May 18, 2024

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Interview with Cooper-Moore: My thinking is that intellect and emotion are part of what makes up the “Soul”: New video 2018, Photos

Jazz interview with jazz pianist and many musical instruments and composer Cooper-Moore. An interview by email in writing. 

JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Cooper-Moore: – I was born August 31, 1946 in a house built for my parents by Henry Ashton, my great-grand father, in a rural community 35 miles northwest of Washington, DC. This was in the foot hills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia in the County of Loudoun. The house was built during World War II, a time when there were material shortages, but Henry Ashton, an elderly African American man, received permission to build this house. This was in apartheid  America and the action was considered one of exceptional importance.

Music in the 1940s and 50s had everyone’s  interest. There were no televisions in the community, but every family had a radio, and some had record players. These devices were communal in the home. Usually there was some kind of consensus as to what was to be heard. As there were no earphones for private listening, we all heard the same music.

Sundays we listened to gospel and church music in the morning,  our parent’s choice, but in the evenings it was mostly blues and rhythm and blues, the choice of the kids but with a nod from our mother and father.

JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the piano? What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose the piano?

CM: – From the time of my birth there was a piano in that house.

My older sister, Vivian, took lessons. She often when practicing would hold me in her lap.

I watched her hands and was totally enthralled at the result, music. She was telling stories using her hands, creating a world of sound, and it wasn’t coming from the radio or record player. These memories are from when I was 3-4 years old.

The day that I turned 12 years old, my birthday, I heard Ahmad Jamal. This was 1958. He had a hit jazz recording called “Poinciana.” I had been studying piano for 4 years, and decided on that day that I wanted to play this music. On that same day I heard Charlie Mingus for the first time. These sounds were very different from what I had ever heard before and it was exciting and challenging.

A year later my high school band director gave me a fake book of standards and jazz tunes. He showed me how to play changes in root position and what the chord symbols over the melody of the tunes meant. In 1962 I met Emery Austin Smith. He was my oldest sister Vivian’s husband. He was and still is, at 86 years old, a piano player, my mentor, my teacher, and my guide to the music called jazz. Every time I sit to play piano I feel his presence. It has been through Emery’s tutelage that I discovered the importance of what we do.

It was Emery’s example as a composer that I took composing seriously as a learning tool.

In 1962 my mother died. It was the daily hours of playing piano in the back room of our house that got me through that difficult time. Music, improvising at the piano, discovering the power of music to settle the Soul showed me a way to live that had been offered to me by my elders, but which I had not seen until it became my “Balm in Gilead,” my life preserver.

JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

CM: – I began taking piano lessons when I was 8 years old (October 1954). Six months later I played in public for the first time. It was an Easter program at the Black Baptist church the family attended. For the next ten years I played nearly every Sunday in that church. Playing hymns was very important in my development as a piano player. Church brought to my attention the importance of music to rituals: Sunday worships, funerals, weddings, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, Children’s Day, baptisms, the relationship of words and music in a song, the use of music to manipulate the emotions of others and of self, and the power of music to heal. Church is where I learned about music and feelings. It’s also the place where I learned to go off book. Sometimes the congregation would sing something that wasn’t in the hymnal, or sing a song that was in the hymnal but in a different key.

Playing hymns also taught me about harmony, counterpoint and voice leading. This was all before I ever studied these things on my own or learned them in school.

But the one thing that marked a new beginning in how I thought about piano is when I got rid of my recordings, which was hundreds of jazz LPs. I was no longer an avid listener. Instead I became inward looking. I’d do 8-10 hour piano work-out sessions. I’d record lots of it on a quarter inch reel to reel Sony tape deck, and then listen back in the evening. Sometimes I’d hear something that I liked and I would transcribe it on to manuscript. In a couple of months, I had a book of licks. I was taught to “play it in every key,” so my book of licks became my exercise book. One of the devices that came from that time, which is idiomatic of my playing now, is the use of major and minor seconds, ninths and, sevenths.

JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

CM: – My practice routine has become a pretty standard warm-up of scales, chord inversions, arppeggios, Hanon, etc.

There was a time when my practice was about copying what others did that I heard that was hip, like McCoy Tyner quartal chords and pentatonic patterns, or Ellington’s and Monk’s descending fill lines.

Now after my warm up of about two hours I focus on emotions guiding the hands.

This is difficult thing to do in playing, and isn’t something I do every day. But the closer I get to a performance the longer the emotional practice sessions. This is work that I could not do in my twenties and early thirties, because I was unable to focus and control my emotions very well, which at times resulted in physical injury to my hands, wrist, arms, neck and back. At 72 years old, I’m playing the best that I have ever played. The letting go of self is what now generates what I do in performance. The letting go of self generates rivers of emotion. It also can create a resonance in the body that seems to give the body a freedom and an intelligence that isn’t normally there.

JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now? You’re playing is very sensitive, deft, it’s smooth, and I’d say you drift more toward harmony than dissonance. There is some dissonance there, but you use it judiciously. Is that a conscious decision or again, is it just an output of what goes in?

CM: – Duke Ellington was a great example of how to be all of the above description. He along with Hank Jones, Mary Lou Williams, and Ahmad Jamal were always modern piano players.

