ST. PETERSBURG — George “Buster” Cooper, a jazz icon whose career spanned over 60 remarkable years, recently passed away at the age of 87. Though he had performed all over the world, he became a staple at the Garden restaurant in downtown St. Pete toward the end of his career, where the St. Pete native was right at home, filling the night sky with those ever-so-fluid notes from his trusty trombone.
A tribute for the legendary trombonist was held in the Legacy Garden of the Carter G. Woodson African American Museum last Saturday. Hosted by Bob Devin Jones, co-founder of Studio@620, the evening was filled with loving words and soul stirring jazz.
“If you knew him you shared a laugh with him,” said Jones. “If you were fortunate to tell him, ‘It’s good to see you, Buster,’ he would say, ‘It’s good to be seen!’”
“Buster was a musician,” noted famed jazz photographer Herb Snitzer, “but he was more. He was in my view an artist…he would smile, pickup his trombone and blow the most beautiful solo.”
Bette Gregg of the Al Downing Tampa Bay Jazz Association pointed out that when Cooper returned to St. Pete in 1994 after spending several years in California, he immediately made an impact on the local jazz scene. At the Garden on Central Avenue where Cooper played for 16 years, he was always welcoming youngsters who were becoming seasoned musicians.
“Jamming with Buster was a real treat for them,” Gregg said.
Nate Najar, a local guitarist, was one of those young musicians.
“I was a kid and I showed up at the Garden to play one night like everybody else did!” said Najar, who knew Cooper for about 20 years.
When young jazz musician Dwayne White moved to Tampa in 1996, he was looking to find out “where the music was happening.”
“Everybody told me the same thing,” he recalled. “‘You’ve got to go down to the Garden on the weekends!’”
The young trumpet player took this advice and met Cooper, who was more than willing to let him sit in with his band.
“He let me play,” White said, “even though I didn’t know up from down!”
During the breaks the band took, White said the musicians bonded as Cooper would “hold court,” telling stories about his life and his many experiences. White soaked it all up, he remembered, adding that he learned not just how to play jazz music but all about the life of a jazz musician.
“Buster could tell a good story!” said White, who is the education and scholarship director for the Al Downing Tampa Bay Jazz Association.
Longtime friend Watson Haynes recalled that Cooper, in his travels all over the world, did things that many of us would today deem “scary.”
“Here he’s playing in apartheid Africa; here he’s going to foreign countries now that we can’t even go to. Yet he had the opportunity to perform before the Queen of England,” Haynes said, adding that he was even invited to perform at the inaugurations of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.
Cooper was a jetsetter like few other musicians, as he brought his brand of cool jazz to many countries and a number of renowned jazz festivals. From Sacramento to Nice and the North Sea, he played them all.
The impressive list of musicians and singers Cooper performed with over the years reads like a who’s who of some of the world’s greatest jazz entertainers: Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Benny Goodman and the one and only Josephine Baker.
Sarah, Cooper’s widow, endured her share of the many trips and countless miles right alongside him.
“I’ve been to 15 countries,” she said, “although he’s been to over a hundred!”
Gary Springer, president of World Partnerships, Inc., said that in 2010 his organization in concert with the Al Downing Tampa Bay Jazz Association hosted a show about the Jazz Ambassadors, a program created by the U.S. Department of State. The program began in 1953 and ran into the late 1970s.
“It was the single most successful program that the U.S. Department of State has ever put out there into the world,” Springer said. “Buster was one of those Jazz Ambassadors. From 1963, he traveled with the [Duke] Ellington Band literally all over the world.”
Family friend and local sax player Henry Ashwood recalled going to see Cooper perform at the Garden, and said that Cooper would let him sit in with the band. And Cooper was more than willing to lend his talents as well.
“Anytime I would have something at the Manhattan Casino, Buster would come and cater to it,” Ashwood said. “He’d say, ‘Look here, man, whatever you want, if I can be there, I’ll come’.”
Cooper’s nephew Philip called him the “last of the cool cats of the golden era of jazz.” Phillip, who teaches in Los Angeles and is also a concert promoter, said that his uncle got the respect and adulation of everyone in the business.
Cooper’s “love affair” with the horn began when he was 15 years old, Phillip said. His father took him to Lester’s Music Store on Central Avenue and in the window he saw this “funny-looking instrument” and was immediately drawn to it. Cooper’s father bought it for him on the spot.
“There began a love affair between a man and his horn,” Phillip said.
The journey of a professional musician is not an easy one, he explained, as it takes hard work, countless hours of practice, dedication, motivation and belief in one’s ability.
“It takes the mindset of ‘do or die,’” he said, “and as long as I can remember—and I’m not that young—all Buster’s ever done is play his trombone. To be able to know at 15 what your life’s mission would be, to put in work and dedication to do what you love and share your gift with the world, and to make a living and have a long, successful career is truly a blessing.”
“I will miss him, we were like two peas in a pod,” said Sarah, his wife of 65 years.