Still Gilly After All These Years

Still Gilly After All These Years

by James Bradley
copyright © 2002 James Bradley

Illustration by Joseph Mariano ©

Jazz musicians normally apply their trade during the nocturnal hours, so it's a bit incongruous to see bebop pianist Gil Coggins playing at the genteel hour of five o'clock in the afternoon. Not that Gilly, as his friends call him, seems to mind. "I get to go home early and get some sleep," he chuckles. "Or I go to another another gig. This is really just a practice gig." The crowd at the C-Note, a cozy East Village club where Coggins plays every Saturday, certainly doesn't mind either. The small but enthusiastic group quietly watches Coggins perform with the kind of hushed reverence usually reserved for a chess match.

Gil Coggins, 75, is still best known to most jazz buffs for two recordings he made with Miles Davis nearly half a century ago, so it's tempting to see him as a journeyman musician in the twilight of his career. But his is no mere nostalgia act; Coggins recently put the finishing touches on a new album (his first since a little-known 1990 Japanese import). The CD, to be released by the Smalls Records label sometime in the spring, will be called, appropriately enough, Better Late Than Never.

One would think that releasing what could be considered his debut CD after 50 years of playing with the likes of Davis, John Coltrane, Jackie McLean and Sonny Rollins would be a cause for celebration, but Coggins is rather subdued about his newfound success. "I never get excited. I'm too old to get excited," he says with a laugh. "Once I was touring Japan" -- where Coggins has quite a loyal following, incidentally -- "and a friend said to me, 'Aren't you excited? You're touring Japan!' To me, it was no big deal. That's just the way I am."

Such flippancy is not reflected in his playing. When a piano is in front of him, Coggins is all business. There's no banter with the audience, no hamming it up in front of the crowd, no cute gestures with other musicians. Head down, eyes fixed on the keys of his Roland electric piano, Coggins seemlessly sails through a number of timeless standards, from "In Your Own Sweet Way" to "Isn't It Romantic" to "I'm Old-Fashioned." On the first set on a chilly April day Collins plays only with his longtime bassist Mike Fitzbenjamin, and the two have some wonderful exchanges. Coggins has a light, airy touch reminiscent of Erroll Garner (and a bit of Bud Powell, too), punctuating his riffs with Monk-like whole-tone licks. Not surprigingly, he cites all of those players as his main influences. "If they're good, they've influenced me," he says. "Erroll Garner, Earl Hines, Art Tatum, Count Basie. I've been listening to these guys all my life." He's a little sour on the current crop of jazz pianists, however. "They all sound the same to me," he says with a shrug.

Gil Coggins' association with Miles Davis dates back to 1943, when Coggins was stationed in East St. Louis during his stint in the service. Coggins was jamming in a cocktail lounge in a bowling alley, and his playing caught Miles' attention. They remained friends, hooking up in New York in the late '40s, when Coggins was part of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and Miles was beginning to embark on his volcanic solo career. Coggins was toiling on the New York circuit with Jackie McLean and Sonny Rollins in the early 1950s when Davis asked him to record with his band. The two Blue Note recordings Coggins subsequently made with the famed trumpeter -- Miles Davis: Volume 1 and Volume 2 -- feature all-star lineups: J.J. Johnson, Jimmy and Percy Heath, Horace Silver, Oscar Pettiford, Kenny Clarke and Art Blakey. Coggins' intro on "Yesterdays" is pure rapture, perhaps his finest moment on record. (Indeed, Davis had some nice words for Coggins in his 1988 autobiography). Coggins later recorded with McLean on two 1957 Prestige albums, Makin' the Changes (playing alongside Curtis Fuller, Paul Chambers and Art Taylor) and Fat Jazz. He also worked with Rollins on Sonny Rollins Plays (a deleted LP now available in Rollins's new boxed set, The Freelance Years) and John Coltrane in a date with tuba player Ray Draper.

It's those recordings, as well as countless gigs with many esteemed musicians, that have given Coggins such a sterling reputation in jazz circles. But Coggins is clearly not comfortable with adulation of any kind. He doesn't mind taking a back seat, as his weekly C-Note appearance shows. For his second set, Coggins, as his custom, lets members of the audience join in. Sometimes he gives the stage to them, sometimes he sits in and jams with them. On this night, Coggins let a young man from France, who didn't seem old enough to shave yet, play with a few other audience members for lively renditions of "Have You Met Miss Jones?" and "Sophisticated Lady." Coggins sat back and smiled as they jammed, like a professor admiring his students. So does Gilly allow just anyone to join in? "No, no, no," he replies, breaking into one of his infectious grins. "I have to talk to them first, get an idea what they're about. The way they talk, the way they act, I'll know right away. If somebody comes in with an attitude, I'll say no." Always the improviser.

James Bradley writes about politics, among other matters, for the Village Voice, among other publications.

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