At 4 p.m. Saturday a diminutive gray-haired gentleman in a tuxedo will stroll up to a microphone and introduce himself to more than 300 people seated in a packed Sunrise Civic Center Theater. A few words of gratitude will end with a simple declaration: "I'm Pauly Cohen. I'm lucky to be here. Let's play some music!"
The Tamarac resident will be intentionally concise with the words that lead his 18-man big band into a jumping opening number called "Happy Go Lucky." "I want to keep it brief, so we can get to what the people came for, the music," the trumpeter and bandleader said a couple of days before the event.
But there's another reason: If he were to begin to tell stories about his life, performing and socializing with some of the 20th century's most glamorous and talented jazz and pop culture icons — Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Jackie Gleason, Quincy Jones, Judy Garland — he wouldn't know where to stop.
If he were to tell those stories, Pauly Cohen, now 91, could go on forever.
The primary purpose of Saturday's gathering is a 4:30 p.m. Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival screening of a documentary called "Taking Charge: The Pauly Cohen Story." The movie, by Arizona filmmaker Bret Primack, was shot last October around Cohen's 90th birthday, and includes scenes at venerable Fort Lauderdale jazz space Blue Jean Blues, at Soyka in Miami, during a master class at Florida International University, at his weekly rehearsal at the Northwest Focal Point Senior Center in Margate and reminiscing at his Tamarac condo.
"You can't have enough film in your camera for me to tell you all the stories of my life," Cohen warns Primack in the opening scene. The documentary, filmed in about four days and funded in part with a $6,000 Kickstarter campaign, does its best to keep up over the course of its 43 minutes, but it's clear that Cohen — who has a remarkable ability to recall names, dates, drinks, hotels and horses he bet on — has plenty more to say.
Michael Ragan, a Miami attorney, trumpeter and one of the producers of "Taking Charge," has been organizing tickets for Saturday's event and expects a sell-out crowd that will include music media figures, recording industry veterans and local jazz performers. The Soyka filming included a jam session with Cohen joined by the likes of Ira Sullivan, Duffy Jackson, Joe Donato, Mike Gerber, Mike Orta and Don Wilner.
Ragan is relieved that "Taking Charge" was able to document even a portion of Cohen's memories in a permanent way.
"We're very lucky. He's one of the last guys left from that great era of jazz and big band music. They're almost all gone now," Ragan said.
Basie and Billie
Cohen was just out of Lincoln High School in Brooklyn in the early 1940s when he moved to the musician-friendly Forest Hotel in midtown Manhattan and earned a spot playing lead trumpet with Earl Hines' band, which included sax legend Charlie Parker and vocalist Sarah Vaughn. He was still a "dumb kid" when he began taking trips up to Harlem to see performers such as Ella Fitzgerald in the bars at the Theresa and the Braddock hotels.
By reputation Harlem wasn't a safe place for a white guy to be walking around in the wee hours, he said. "But I was naive. I didn't believe any of that. Everybody was so nice to me," Cohen said. "I always had a feeling for black people from my early experiences in New York."
Classically trained, Cohen had an impeccable timing desired by taskmasters such as Tommy Dorsey and an intuitive understanding of the way black arrangers wanted a song to swing. This unique versatility was on display during a five-year stretch (his longest with any one band) as the lead trumpet player for Count Basie, when he was typically the lone white band member. "He loved me, and the people loved it, white guy playing in front of a black band," Cohen said.
Billie Holiday was an acquaintance, and Cohen recalls watching her walk onstage at the Three Deuces on 52nd Street in the '60s: "She wouldn't move a muscle until the audience kept quiet. No clinking of glasses. You could hear a pin drop. She waited for the pin to drop. Then she started with 'Strange Fruit,' and the place went [gasp] … She could command you."
Cohen also has vivid memories of first seeing boss Artie Shaw's girlfriend, Ava Gardner ("She was so beautiful… She was a woman who could make a man feel more like a man. That's a talent. And she had it like nobody had it"); late-night basement chats with Sinatra during their eight-week run in the mid-'60s at the Fontainebleau on Miami Beach ("I respected him tremendously. Always giving the credit to the musicians and arrangers. That was my kind of man"); and jumping out from the orchestra for an impromptu jitterbug with Judy Garland at the old Diplomat Hotel in Hollywood in 1966 ("Every tune she did had a special meaning to her, that she wanted to give to the people. They did a lot of bad things to her out in Hollywood [Calif.] … I felt sorry for her. She was a great person").
He's still got it
Every Thursday afternoon at 1:30 sharp, the Pauly Cohen Big Band rehearses in the recreation room at the Northwest Focal Point Senior Center, its dancing-prohibited floor marked with wheelchair-only areas. But during tourist season, these free two-hour gigs, which have been going on for nearly two decades, are a hot ticket not only for senior-center residents but jazz fans from miles away.
How hot? Three years ago the fire marshal pulled the plug on a Pauly Cohen Big Band rehearsal because the crowd exceeded the 120-person limit.
Marcia Saslow, of Sunrise, had that in mind when she and a friend attended this week's rehearsal.
"I was told that in-season we won't be able to get a seat," Saslow said with a bit of astonishment. A retired bookkeeper who moved to South Florida from Long Beach, N.Y., 20 years ago, Saslow said the rehearsal took her back to the '50s, when she and a girlfriend would prowl lower Manhattan jazz clubs like the Village Vanguard.