When one thinks of a supergroup, jazz is not the first genre that comes to mind. However, there is a number of supergroups around in jazz and the term itself seem to have been coined to describe exactly the band that David Weiss has put together, assembling some of the most seasoned, hardest working veterans of the ’60s and ’70s jazz scenes. The Cookers feature a roster of jazz champions such as Billy Harper, Eddie Henderson, George Cables, Cecil McBee, Billy Hart, Donald Harrison Jr and (in the past) Craig Handy. As they are about to start a weeklong residency at Bird’s Basement, bandleader and trumpet player David Weiss shares the band’s backstory.
How did the Cookers come to be?
The idea for The Cookers started in around 1992 or ’93. There was a club in Brooklyn called the Up/Over Jazz Cafe and the owner tried to put together annual Night of the Cookers/Freddie Hubbard Birthday celebrations. Apparently, as a kid, the first jazz concert he ever went to was the original ‘Night of the Cookers‘ concert in Brooklyn with Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan. Because I was working with Freddie Hubbard at the time, this guy would reach out to me to see if he could could get Freddie to come to these celebrations as a special guest or MC even. I think Freddie might have done it once but it was a challenge because he lived in Los Angeles and that’s a long way to come to blow out the candles on a birthday cake. One year, this guy decided he wanted to do a reunion concert with all the guys who were on the original recording. I reached out to Pete “LaRoca” Sims and James Spaulding and they were available. Harold Mabern unfortunately was not. The owner got Larry Ridley. We decided to get some former Freddie Hubbard sidemen on the gig to fill the band out, so we got Ronnie Matthews and Kiane Zawadi. The gigs went really well and LaRoca and Spaulding sounded particularly amazing. I felt like I wanted to do more of this so I asked them if they would be into doing some more of these types of shows and they said yes, so I booked a few clubs and festivals over the next couple of years as a ‘Night of the Cookers’ tribute. The group was built around LaRoca and Spaulding with varying sidemen. Eddie Henderson and George Cables did some of these gigs. At this time, I also worked with Charles Tolliver, getting his big band out in the world. I met Billy Harper working with this band. The Tolliver Big Band took off, but it was clear we couldn’t bring a big band everywhere so it was suggested that we have a smaller version of the group we could offer venues that could not house a big band. So at this point, we decided to combine LaRoca and Spaulding with Tolliver and Harper. This would also bring original music into the mix as up to this point, we were playing compositions by Hubbard and Morgan. It was time to move on to playing original music. Things didn’t exactly work out as planned. Tolliver wanted to focus on the Big Band and there was a long running feud with one of the guys towards one of the new guys. So we did a few gigs with the front line of Tolliver, Harper, Spaulding and me but it didn’t last long so we made changes and finally in 2007 we settled on the personnel as it is today (with one change) and The Cookers were born.
What need did this band come to address?
I don’t think we put this band together to address a need per se. Our goals are always purely musical but it could be argued that there is no band out here like this today so perhaps we fill a need. There are a lot of fans of this type of music and I think this band delivers that type of music like no other out here today.
What is the band’s main aspiration?
To stay healthy and continue playing. Our goal is to play music and play it the best way we know how. The band has developed a lot over the ten years we have been together and will continue to grow because of the way these guys approach the music. It’s the constant search to become better and perfect their craft that keeps this band fresh and growing.
What is the main challenge that you had to face, being the band’s leader?
The main challenge is to keep the band working. No matter how much success we have, it’s still a challenge to get this band proper work and the proper coverage in the press to get the attention to keep this band working. There has not been one feature written about this band in any of the major jazz magazines in the 10 years we have been together.
The Cookers are a living proof of the continuity of jazz, as a musical tradition, as a craft and as a community of artists. Do you agree that there are parts of jazz history (for instance the ’70s) that are often overlooked?
