Dolo Coker was an insider's jazz pianist. He'd pop up on albums here and there and was better known by his peers. Coker spent much of his career playing and recording as a sideman and didn't record his first leadership date until 1976, when he was 50. One of his most interesting leadership albums was California Hard (Xanadu), featuring Blue Mitchell on trumpet and flugelhorn and Art Pepper on alto and tenor saxophones. The album recently was digitally remastered from tapes by reissue producer Zev Feldman in cooperation with Don Schlitten of Xanadu.
The album is unique in that it's performing three services at once. On California Hard, we hear Blue Mitchell on flugelhorn (Gone With the Wind and Tale of Two Cities), which is a joy. We also hear Pepper on tenor sax (Jumping Jacks and Roots 4FB), an instrument he rarely played when recording. And we hear Coker, not as a sideman but with ample solo time, providing a sense of how good he was. The rest of the rhythm section features Leroy Vinnegar on bass and Frank Butler on drums.
Born in Hartford, Ct., Coker was raised in South Carolina and studied in Philadelphia, working there as a jazz pianist from 1944 to 1954. In the 1950s, he worked with Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons, Lou Donaldson and Philly Joe Jones. While on tour with Jones in 1959 at San Francisco's Jazz Workshop, Coker traveled to Los Angeles and relocated there. He began playing with Dexter Gordon at the Zebra Lounge, and for a year and a half in 1959 and '60 they worked seven days a week at the club, with a jam session on Sunday mornings.
Gordon and Coker were in the West Coast version of The Connection, the 1960 stage drama about jazz and narcotics. (Freddie Redd composed the music for the East Coast version.) Coker worked in the trio format at L.A.'s Memory Lane and the Casbah. At the latter club, Coker met Harry "Sweets" Edison (above), who played with the group as a feature attraction.
For whatever reason, Coker was more comfortable in clubs than in recording studios. He recorded for the first time with Stitt in 1956 but didn't record Showcase with Philly Joe Jones until 1959. There also was a big recording gap between 1962 and '69. When Muse producer Don Schlitten (above) found Coker in 1974, he began recording him regularly as a sideman. Then on Dec. 27, 1976, he began recording Coker as a leader. The first album was Dolo!, for Schlitten's Xanadu label. It featured Blue Mitchell (tp, flhrn), Harold Land (ts), Dolo Coker (p) Leroy Vinnegar (b) and Frank Butler (d).
The next day, Schlitten recorded Coker on California Hard, with Art Pepper (above) subbing for Land. The album features Coker on a range of songs, from his hard bop original Jumping Jacks to a Red Garland-influenced Gone Again, written by Lionel Hampton and Wini Brown. Two tracks give us a chance to hear Coker up close—Gone Again, in a trio setting, and unaccompanied on 'Round Midnight. Clearly, Coker was a confident, gentle player who could play tough and pretty. Fortunately we have this and a handful of other Coker leadership albums.
Dolo Coker died in 1983.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find the reissue of Dolo Coker's California Hard here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Blue Mitchell, Art Pepper, Dolo Coker, Leroy Vinnegar and Frank Butler playing Gone with the Wind from California Hard...
And here's Tale of Two Cities...