In 1940, Paul Benjamin Cohen first joined Local 802. He had arrived. Now, more than seven decades later, Paul is still swinging. He recently celebrated his 91st birthday at a senior center in Margate, Florida, where he leads a weekly rehearsal of his big band. As he entered the room on Oct. 3, his musicians – many of them retired Local 802 members – were already seated. They struck up a rambunctious version of “Happy Birthday to You” and played at the top of their chops to make this a memorable moment for Paul. It was a hilarious and happy musical tribute to the maestro.
In addition to celebrating Paul’s birthday, the band was rehearsing that day in anticipation of a gig at the Ft. Lauderdale International Film Festival, where they were to perform in conjunction with a screening of a new documentary about Paul’s career.
Paul’s musical career got off to an early start at the tender age of eight, when his father handed him a cornet and insisted that Paul learn to play. He learned fast and never looked back. Playing the trumpet was his ticket out of Brooklyn. While still in his teens, he joined the Fenton Brothers band. Later, he earned a chair in Charlie Barnet’s group.
Paul was close friends with Louis Armstrong’s business manager. That is how he got to speak with the greatest trumpet legend of them all, when they met behind the stage at the Roxy Theatre in NYC, where Armstrong was playing. How can any trumpet player ever top that experience?
Always an admirer of Count Basie and his music, Paul recalled visiting the Lincoln Hotel in New York nightly, when Basie played a three-month engagement there. At that time, Paul was playing with the CBS Orchestra in NYC. It worked out that he could taxi downtown and have his dinner while listening to Basie, in between his own live radio broadcasts with the CBS Orchestra (once at 7:15 p.m. for the East Coast, and again at 11 p.m. for the West). That’s when Paul first became acquainted with Count Basie.
Paul joined the Basie band in 1970 and played lead trumpet for five years. He counts those years as the high point of his long and varied musical career. “After working in the Basie band, all other musical experiences are something less,” Paul told me.
Paul did it all. He played on Broadway. He did TV and radio, performing on the Arthur Godfrey show and the Steve Allen show. (He recalls giving Steve, who was a very talented musician, some fingering instruction on the trumpet so they could perform a number where Paul played harmony to Steve’s melody. Wouldn’t you love to see a film of that performance?)
Paul played with so many greats, it’s impossible to list them all. A short list of notables includes Benny Goodman, the Dorsey brothers, Quincy Jones, Frank Sinatra, Artie Shaw, Raymond Scott, Russ Morgan and Paul Anka. He also played club dates with Meyer Davis, Lester Lanin and many others.
Paul once played a two-week stint with Earl “Fatha” Hines at the Apollo Theatre. And he would have toured with the band except for segregation. Black and white musicians wouldn’t have been permitted to appear together at public venues or stay in the same hotels. So that was that.
Paul also played with Dizzy Gillespie, who was in such awe of Paul’s ability to read music that he was quoted as saying, “Pauly can read music around the corner.” That’s pretty high praise, coming from Diz!
Paul was especially enamored with Latin music. He played with Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, Noro Morales, Pupi Campo, Xavier Cugat, and even the world-famous Latin jazz innovator Machito.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Paul’s dear wife Paula, whom he met at a house party given by Charlie Barnet. Paul and Paula were happily married for 53 years, before her passing in 2009.
And now we come to the present, and the new documentary about Paul’s life. Promptly at 4 p.m. on Oct. 26, Paul and his 17-piece big band launched into a 30-minute concert that brought the house down on the 300 fortunate folks seated in the sold-out hall. It was the big band era brought to life again, and a momentous musical experience that will long be remembered by all who attended.
Following the concert, Paul was presented with a special citation from the mayor of Sunrise, Florida as well as a lifetime achievement award from the film festival. Then, a huge screen descended, and the audience viewed videotaped greetings from Scotty Barnhart, the current leader of the Count Basie Band, as well as from Paul’s old pal, none other than the dean of music himself, Quincy Jones.
The audience was next treated to the 44-minute documentary by producer Bret Primack. The film, “Taking Charge: the Pauly Cohen Story,” features big slices of Paul’s recollections and lessons learned from 75 years of performing music across a broad spectrum of the music biz.
The film concludes with Paul standing in front of the Basie Band in the early 1970s, performing his featured solo on “I Can’t Get Started.” To end the number, he nails a high G and holds it seemingly forever. Count Basie is at the piano; he nods and smiles his approval.
The evening ended with Paul taking questions from the audience. He was warm, witty and charming. The love between the audience and the man on the stage was palpable
Scarcely remembered today is the nickname given to Paul by his fellow musicians in the years when he worked up and down the Great White Way. Befitting his style, he was known simply as “Broadway.” When he took the stage at the Sunrise Theatre, having just recently celebrated his 91st birthday, “Broadway” Pauly Cohen proved once again beyond any doubt that he was still willing and quite capable of taking charge.
Mort Kuff is an artist, journalist and photographer who lives in Florida. His previous articles about Paul Cohen have been published in Allegro.