Saturday, May 23, 2009


Gil Coggins

In a short biographical sketch, Eugene Chadbourne writes, “…Davis was actually only 16 years old when Coggins met him. The pianist was only two years Davis' senior …, an army soldier stationed at Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis, Missouri. As for Davis, he had a gig playing his trumpet at a bowling alley near the base. The tap dancer Honey Coles was also Coggins' sergeant in this period. Coggins eventually played on sessions with Davis that were released on labels such as Blue Note and Prestige.”

I met Gil in Ste. Jovite at a small hotel in Quebec’s Laurentian Mountains. In my early twenties, I had been listening to his piano playing on an old Miles Davis album for seven years. We were getting to know each other prior to starting a two month summer gig at the Pines Hotel.

Marvin Jay, with whom I had collaborated in bringing Monk to Montreal for a concert, hired me to play a summer gig and asked me to find a rhythm section. I immediately phoned Freddie McHugh who had filled in for Monk’s bass player at the aforementioned concert. He said he would do the gig if he could get his friend Gil Coggins to play the piano.

It was a funny line up as Marvin sang, emceed and played cocktail drums with Freddie on bass, Gillie on piano and yours truly on trumpet. While it was adequate for week nights with a small crowd, the band needed to be more dynamic on the week-end when the room was packed with customers.

Once again Freddie rode to the rescue. He convinced Pierre Beluse, the first chair timpanist with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, to play with us on the week-ends. After the first night Pierre, an excellent jazz drummer, was hooked. Wild horses couldn’t have dragged him away from playing with Gillie and Freddie every week. He became the final third of the best rhythm section I ever played with. I don’t know if I’m more amazed that this summer happened or that I’m sitting at a computer writing about it 45 years later.

A summer to remember

Gillie was a tall, gentle man who put me at ease within a few minutes of getting together. We developed a camaraderie that was to continue unabated for the rest of the summer. His musical abilities, combined with a real desire to get along, set the members of this odd band on a path to playing well together and enjoying each other’s company.

For his part he seemed to be happy to leave behind the New York hustle and to chill out in the clean mountain air and the pastoral ambience of the outskirts of a small town in the Laurentians. The hotel was a friendly place with an excellent French cuisine.

Gillie’s chords, arpeggios and fill-ins were all struck with authority and a care for each note that one only heard among the great jazz musicians of the era. He only demanded that one play notes and phrases that were thought out and had meaning in a musical context. I learned that spaces had meaning and that they framed the notes before and after them.

The moment I will always remember was on the first set of the first night of the gig. We played Miles’ version of “Yesterdays”, the one I had loved for years. Suddenly Gillie’s intro and chords, played just as I had remembered them, led me into playing the melody as in a dream – a dream I’ll never forget.

We had lots of time for shop talk and listening to “sides”. Among our favourite LPs were “Somethin’ Else” with Miles and Cannonball Adderley, and Ahmad Jamal’s album “But Not for Me”.

Gillie told us how much he enjoyed jamming in Sonny Rollins living room in Brooklyn on Saturday afternoons and raved about a new young pianist who played there called Cedar Walton. He always wore a sweater that Cedar had given him that he bought in Scandinavia.

We didn’t have much to do during the day, and the few excursions we made outside didn’t add much to our well-being. Once on our day off we went horseback riding. Gil fell off his horse and sprained his wrist.

Another afternoon a loudspeaker car drove by the hotel announcing that Cab Calloway was playing at another hotel a few miles away. As it was on our night off we put on dress clothes and were about to phone a cab when one of the hotel patrons asked where we were going. We excitedly told him we were going to hear Cab Calloway. He informed us that he had gone the night before and that there was a really second rate group called Ab Alloway. Gillie, not being from Quebec, didn’t see the humour in the situation.

All good things must end ’though and on the day we left, Gillie gave me his Cedar Walton sweater and wished me well. I wore it out.