Robert Cohen clearly remembers the first jazz song that grabbed him by the ears: Art Blakey’s “Split Kick,” from the 1954 Blue Note release “A Night at Birdland Vol. 1,” which he heard on the radio as a teen in the late ‘70s.
“It’s maybe not the first jazz song I ever heard, but it’s the one that woke me up to jazz, where I just realized the beauty of it, the dexterity required, and the sheer amount of energy that a jazz song can produce,” Cohen said earlier this week. “Sometimes a song just catches you at the right moment and you never forget it.”
Cohen’s response to Blakey’s song has never really ended, it’s only grown deeper. Nearly 40 years later, this well-known local jazz musician and music teacher is both an artist and a fan who has become intimately familiar with the remarkable tunes he heard as a New Jersey teen. This Wednesday, Cohen and five friends will present a selection of those songs, including “Split Kick,” at the Gold Town Nickelodeon as part of the KRNN Spotlight Music Series.
“My criteria for these choices was personal favorites, tunes I’ve loved all my life, but with an ear for what I thought could be presented well to an audience, and would be fun for a larger group of musicians to play and enjoyable to hear.”
Joining Cohen on stage will be frequent collaborators and longtime Juneau musicians Clay Good on drums and Doug Bridges on sax, as well as more unusual bandmates Mike Bucy on trombone and Alexei Painter on bass. Guest artist Dale Curtis of Ketchikan, whom Cohen met several years ago during an informal jam session at Doc Waters, rounds out the sextet on trumpet.
All of the songs the group will perform are from the Blue Note label, a highly influential record company founded in 1939 by German immigrants Alfred Lion and Max Margulis. The concert honors the label’s 75th anniversary, as well as Cohen’s personal connections to the music produced under that name.
“They started the label because they loved the music, and the records they put out were only from artists they enjoyed, who inspired them musically, whether or not they thought they had commercial potential,” he said. “Their tastes were so unerring that a lot of the artists they signed and music they chose to put out did become commercially successful at the time, and, in retrospect, classic. They had incredible taste.”
Cohen gravitated toward the Blue Note label while still in high school, building his knowledge of the music through his study of the piano and other instruments, and through his growing collection of LPs.
“As I got better as a music student, I would hear these incredible piano players on the radio and start to think, ‘That’s interesting, I like what they’re doing, I wonder if I can do that.’”
He joined his first jazz band at 18, during a gap year before college, while living in Cambridge, Mass. Some of the tunes he played in that band were from the Blue Note canon.
Cohen moved to Juneau not long after college, arriving to help a friend move in 1988 and falling in love with the place. In addition to building up a reputation as a musician and teacher, Cohen fed his love of music through his business, Capital Records, which he ran at the Nugget Mall and on Seward Street downtown through 2009. Since it closed, he’s devoted his time to teaching and performing, taking an active role in many local arts productions and concerts.
At Wednesday’s show, Cohen and friends will perform jazz tunes from the late ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s and early ‘70s. Though the songs can be considered classics of instrumental jazz, they aren’t jazz standards in the sense of being immediately recognizable to a wide audience. In fact, written notation for some of the music Cohen wanted to perform wasn’t available, forcing him to create the charts for the music himself — an exercise in close-listening he thoroughly enjoyed.
“I had to sit down on the headphones for a handful of these arrangements and parse out the different parts and transcribe them for the musicians. It was a great opportunity and reason to dive in with a knife and fork.”
Selections will include work by Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson.
Cohen said his hopes for the concert line up with the philosophy of Blue Note records: Share what you love and hope it catches on.
“I think just as the founders of Blue Note gravitated toward recording what struck them as real and genuine and timeless ... and wanted to expose it to a wider following, in a way what we’re trying to do is in the same spirit, 75 years later,” he said.
“I’m hoping people will love (these songs) as I did on first hearing them. If we can accomplish that, or if that just naturally and spontaneously happens from what we’re doing in the show, then our purpose will have been achieved.”
• “Tribute to Blue Note Records” begins at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 19, at the Gold Town Nickelodeon. Tickets are $15 in advance or $18 at the door.