Junior Cook: quintessential NYC hard-bop tenor

    Courtney Nero outlines the trajectory of the Pensacola-born saxophonist, from R&B roadman to Mobley-inspired hard-bop luminary, forged in NYC

    Blue Mitchell and Junior Cook with Horace silver on piano at the Birdhouse in Chicago in December 1960. Photo by Laird Scott

    Junior Cook (1934-1992) occupies a paradoxical space, simultaneously one of those tenor saxophone mainstays of hard bop era yet often forgotten or left off of “the lists”. Cook arguably was best known for his stint with the Horace Silver quintet; the six-year pairing of Cook with trumpeter Richard Allen “Blue” Mitchell (1958-1964) was the longest of any of Silver’s units. Cook lent his round, strong tenor tone to Silver’s Juicy Lucy, Sister Sadie, Peace and Cookin’ At The Continental, all major epistles in the jazz canon. Even if you’ve never heard of Junior Cook, you’ve probably heard Junior Cook.

    Born Herman Columbus Cook in Pensacola, Florida, a relatively “progressive” hub of culture along with New Orleans in the 1940s, he left the South after high school to make a living in music in New York City. Cook cut his teeth, like many jazz greats, in the R&B bands of the 1950s. During a road trip with the Dell Tones to Washington DC, Cook and Silver both sat in with bebop altoist Lou Donaldson, likely at DC’s Abarts Internationale jazz club, and Silver heard Cook’s brawny tone. In late 1958, Cook scored a stint with bebop icon Dizzy Gillespie and then answered Silver’s call to join his quintet, first briefly with trumpeter Louis Smith and then with Mitchell.

    Cook recounted “sheer terror” sitting at a Gillespie rehearsal flanked by Sonny Stitt and James Moody in the late 1950s. At one point, possibly not confident in his place in the band, he set out to ditch the group quietly. Saxophonist and flautist Frank Wess caught the young Cook preparing to depart the hotel lobby, saying “Where you going, junior?” Wess told Cook that Gillespie wouldn’t have him in the band if he didn’t think Cook was up to the task. “Go on back upstairs, junior,” Wess instructed. In 1958, Cook’s first recording – Kenny Burrell’s Blue Lights album on Blue Note – credited “Junior Cook” on tenor saxophone, and the name stuck. “Junior” was born.

    Cook came out of the Mobley mould, with a deliberate, round tone and melodic delivery; he also claimed Wardell Gray as influence. Six years with Silver and Blue Note’s relentless marketing of Silver with juke-box singles and full-page ads in Downbeat spread Cook’s tenor sound far and wide. Perhaps the combination of R&B band experience and his time in Silver’s tight ship honed Cook’s thoughtful approach to improvisation. Trumpeter Richie Vitale recalled Cook’s advice to young musicians: “If you can’t say it in two or three choruses, you can’t say it.”

    ‘I always thought of Joe Henderson as like . . . Junior Cook on acid’

    After Silver came “neo-Silver” – Cook spent about five more years performing and recording with his front line partner Blue Mitchell and Silver sidemen after Silver opted for new blood on horns in his own quintet. (That new blood included tenorist Joe Henderson, who succeeded Cook in Silver’s quintet and recorded Song For My Father, arguably Silver’s most well-known composition.) Though Henderson claimed on at least one occasion that Cook had “taken lessons” from him, their similar musical mannerisms likely were born of shedding together when Henderson first arrived in New York. One modern tenorman and alum of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers acknowledged the similar sound concept of Cook and Henderson, quipping “I always thought of Joe Henderson as like . . . Junior Cook on acid.”

    Cook found his thing – fronting hard-driving jazz quintets – and by accounts, he did it quite well. Cook rode the wave of early jazz fusion on CTI Records with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard at the zenith of Hubbard’s fame in the 1970s; he paired with drum legend and now-NEA jazz master Louis Hayes to form a short-lived quintet in the mid-1970s, sharing the front line with trumpeter Woody Shaw; and he co-led a quintet with trumpeter and Jazz Messengers alum Bill Hardman in the 1980s. SteepleChase Records founder Nils Winther heard the Hardman-Cook quintet during their several concerts as part of New York City’s Jazzmobile, a travelling stage that hosted free concerts. Deeply impressed by Cook’s sound and delivery, Winther pursued Cook to record for SteepleChase, producing Cook’s The Place To Be (1988), On A Misty Night (1989) and You Leave Me Breathless, recorded in December 1991 just three months before Cook’s death. Cook also performed in ensembles with Elvin Jones, Clifford Jordan, George Coleman and in McCoy Tyner’s big band toward the end of his life.

    Cook appeared content to play extant repertoire. His handful of album recordings as leader would have been prime showcases for his own material, but none came forth. Vocalist, bandmate and roommate Timmy Shepherd recalled that trumpeter Hardman encouraged Cook to compose but Cook didn’t follow through. Perhaps his inattention to composing served to dilute Cook’s impact on the jazz memory. (By contrast, for example, we remember Joe Henderson both for his playing chops and for Recordame and Inner Urge, among other tunes.) Cook could not express his love of ballads in Silver’s band, but he made up for it later in his career, taking melodic, range-of-the-horn control of Thelonius Monk’s Pannonica and Fisher and Segal’s When Sunny Gets Blue in the quintet with Louis Hayes.

    Cook’s recording career was nonetheless consistent. He was featured on at least one record release per year from 1958 until 1991 with only a few gaps, keeping his distinctive tenor sound in the ears of jazz listeners. In the past few years, new discoveries of Cook’s recorded work have emerged. Jazzline Records in 2019 released a 1976 recording of the Hayes-Cook quintet (At Onkel Pö’s Carnegie Hall) and Gearbox Records just this year released an extra rare pairing of Junior Cook on soprano saxophone with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers on vinyl (At The Jazz Workshop 1970).

    Cook spent the last 10 or so years of his life centred in New York City, never without his horn, leading jam sessions and as featured guest on gigs at a bevy of clubs that mostly have long since faded away: the Star Café, Augie’s, Flamingo Lounge, Paris, Boomer’s, Condon’s, Fat Tuesday’s, Sweet Basil and Joyce’s. Cook “taught” a generation of musicians, not with “play this, don’t play that” but by example, relentless pursuing his best musical self. His health deteriorated in the late 1980s as a result of cirrhosis and he died 3 February 1992 in NYC, aged 57.

    Trumpeter Valery Ponomarev remembered Cook’s “precision”. Drummer Joe Farnsworth recalled Cook’s singular voice – “Trane changes but his own shit”. Farnsworth and pianist Michael Weiss described knowing and playing with Cook as “major league”, an honest musician. Pianist Mickey Tucker recalled Cook as his favourite tenor, noting his personal and musical warmth and his lyricism. He was born and raised in Pensacola, Florida, formed on the road, and moulded in New York. Junior Cook was the woodwind in the sails of some of jazz history’s great bands, gone but not forgotten.

    Courtney Nero is the author of a forthcoming book, Have Horn, Will Travel: A Biography of Herman “Junior” Cook