Jazz greats celebrate drum virtuoso Jerome Cooper

Graham Haynes, from the OGJB Quartet, performed at Jerome Cooper’s memorial.    Photos by Cody Brooks

Graham Haynes, from the OGJB Quartet, performed at Jerome Cooper’s memorial. Photos by Cody Brooks

BY CODY BROOKS  |  Luminaries of avant-garde jazz gathered on Tuesday evening to remember Jerome Cooper, the pioneering multi-percussionist free jazz player, who died on May 6 at age 68. The cause of death was complications from multiple myeloma.

Cooper was raised in Chicago. After moving to New York, he lived in the same East Village squat on E. 13th St. and Avenue B where actress Rosario Dawson grew up. He did solo projects and collaborated with free jazz greats, including pianist Cecil Taylor and forming, with violinist Leroy Jenkins and bassist Sirone, the widely influential free jazz group The Revolutionary Ensemble.

The memorial was held in Brooklyn at Roulette Intermedium, at Atlantic and Third Aves., with close friends of Cooper playing threnodies onstage to a packed theater. Free jazz bigwigs, including drummer Barry Altschul, baritone Thomas Buckner and bassist Joe Fonda, both performed and voiced their thoughts on Cooper’s life and works.

“My friendship with Jerome was quiet and deep,” Kunle Mwanga, a clarinetist and close friend of Cooper, told the crowd of about 90 people. “We didn’t have to say much to each other; we felt it a lot.”

Others expressed similar sentiments. Buckner said he was “grateful” to have worked with Cooper and called him a visionary. Both Buckner and drummer Thurman Barker pointed out that Cooper loved to practice.

Joe Fonda, the OGJB Quartet’s stand-up bass player, laid down the groove.

Joe Fonda, the OGJB Quartet’s stand-up bass player, laid down the groove.

“Jerome was, and still is, a big inspiration,” Barker said. He noted that Cooper had mastered traditional drumming styles early in his career, which encouraged a move toward more experimental playing. Barker explained that Cooper had envisioned drums as the main focus of musical compositions. As a result, he mastered other percussion instruments, including the balafon, a wooden xylophone with deep tones, and the chirimia, a Latin American-style oboe. Cooper used those instruments, along with traditional ones, such as the piano and clarinet, to record solo albums that he said displayed “layers of sounds and rhythms.”

Cooper’s rise to cult stardom happened when he played with The Revolutionary Ensemble throughout the ’70s in New York City’s experimental jazz scene. The group’s legacy lived on long after they went on hiatus in 1977. In 1978 Cooper moved on to solo albums and collaborations until the trio reunited in 2004.

Baritone Thomas Buckner started singing unannounced from the crowd and sung into a corner for a while, before finally walking to the stage, where he went to the floor. The singing was more like interpretive noises. It was definitely appropriate for a memorial to experimental drummer Jerome Cooper.

Baritone Thomas Buckner started singing unannounced from the crowd and sang into a corner for a while, before finally walking to the stage, where he went to the floor. The singing was more like interpretive noises. It was definitely appropriate for a memorial to experimental drummer Jerome Cooper.

The Revolutionary Ensemble’s return featured pieces like “911-544,” written by Cooper about when he stood on the roof of his East Village squat and watched the World Trade Center towers collapse. The reunited group played concerts until 2005. Jenkins and Sirone died in 2007 and 2009, respectively.

Cooper had an activist and philosophical mindset, like many who rose to prominence within the jazz scene of the ’70s. He was connected with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a nonprofit group in Chicago that heavily promoted the free jazz scene in the late ’60s and ’70s. The association taught music to inner-city youth, running workshops and encouraging the use of traditional instruments and musical styles from Africa.

A photo portrait of Jerome Cooper.

A photo portrait of Jerome Cooper.

According to Annie Wilson, a neighbor, Cooper moved into 544 E. 13th St. in 1999. In 2013, he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma and subsequently decided to relocate to Brooklyn. In recent years, the former squat had sunk into problems. It remains sorely in need of repairs, as mandated by the city’s sale of the building to the squatters in 2002. The building’s gas was cut off in September 2012, and Cooper’s top-floor unit also suffered leaks when it rained, all making it a poor place for someone in his condition.

“The gas was shut off, meaning no more hot water and gas heat,” Wilson said. “The roof leaking could become a downpour in Jerome’s apartment depending on wind and other factors. Good reasons to find a better place to stay for the duration of the illness. Jerome did maintain his apartment during this time, and it now belongs to his estate.”

Jerome Cooper is survived by his wife, Beth Cummins, his two brothers, Marc and Dennis, and his sister, Joan.

With reporting
by Lincoln Anderson

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