanted me to play some blues. I said, 'Man, I don't know how to play any blues. I could play "Abide With Me" or something like that.' So they threatened to beat me up unless I'd play some blues. I was crying, playing 'Abide With Me,' and they were all laughin'; it was a big joke. I said that's it. I went home and said, 'I'm not takin' another lesson. Why don't you get me a trumpet?'"
Mom complied, and even though Cook's first horn teacher tried to discourage him--"He told my mother, 'You don't want him to play trumpet; his lips are too big'"--Cook had found an instrument that worked for him. A friend of his mother's took Cook to see the touring show of Jazz at the Philharmonic, reducing the violin and church music to memories. "That's when I saw cats like Buddy Rich, Oscar Peterson, Bud Clayton, Lester Young, all the heavyweight guys. That really impressed me. I knew that's what I wanted to do."
In high school, Cook became part of a 14-man band that included classmates--and future legends--Stanley and Tommy Turrentine on sax and trumpet, respectively. Though Cook would continue to play his horn (and vibes, as well) through his college and Army years and his move to Phoenix, the experience of blowing alongside Tommy was his downfall. "If there was anything I wanted to do in my life, it was to play like him," Cook admits. "I never could improvise like Tommy, or Miles or Dizzy, and it frustrated the hell out of me."
It was real estate that lured Cook to the Valley of the Sun, at least the idea that he might have a career selling it until music paid the bills.
"My wife had a contract to teach at the Roosevelt school district, which she still does, and she had an uncle who was a pretty successful black man in South Phoenix real estate."
And guess what--35 years ago, Phoenix just happened to have a thriving little jazz scene. "Man, it sounds strange now!" marvels Cook. "Back then, I was playing at the Calderon Ballroom, and everybody was coming there: Ray Charles, Tito Puente, Machito, Etta James; I used to pick up Ray Charles at the airport. Then, around November of 1959, a coffee house, uh, I don't know what you'd call it, an epidemic started happening here, and there weren't enough musicians to go around. The joints would stay open 'til 4 or 5 o'clock every night."
And it was at one of those smoky, late-night spots that Cook was magically transformed from a frustrated trumpet player into a natural drummer. "One night, I happened to be at an after-hours coffee house, and the drummer went out on break and never came back," Cook says. "They asked me to sit in and keep time, so that's what happened."
And when this guy took a break, he took a break. "The guy stays gone for three months, man. He left his drums and everything. Nobody knew where the hell he was. When he came back, I had made up my mind I was going to play drums." Cook was spotted keeping time by one Joe Kloess, now Dionne Warwick's conductor, and Kloess gave Cook his first real date. "I got a gig with Jimmy Witherspoon and Ben Webster," says Cook. "That was at a place on 48th [Street] and Indian School Road called the Stein and Sirloin. People don't believe it, but the Sixties was really jumpin' here."
The Nineties may crawl where the Sixties jumped, but Atlantis Big Band (the group Cook's featuring live this week) is a powerful jolt to the scene. "And we ain't playing any Lawrence Welk shit," clarifies the boss. "This is a good band. We're doing some Quincy Jones, a couple things by Dizzy Gillespie, some things by Miles Davis and George Benson, some George Gershwin, all arranged by my best friend and mentor, Prince Shell."
A band that large is difficult to mount and rare to see live these days, not only for financial reasons. "I hand-pick everybody," explains Cook. "I'm concerned with the person's attitude. I like to combine spirits. I think if the spirits are all going one direction, they can generate a force. Music is what brings individuals together; what breaks up groups is guys who are unwilling to be a 'we' person because they're too involved with being an 'I' person. Therefore, you have thousands of great individual performers but very few great groups."
Cook's sociospiritual philosophy is part of what's kept him here, persevering as an individual for a music scene he believes in. "Musicians have a tendency to let people dictate to them," he says. "We're considered at the bottom of the social ladder, but if we listen to people who are less informed about the music, then we're just gonna be servants. A musician has to make up his mind that he's going to do something and just do it with such vehemence that people respect his integrity.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.