One night during George “Buster” Cooper’s long reign at the Garden restaurant courtyard, I decided to take a date there to hear him and his trio play. We sat front and center, held hands and made eyes at each other as Buster’s fluid trombone notes swirled around the patio and dissolved into the night.
Watching him, I didn’t feel it was the Buster Show as he would spread the wealth, stepping back and letting his band members—greenhorns and journeymen alike—have their moments with the upright bass, drums, or guitar. True, they were capable of showing off their chops—Buster stood off to the side when one of his band mates took the reins for a solo, head bent down, tapping his foot, absorbed in the moment—but under Buster’s direction, it was magical the way it all came together.
Now after a few numbers some wise guy who probably should’ve been home sleeping off the effects of his several eight-dollar Heinekens, plodded toward the band and decided it’d be a good idea to adjust one of the side lights so it would shine directly on Buster. With this seemingly 2,000-watt bulb in his face, Buster played on, smoothly as ever.
After the knucklehead shuffled off I stepped valiantly forward to make things right by re-adjusting said light, but I goofed. I bent the light down so low the other way that when I took my seat again I saw that the Buster’s side of the stage was as dark as a cave. It took a third person from the crowd to finally adjust this much-tortured light yet another time, and he managed to restore the balance.
I felt a little silly in front of my date but I noticed that Buster and his band never missed a beat or a note throughout the spotlight shenanigans. My minor ineptness with big shiny lights notwithstanding, I thought it was the perfect night.
From then on, taking a girl to see Buster play became somewhat of a standard for me. What wasn’t to love? You’d dress up, kick back and let Buster take it from there. He had a knack of transporting you back to the days of Duke Ellington and Josephine Baker.
As relationships revolve when they don’t evolve, I admittedly took more than one date to the courtyard over the years. During one of these evenings with one of these girls, I swear I saw Buster look in my direction and grin, as if to say, “Nice to see you—again!”
I thought, how many future lovers have met here in this courtyard, with nothing more in common at first glance than a shared love of jazz? How many spouses have re-kindled the flame of their honeymoon days while listening to Buster and his band stoke the romantic fire under the moonlight?
But while another memory I have of Buster’s playing days is not as happy as the others, it is as vivid and meaningful as any of them.
It was during the night of a breakup that took place just outside my downtown apartment, and like most breakups, it was solemn and sad. Afterward I walked the girl quietly back to her car where she’d parked, near the marina, to say a piercing and painful goodbye. I still remember her crinoline dress ruffling in the breeze. As I trudged across Central Avenue back toward my apartment alone, my heart felt like it weighed as much as a Buick. And just as I passed by the Garden I heard the unmistakable sound of Buster’s horn—the blue notes spiraling and dipping and looping up into the crisp October night, adding a coda to my freshly ended relationship.
With my wound ever so raw, I stood there outside the courtyard; leaning against the wall with my eyes shut, and just listened. The mournful tune couldn’t have been more apt if I had scripted it myself to play at that precise moment in my life.
During good times or bad, breakups or beginnings, Buster, like all gifted musicians, had the power to soothe us, cheer us or just let his music do the talking during those life moments when nothing can really be said.
As he held court in the courtyard high-rise condos shot up all around him, and Buster blew his trombone. Dingy old downtown shops became unshuttered, galleries threw open their doors while the sidewalks bustled with life on weekends and there he was, as reliable as ever, blowing his horn.
For my money, the hub of action was always where Buster stood with his trombone as he infused his sound into the cityscape, making it vibrant, energetic and alive. And for many years, he provided the playlist of downtown St. Pete and, wittingly or not, the soundtrack to some of our memories.