Jazz in general has been overlooked, undervalued and dismissed for most of its history. When jazz gets covered in the mainstream press, there is always some version of “jazz is dead” or “jazz is dying” as one of its main threads. It gets tiring to read. The giants who made this music what it is of course were undeterred by this and continued doing what they do, as that was their calling and while they might read some of this garbage and take note of it, it never had an effect on them and they never stopped doing what they were doing. The guys in The Cookers are like this as is pretty much everyone of their generation or older. Certain eras of jazz are overlooked more than others certainly. Everything is cyclical. There were no major labels focusing on acoustic jazz in the ’70s, or straight ahead acoustic jazz at least, so some of the guys in that era were not elevated by major label attention as ones in other eras and I think that still affects their standing out here today.
If you could get anyone come join the Cookers, who would you invite?
I think the band is the best it can possibly be with this personnel. Historically, teams made up of all all-stars or the best at every position or instrument always fail because there is more to it then just that. Chemistry is important as is a certain dedication. I assume you are talking about anyone living here but even with that, there is no one. Now if I needed a sub because one of the guys couldn’t make it, then Jack DeJohnette comes to mind. I personally have dreams and aspirations of playing with certain musicians, but that is something else and my issue to personally address and not use The Cookers to achieve those goals. I’ve always liked to say I want to keep The Cookers pure, outside of guest stars and themes and the like.
Given the history of all the band’s members, it would be easy for you (and also meaningful) to play earlier compositions, or the standards that they were instrumental in creating. However, you insist on putting out new material. What keeps you going?
We do play earlier compositions from the pens of all the composers in the group. They are arranged for this band though and usually have a different spin than their original recordings of the tune. The compositions are a big part of what makes the band what it is and is a strong part of the identity of each musician and frankly, it’s a big part of what makes these guys engaged in the group. They get to hear their music presented in a certain way that they would not normally hear and I think that means a lot to them.
What should anyone expect from your upcoming gigs at Bird’s basement?
If you are fan of all the elements of this music that made it what it was in what I think was jazz’s heyday (the mid ’60s), then I think this is one of the only bands that is a living embodiment of that music in all its glory and all its facets including keeping it fresh, original and exciting.
How do the Cookers compete with your other projects?
I like to think of The Cookers as the 1a option for the guys. These guys all have their own bands and that will and should always be their number 1 priority. The Cookers are 1a because I think they all appreciate the band and it is a priority for them to keep this thing going and mostly because it is a good showcase for their own music as well. As for my projects, I think they all fulfill a different aspect of my overall vision of this music. The Cookers is a learning experience for me. I will always learn and get my ass kicked by these guys. It might not always be a pleasant experience to get one’s ass kicked but it is an important part of one’s growth as a musician and I’m very lucky to be in this unique situation performing with and learning from some of the best and ones directly tied to when this music was at its apex. The New Jazz Composers Octet and now my Sextet are the groups I compose for so that is where I exercise that muscle. Point of Departure is more about finding a vehicle where I can express myself best as a trumpet player and also delve into music that has ties to the first music that influenced me and made me want to become a musician. Of course all these groups have a lot of other things going on and a lot of other purposes but as far as what part of me comes out in each project, this is the best, albeit simplistic, explanation I can come up with.
What does jazz mean to you?
To me, it is a form of rebellion. A rebellion from the norm, the safe, the pat, the boring, the unengaged. A rebellion or expression of the frustration I feel from this world we live in. I’ve always thought of jazz as finding a way of expressing the anger or rage even and frustration one felt at the fucked up conditions they lived in a passionate and beautiful way. In the ’60s jazz was the music of the civil rights movement and seemed more tied to what was going in in the world at that moment. I think The Cookers still bring that kind of drive, passion and intensity to their music and I think we are living in a time now where that form of expression is apt, warranted even.
Which tune best describes your current state of mind?
Thy Will Be Done by Billy Harper
The Cookers will be playing at Bird’s Basement from Tuesday 6 to Sunday 11 June.
The line up is: Billy Harper (tenor sax), Eddie Henderson (trumpet), David Weiss (trumpet), Stephen Scott(replacing George Cables on piano), Cecil McBee (bass), Billy Hart (drums).