Cobi Narita has been the beacon of jazz for over four decades in New York City, with a reputation that precedes her throughout the world. Her perseverance and personal commitment to the jazz community and its many musicians continues to be joyful and tireless effort.
Narita's 76th birthday celebration at the East Side jazz sanctuary St. Peter's Church was a big jazz explosion. Some of the many musicians who performed in her honor were bassist Earl May, saxophonists Billy Harper, Carol Sudhalter and Charles Davis, pianist Bertha Hope, bassist Walter Brooker Jr., drummer Lyle Atkinson, Australian pianist Barney McCall, trombonist Benny Powell and a surprise dazzling performance by tap dancer Savion Glover. Bertha Hope commented, follower her performance, "Cobi has nurtured us for so long, spreading the gospel of jazz. I'm privileged to be a part of her great birthday celebration."
Five of Narita's seven children also flew in for the bash (her daughter Jude is a noted actress and most recently received rave reviews in California for her solo performance "Walk The Mountain"). Other good friends included saxophonist Lou Donaldson, Sandy Jackson, Jim Harrison and George Wein, CEO of Festival Productions Inc., who noted, "Cobi Narita is jazz." Jack Kleinsinger, producer of "Highlights in Jazz," stated, "I can't believe Cobi is 76; she has more energy than all of us."
The celebration's host Pastor Dale R. Lind of St. Peter's Church Jazz Ministry noted, "My world would be a lot smaller without Cobi, she has done so much for the people in jazz. She produces programs and has done a lot behind the scenes that many people don't know about and it's not about the money, she does it from the heart."
When Narita isn't busy assisting musicians in obtaining gigs or coordinating fundraisers for ailing musicians and those in need, she can be found at some hospital or nursing home visiting ailing musicians usually bringing a troupe of entertainers and friends along. Which she did recently along with some others who ushered in the New Year with legendary vocalist Dakota Staton, who is now blind and residing at the Isabella Nursing Home. Dr. Billy Taylor noted, "Cobi Narita is a wonderful woman who does unique things in jazz."
In the late 1970s Narita founded Women in Jazz in an effort to expose their talent to the public at large. Saxophonist Carol Sudhalter stated, "What Cobi did was a tremendous pioneering thing: she gave women exposure that they may have never otherwise received." She also found the Universal Jazz Coalition/Jazz Center of New York; now in its 26th year, the organization continues to be a clearinghouse for jazz, offering jazz workshops and seminars as well as black history lectures and films presented by cultural historian Delilah Jackson (founder of the Black Pattie Research Foundation).
All events emanate from Cobi's Place in Manhattan at 158 West 48th Street, fourth floor. The spring concert series "Little Gems" at Cobi's began March 23 and runs through June 29, with a different group every Saturday night plus every Friday in June. Ticket prices are very reasonable ranging from $8 to $15. Under the banner of UJC, Narita produces a monthly newsletter "Cobi's Music News" which currently has 25,000 subscribers )and still climbing). Last year the Jazz Foundation of America acknowledged Narita's perseverance in the world of jazz when it presented her with The Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of her 30-plus years of dedicated service to jazz musicians and the music.
In 194, when she was 15, U.S. Military Police abruptly took Japanese- American Narita from her high school classroom in California to the Gila River Detention Camp in Arizona. There she and her siblings (two brothers and two sisters) and parents were detained until the end of World War II, living in a room 20x20. She says it must have been her cultural admonition background never to complain that gave her a positive spirit and strong ambition in spite of her adverse circumstances. Even under these conditions at such a young age Narita started a detention camp newsletter. She used it to let detainees know what was happening throughout the camp, including pregnancies, marriages and always-positive messages.
Following the Narita family's release from detention, Cobi completed high school and received a scholarship to Gettysburg College (in Pennsylvania) where she majored in theater. While in college she married and had children, eventually dropping out of college to work; her marriage ultimately ended in divorce. In the late '60s she moved to New York and one day while walking through Central Park met some jazz musicians who directed her to St. Peter's Lutheran Church where she later volunteered her services working with jazz musicians. In 1977 Narita tried her hand as the owner of Club Casablanca (formerly Birdland), where she produced many concerts including her annual festival series Women in Jazz.
Over the years Narita has been a constant star in the jazz community. As bassist Earl May noted, "Cobi is the glue for the jazz family. She holds us all together and she's a guiding light for young musicians." She will be a panelist in April 2002 at The Swedish Jazz Celebration in Stockholm. Regardless of her hectic schedule in jazz, as a mom and grandmother twice over, Narita still has plenty of time for her husband Paul Ash who she married 12 years ago after a 17-year engagement. She noted, "Paul is my silver lining." The legendary Duke Ellington was known to greet his close friends with a kiss on each cheek but he always gave Narita three kisses. Now that's a special lady.
Ron Scott writes about jazz for the Amsterdam News.
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