Biography
If a copy of every album this trombonist had appeared on was packed into boxes, the result would look something like the huge jazz record collections that are often offered to buyers. One box alone would be recordings with Count Basie and another might be full of high quality jazz recordings by the likes of Tony Bennett or Sarah Vaughan. While the fan of modern jazz might not find all that much to be excited about in this collection, it would also be important to note that Henry Coker played a part in early, groundbreaking sessions by giants such as Charles Mingus in the late '40s and Sonny Rollins in the following decade. Somehow, he also found time to blow with some RB groups such as Johnny Otis and Eddie Cleanhead Vinson. Coker did not start out on trombone. His first instrument was the harp, which he studied as a school boy but abandoned because it was considered "sissy stuff" and led to several fights. Coker's first professional engagement was in 1935 with the band of John White. Over the next two years, he built up enough of a reputation to be hired by Nat Towles, a Midwest territory band that was leaving many of its competitors crying into their music stands. After leaving Towles, the trombonist headed for a complete change of scenery from that band's Omaha base, working in the Hawaiian Islands, but rushing home with his trombone between his legs following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He spent the mid-'40s based out of the West Coast, mixing anonymous studio work with jobs in bands led by Benny Carter, Eddie Heywood, and Illinois Jacquet. This was also the period when he played with Mingus, an event documented on the album West Coasting. He hooked up with Count Basie's band in 1952, a gig that would last a decade, plenty of time to play hundreds of demanding and tonally rich solos. Indeed, his work with Basie forever endeared him to many jazz fans, most of all his fellow trombonists. Coker was hardly a scene stealer, though, sharing solo space with Al Grey and getting into the habit of pawning off the lead trombone parts on newcomer Grover Mitchell, partly as a prank but also to show what a great sound the younger player had. Trombonist and bandleader Tommy Dorsey was so impressed with Coker's sound that Dorsey gave him his horn for keeps after sitting in one night. The road got to Coker though, despite perks such as this. He decided to concentrate on studio work beginning in the early '60s. This time he tried New York, staying pretty much put on the East Coast until 1966, when he joined Ray Charles, with whom he gigged regularly until 1971. Until his death in the middle of that decade, Coker was mostly involved in film and television work back in Los Angeles. He did, however, put in quickie return engagements with both Basie and Charles. Drummer, vocalist, and bandleader Osie Johnson immortalized the trombonist with the solo feature tune Cokernut Tree, available on the album Osie's Oasis, originally released in 1955 on Fantasy and reissued in 1999 on Period. Fans of trombone playing can be on the lookout for the rare J.J. Johnson session, Trombones Incorporated, which features a total of ten players of the long horn, including Coker. ~ Eugene Chadbourne, Rovi



 
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