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."