Jazz trumpeter and bandleader Pauly Cohen, 98, dies

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Ben Crandell, South Florida Sun Sentinel
·6 min read
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Jazz trumpeter and bandleader Pauly Cohen — a diminutive “force of nature” who shared the stage and offstage friendships with the likes of Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Jackie Gleason, Quincy Jones, Ava Gardner and Judy Garland — died at his home in Tamarac Monday night. Cohen was 98.

Cohen had tested positive for COVID-19 less than three weeks ago, but appeared to be recovering, according to his friend and fellow musician, Michael Ragan. Cohen had finished a bowl of ice cream just before he died.

Ragan said Cohen, a longtime Broward County resident, has no known survivors and that there are no plans for a local funeral service. Cohen will be buried in New York next to his wife, Paula, who died in 2009, Ragan said. A musical memorial celebration will take place after COVID restrictions are relaxed, he said.

“He was a force of nature,” Ragan said on Tuesday. “Not only was he a powerful trumpet player, he was a powerful human being.”

Cohen continued to perform into his 90s at local galas and clubs, from Blue Jean Blues in Fort Lauderdale to Soyka in Miami, and at a weekly rehearsal with the 18-member Pauly Cohen Big Band at the Northwest Focal Point Senior Center in Margate.

It was perhaps a humble denouement for a performer whose trumpet playing was revered by luminaries of a golden age of jazz, almost all now dead — but Cohen remained a joyful performer, a demanding bandleader and an enthusiastic storyteller.

Cohen loved people and they loved him: For two decades, even his free two-hour rehearsals at the Margate senior center were a word-of-mouth event for jazz fans across South Florida. One 2010 rehearsal was shut down by the fire marshal for exceeding the 120-person capacity.

“I’m so fortunate I’m still alive and I’m still learning. Still learning about life and people, and how good they can be,” Cohen said in a 2013 Sun Sentinel interview. “I’m sure when they are putting me in the ground, I’ll go, ‘Wait, I just have one more thing to say!’”

Cohen continued to perform through 2016, when he was 93.

Reading music, people

Born to working-class parents in Brooklyn in 1922, Cohen came of age as an influential era of jazz was taking hold, defined by such giants as Charlie Parker, Sarah Vaughan and Frank Sinatra, along with bands led by Dizzy Gillespie, Earl Hines and Count Basie.

Cohen played with all of them, thanks to an innate ability to read music and anticipate the way Black arrangers wanted a song to swing.

Says Ragan: “Dizzy’s comment about him was, ‘Pauly’s so good, he can read around corners.’”

After some training at Julliard, Cohen was just out of Lincoln High School in Brooklyn in the early 1940s when he earned a spot playing lead trumpet with Earl Hines’ band, which included sax legend Parker and vocalist Vaughan.

He had a five-year run as the lead trumpet player for the Count Basie Orchestra, and often sat in for Quincy Jones with Dizzy Gillespie’s band. Cohen stood a shade over 5-foot-3, but often stood out for being the only white person onstage.

“Everybody was so nice to me,” Cohen said. “I always had a feeling for Black people from my early experiences in New York.”

Ragan said that Cohen, who was left at home on tours where integrated bands were unwelcome, brought a deep respect for the history of the music he was playing.

“He felt a great responsibility in making sure he fit into the band, to carry on the spirit of that music,” Ragan said. “There was such a history with the Basie band. You have to be aware of the history of that music.”

Cohen was not a jazz trumpet soloist on the order of Gillespie, Louis Armstrong or Miles Davis, but his skills in setting the tone for the musicality of a band as a lead trumpet player was widely respected.

“As the lead trumpet player, he was playing the really hard, high parts all night, every night. [In that role] he was very exposed. You couldn’t hide his mistakes,” said Ragan, himself a trumpet player. “Within the pantheon of trumpet players who know that, pretty much everyone knows Pauly.”

Stories to tell

Cohen’s storytelling prowess was a result of having so many stories to tell from a life embedded in a unique corner of mid-20th century pop culture. Memories came easily, rich in detail and a generous spirit.

He witnessed Billie Holiday walk onstage at the Three Deuces on 52nd Street in the ’60s with schoolboy awe: “She wouldn’t move a muscle until the audience kept quiet. No clinking of glasses. You could hear a pin drop. She waited for the pin to drop. Then she started with ‘Strange Fruit,’ and the place went [gasp] … She could command you.”

When Artie Shaw was his boss, Shaw’s girlfriend, Ava Gardner “was so beautiful… She was a woman who could make a man feel more like a man. That’s a talent. And she had it like nobody had it.”

Cohen had an eight-week run with Sinatra in the mid-’60s at the Fontainebleau on Miami Beach, and recalled late-night basement chats: “I respected him tremendously. Always giving the credit to the musicians and arrangers. That was my kind of man.”

He recalled leaping from the orchestra for an impromptu jitterbug with Judy Garland at the old Diplomat Hotel in Hollywood in 1966: “Every tune she did had a special meaning to her, that she wanted to give to the people. They did a lot of bad things to her out in Hollywood [Calif.3/8 … I felt sorry for her. She was a great person.”

When he turned 90, Cohen’s music and stories were captured by filmmaker Bret Primack in a documentary, “Taking Charge,” that would be shown the next year at the 2013 Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival. The screening was part of a birthday celebration for Cohen that included a video message for “my brother Pauly” from Quincy Jones.

“As Sinatra used to tell us every night, live every day like it’s your last and one day you’ll be right,” Jones said, with a small smile. “Happy birthday my brother. I’m gonna be right behind you. I love you.”

The FLIFF screening included a performance by the Pauly Cohen Big Band before a packed house of 300 people at the Sunrise Civic Center Theater. Cohen introduced the concert with uncommon brevity: “I’m Pauly Cohen. I’m lucky to be here. Let’s play some music!”

Staff writer Ben Crandell can be reached at bcrandell@sunsentinel.com.