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For most bands, the idea of a betting pool covering which player might be the first selected as a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master would be ridiculous.
In the case of The Cookers, the odds of taking the pot are pretty damn good. In July, two members of the septet, drummer Billy Hart and alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, were tapped for the nation’s highest jazz honor, and they’ll be feted at the 2022 award ceremony on March 31 at the SFJazz Center. Four other Cookers have been nominated in past years and are arguably well overdue for Jazz Master coronation.
“Even before this, Donald was saying, ‘They gave it to the whole Marsalis family, they should give it to The Cookers,’” said trumpeter David Weiss. “Hopefully it’ll keep trickling down.”
A respected arranger who leads several ensembles, Weiss is the junior member of The Cookers, which he launched in 2007 as a vehicle for some of the most prodigious jazz artists to emerge on the post-bop scene of the 1960s. He more than holds his own with his legendary bandmates but is the first to acknowledge that he’s not a likely candidate for the award.
Featuring tenor saxophonist Billy Harper, pianist George Cables, trumpeter Eddie Henderson, and bassist Cecil McBee, the group had been scheduled to perform at the Monterey Jazz Festival this weekend but were dropped from the pandemic-reduced roster. Instead, the full septet will perform Sunday afternoon at Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society in Half Moon Bay, and Oakland’s Piedmont Piano Company came to the rescue at the last minute to ensure the Bay Area trip wasn’t a wash, presenting two breakout bands led by different Cookers.
On Friday, a quartet led by San Francisco-reared trumpeter Eddie Henderson performs at 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. (with the early show also available via livestream). He’ll be joined by fellow Cooker member Cables, and the stellar rhythm section tandem of drummer Sylvia Cuenca and bassist Essiet Essiet (who gained widespread notice in the last iteration of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers).
Henderson, 80, grew up surrounded by leading Black artists, as his mother was a dancer who performed at the Cotton Club and his stepfather was a doctor who treated many musicians, including Miles Davis. Henderson also pursued a path in medicine, and though he was a gifted trumpeter he didn’t take the plunge into a music career until he was doing his residency at UCSF’s Langley Porter Psychiatric Hospital and Clinics.
A three-year stint with Herbie Hancock’s seminal sextet/septet Mwandishi (which also featured Cookers drummer Billy Hart) from 1970-73 made Henderson a force to be reckoned with, and as he started recording his own albums he explored jazz/rock fusion territory. Since the 1980s he’s mainly worked in unplugged settings, where his tart, crackling tone can’t be mistaken for any other player.
“He’s completely unique,” Weiss said. “I remember doing a couple of trumpet summits with him and what I always notice is that he’s completely unphased by the competition. You have all these trumpet players spitting all these high notes, screaming at each other, and Eddie’s just doing this thing. Eddie is all personality. He’s one of those originals. You can hear the history and hear the swing in every phrase he plays.”
On Saturday, Billy Harper leads a quintet with head chef David Weiss, Cables, bassist Hans Glawischnig, and drummer Jaimeo Brown, playing shows at 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. (with the early session also available via livestream). A serious contender for the title of jazz’s greatest active tenor saxophonist, Harper made his mark as a foil for a series of authoritative drummers, including Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, and Max Roach. Like his fellow Cookers, he’s focused a good deal of his creative energy on composing, which he sees as a seamless extension of his practice as an improviser.
“For most of the jazz guys the playing is the most important part,” Harper said. “As you’re playing and improvising, you might take any portion of that and it becomes a song. I learned that it was very easy to do that playing with Max, who was a very structured and compositional kind of player. Being an improviser, you’re always creating songs.”
The late-breaking gigs at Piedmont Piano Company highlight the role the store has played for musicians throughout the pandemic. In May of 2020, proprietor Jim Callahan invested more than $10,000 in audio and video equipment to present high-quality livestreams, which are all archived on YouTube and the store’s website. With the piano business booming throughout the pandemic, he wanted to provide gigs for hard-pressed musicians, who kept all the proceeds from the Paypal link prominently featured during the broadcasts.
“I’m afraid to look and see how much we’re actually spending,” Callahan said. “We see how many people watch them. Some shows get more than 10,000 views. We’re just trying to put money in the pockets of musicians. And of course, it doesn’t hurt to put the name and face of Piedmont Piano Company in front of every show. But really, we love the music.”
Since taking over the Art Deco showroom in Uptown in 2005 the store has hosted some of the finest musicians in jazz, classical, and Brazilian music. Even with that impressive track record, this weekend’s shows stand out with a lineup that boasts artists who have shaped the course of jazz for some five decades.
Piedmont Piano Co. is located at 1728 San Pablo Ave. in Oakland. For ticketing info, click here.