Hal McKusick met tenor saxophonist Al Cohn for the first time in 1944. They were both in the reed section of Boyd Raeburn’s band, which featured jazz musicians and arrangers who were years ahead of their time. Dizzy Gillespie, Bennie Harris and Oscar Pettiford were there. So was Johnny Mandel, George Handy and Johnny Richards. Everyone in the band went on to have amazing jazz careers, including Hal and Al.
Hal left Raeburn in 1944 (but rejoined the band for a period in 1945). Cohn left a short time after Hal and he went on to play a range of top bands. Hal and Al [pictured] would cross paths often during the 1940s, working steadily together again in Elliot Lawrence's band in the early 1950s as well as with the CBS Studio Orchestra in the 1960s and beyond.
Cohn is known for his swinging, smooth sound on the tenor. Heavily influenced by Lester Young, Cohn played with virtually everyone in jazz in the 1940s and was widely regarded as one of the best tenor sax session readers. He not only could solo effortlessly but also could churn out arrangements that were a delight to the ear and a joy to play from a musician's standpoint.
After leaving Raeburn, Cohn played in the bands of Alvino Rey and Buddy, Rich. He then was a member of the Woody Herman "Four Brothers" band, where he wrote spectacular charts including The Goof and I. He then joined Artie Shaw's powerful bebop band for a short period in 1949 before a serious eye problem took him out of action for a few years.
Cohn returned to the jazz scene in 1952, to Elliot Lawrence's band, and freelanced extensively as an arranger. He also recorded regularly with tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims throughout the 1950s. Cohn continued to play and arrange until his death in 1988.
“Al was quiet, funny, serious and funny. Like the rest of us who were trying to play pretty, Al was a devoted Lester Young fan. In fact, he got Prez before anyone did, even before Stan Getz and Zoot Sims.
Al always had a joke. If he wasn’t trying to tell a funny story on the bandstand, he was pulling gags. One time he made me believe he had drooled all over a mouthpiece I had loaned him. You have to understand, sax players don't like sharing mouthpieces. But he asked so I let him have it. The next thing I know, he has drool coming down his chin. I flipped. But Al hadn’t really done that to my mouthpiece. He just lit me up, which is what made it funny.
Al and I worked in Elliot Lawrence’s band in the early 1950s. Al was the most unbelievable arranger. He could write anything and it would swing. He was tireless. He would play all day and write all night. I used to copy for Al. Working with him taught me so much about arranging and copying, which helped when I was copying for Johnny Mandel and Gil Evans.
We’d go all night at Al's apartment in Brooklyn. You can’t believe what a thrill it was to write an arrangement, copy the band parts from the score, bring them into rehearsal the next day and hear great musicians play it perfectly on virtually the first run-through. That's what kept you motivated—knowing what you were hearing in your head would be heard by many soon after you finished writing it up.
When Al had eye surgery, I visited him in the hospital. His eye problem was probably the result of strain, junk, drinking and stress from road. I remember seeing him right after the anesthesia wore off. I brought him a Groucho Marx book. I was going to read it to him because he loved Groucho and all those one-liners. But when I came into the room, Al’s sitting in bed making a list.
I said, 'Al, what are you doing?' He said that with one of his eyes out of commission, he had to change the titles of a lot of songs. I said, 'What are you talking about?' He read off his list: I Only Have Eye for You, Them There Eye and about a dozen other songs with the word 'eye' instead of 'eyes.' That was Al."
Tomorrow, Part 4 will focus on Hal's hugely productive recording period between 1955 and 1958, his favorite recordings from the period and the chance meeting in a Greenwich Village shop that put George Russell back on the jazz scene.
JazzWax tracks: My four favorite Al Cohn albums include The Al Cohn Quintet (go here) Al Cohn/Zoot Sims Sextet: From A to Z (go here), Gerry Mulligan: Songbook (go here) and The Brothers (go here).
JazzWax clips: For a glimpse of Al Cohn in Woody Herman's 1948 band, go here. He's in the sax section and the first to stand up and solo a few notes. That's Stan Getz and Shorty Rogers down front, and Zoot Sims and Serge Chaloff in the reed pen.