I am often labeled as “avant-garde,” but would not label myself as such, as a player. The term might be appropriate for some of what I create as a composer-sound-designer when I collaborate with performance artist or choreographers. But in the world of “jazz” I tend to think of myself as progressive, in and out and on the edge. That is the best place for me to be able to emotionally move the audience.

JBN.S: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?

CM: – I have never thought about preventing disparate influences from coloring what I do.

JBN.S: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

CM: – The balance is whatever works for the occasion.

I prefer to speak of the balance between intellect and emotion. My thinking is that intellect and emotion are part of what makes up the “Soul.” As a younger man I always thought that my intellectual self was far ahead of my emotional self and at other times the opposite. In my late forties I became conscious of the coming together of my emotional and my intellectual selves. I was more accepting and understanding of my feelings, partly because of thirteen years of psychotherapy, and partly because of the lowering of my testosterone level because of my aging. This was also a time when had a number of commissions to compose for dramatic performances, plays and narrative pieces with lyrics that needed to be set, or dialogue which needed underscoring. These were situations that demanded balance. Text, more often than not in these works, will have a specific meaning. As composer, my usual job was to accompany the text, not over shadow it or change the feeling of a scene dictated by the text ore by the director.

JBN.S: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?

CM: – My musical performance thinking has always been focused on serving the audience, relating to them where they are and taking them beyond themselves.

JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

CM: – 1966, Washington, DC – Miles Davis Quintet at the Bohemian Caverns – At the end of the first set, Miles walked off the stage toward the bar in the back of the club. As he was passing by he placed his horn, bell down, onto my table. During the entire break I looked at the horn then I looked at Miles, looked at the horn, looked at Miles. At the end of break he came over, picked up the horn and with that whispery voice said, “Thank you, Man.” This to me was him saying that I was one of the “Cats.”

Summer of 1967, Washington, DC – Met and hung out with Duke Ellington after playing flute in an duo playing music for a morning TV show where Duke was a guest. I heard Coleman Hawkins play in front of Duke’s band at a performance of Jazz at the Philharmonic, the night before. We talked about that performance. He spoke to me like I was one of the “Cats.”

1972, Boston, MA – The Jazz Workshop – It was Sunday afternoon. Charlie Mingus was the act for that week.

He gave over the bandstand to Apogee, a young band of David S. Ware on tenor, Marc Edwards on drums, Chris Amberger on bass, and me on piano. Here was another acknowledgement.

1973, New York City, NY – Apogee opened for Sonny Rollins at the Village Vangaurd.

Autumn of 1975, New York City, NY – Got a call from Sonny Rollins to come to a studio for a rehearsal with him on tenor, David S. Ware on tenor and me on piano.

Summer of 2010, New York City, NY – Spent the summer playing my Horizontal Hoe-Handle Harp out doors in Central Park, next to the lake near the Boat House. Early one Sunday morning an MTA Subway operator sat next to me as I played. He began to weep. I stopped and ask him what was wrong. He told me how after his shift he was walking in the Park behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  He looked up and there in a tree was a man a man hanging from a tree. It was a suicide.  He heard the sound of my harp, followed it, sat down and cried.

Summer of 2017, New York City, NY – Lifetime Achievement Award presented to me from Arts for Art at the Vision Festival XXII.

JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

CM: – It’s a joy to look out at an audience and see young people. Young people have no duty to listen to anybody play “jazz,” but energy and enthusiasm will grab their attention, energy, enthusiasm and emotional truth. If the music has emotional relevance and fulfills a need young people will be interested in it.

Jazz, Jazz, Jazz,

Ain’t nothing but a word.

And Jazz ain’t got no momma.

Jazz use to have a momma,

But Jazz ain’t got no momma no more.

Jazz ain’t nothing but a Whore,

A Prostitute,

A Slave to the Master.

“Ya Suh Massa, I’s Jazz.”

Jazz use to have a momma.

Momma was the Blues,

Momma was a Holler,

Momma was Ragtime, Swing,

Bebop and New Thing.

But Jazz ain’t got no moma no more.

“Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”

Sometimes I feel like


JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

CM: – I don’t understand any of it. I just try to be a decent human being and treat others right.

JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

CM: – Music is Beauty. Music is Life. Why would I want to change any of that, other than to have more Beauty, more Life.

JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

CM: – Hank Jones and Ahmad Jamal – for their sense of touch and use of the pedal. James Brown – for the fire in his groove.

JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?

CM: – We are all of us taking a trip in a time machine. I am where I want to be, in the place, New York City that I dreamed to be in, doing what I dreamed of doing. The emotional high and intellectual satisfaction is better than what I dreamed.  My life as a musician is beyond what I expected, and is a good thing.

JBN.S: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…

CM: – When are you coming to New York? What do you eat? If ever here, would you come to dinner and hang with my family, friends and me? I do the cooking. It is as important to me as is music.

JBN.S: – Thanks very much for answers and for question. Pastrami or Marshmallow with tea 🙂

JBN.S: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?

CM: – Some of this life stuff is “the luck of the draw.” I am thankful, I am grateful for having lived this long, a major ingredient in doing the work and staying on the Path.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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