11/08/11 By Sylvia Levine Leitch
Cobi Narita: A Special Place for Jazz
Tireless champion of jazz and jazz artists in New York City reflects on her life devoted to promoting the music
If ever anyone belonged in this series, "In Service of Jazz," it is 85-year-old Cobi Narita, whose tireless devotion to the jazz community has spanned more than 40 years. Every artist she presents or assists in some way seems to become part of her jazz family, which means that her extended family has thousands of members. Her most recent venue, however, Cobi's Place, above husband Paul Ash's music store on 48th Street in Manhattan, was just closed by our Fire Marshall. True to form, she's taking this setback in stride and searching for a new home for her programs.
I have always listened to the music we call jazz. It just fit me. And I fit it. I could appreciate different kinds of music—folk, country, hip hop, but I loved jazz music. In California, where I was born and lived until I was 43, there was a music station that played jazz—although they didn’t stress that this is what the programming was called. They just played music and that music happened to be jazz. I listened to it all the time.
Eventually I began volunteering at a club there in the LA area that a friend of mine owned called Memory Lane. I didn’t even realize that it was a jazz club until I heard all the people who played there: Sweets Edison, Houston Pearson, and Etta Jones were some I recall. I’m 85 now and I don’t remember everything, but I was there a few years, helping out strictly as a volunteer and friend, cleaning up the offices, and just doing whatever needed to be done. I guess I was in my late 30s to early 40s when I was at Memory Lane. I met a lot of wonderful artists there.
The club closed about the same time that I came to New York and that was when I realized that some of the people I heard at my friend’s place were very famous artists. I’d had no experience with recognizing who people were in that way, so I didn’t know. [Writer’s note: I see a 1970 Hampton Hawes LP was recorded there, featuring Sonny Criss, Teddy Edwards, Harry Sweets Edison, Leroy Vinnegar, Bobby Thompson and Joe Turner, which must have been toward the end of the club’s life].
I had wanted to live in New York for as long as I remember. It was like a dream to imagine that one day I would move to New York. And the opportunity came to do it: I was offered a great job. But I had to run this by my seven children. I’d had seven children in eight years; by this time the oldest was 22 and the youngest just 14. But they were independent children. They really raised themselves while I worked three jobs after their father and I parted. Two jobs were day jobs and I waitressed at night at a restaurant—not a cocktail waitress; I could never remember the names of drinks. I was a food waitress and a good one; I mothered the customers, making sure everything was okay with them, and I made very good tips for the time. Five dollars for a table of two was good back then. The owner, Don May, was wonderful to his staff and to me. He’d give me a big bag of food to take home to the kids at the end of the shift. People have always been good to me.
My Kids Encouraged Me to Move to New York
We had a big round table and we would all sit at the table and talk when I came home from work. They’d tell me their problems—well, sometimes they’d still be telling me after we all left the table, they’d follow me into the bathroom sometimes while I brushed my hair—talking, talking, talking. But mostly we talked at the big round table. They were all wonderful kids: they’d assign themselves the tasks that needed doing and made up a chart to check off which ones they’d finished. They even gave themselves stars according to how well they thought they’d done the jobs: gold stars, silver stars, red stars, you know. Then I’d look at the chart.
So we sat at the table and I told them that I had a wonderful job offer but that it would mean moving to New York City. The position was Special Assistant to the Executive Vice President of the International Council of Shopping Centers. His name was Al Sussman. The kids all said, “Mom, you should go. You should take this job.” They didn’t know right then what they would do, whether they would move with me or not. They had a home there in Ventura—I owned the house we lived in, which by the way, I had bought for a third more than the original asking price: the seller didn’t want me to have it because I was Asian and I had to pay more to get the house. That was my first experience with racism; I don’t count the time my family spent in the internment camp during World War Two as racism. I think that was pure politics, seizing an opportunity to take the Japanese Americans’ property and land, but that’s another story.
I moved to New York in 1969 at 44 years old. That job turned out to be a great job and it was right up my alley. I like to organize things and I really am good at it: I wrote the computer book for them, showed them how to design the library, special jobs like that. I flew my children out two and three at a time to see if they’d like to join me. But they all wanted to stay in California. They visit all the time, but they’re really Californians, geared for California, and it turns out that I’m just a natural New Yorker, geared for New York.
A Life of Serving Jazz in New York Began
I came on a Fourth of July long weekend and walked through Central Park. I heard some good music playing and walked toward it and there was Gene Taylor playing the bass. I had met him in California, so it was good to see a friendly face right away. He told me that if I wanted to be around the music here in New York I should go over to Saint Peter’s Church and meet Pastor John Garcia Gensel. I took his advice and started volunteering right away. I was there all the time. Saint Peter’s is the jazz church, and is committed to what they call the jazz ministry. Pastor Gensel and I hit it off immediately, just clicked, and I loved working with him, which I did for years and years. Both he and his wife Audrey were wonderful to me. I did my birthday parties there many years, with all those wonderful bands and great food, and helped out almost from the beginning on the All Nite Soul in October that is still going on. You know, All Nite Soul celebrates the jazz ministry. Recently I saw it called New York City’s longest continuously running, all-night jazz festival. Every year, it honors a different musician whose life’s journey has intersected the important place of jazz music and jazz spirituality in the church. Musicians and fans come to celebrate this living legend and groups play all night long. So I helped out with that every year, for both Pastor Gensel and later for Pastor Lind. I love him too, and his dear wife, Marsha. I can still see his big beard… Funny, I worked with them all that time but I never joined the church.
The first year I was in New York I met a lot of great musicians and heard a lot of great music. I hung around the Vanguard and other places with some friends who also liked to go out to hear this music. Katherine Cox (another legendary jazz fan, in whose honor Frank Foster wrote “Catherine the Great”) was one of those people and all the musicians loved her; every member of Count Basie’s band would greet her, and I got to meet them through her. She was so highly thought of, it was wonderful. I met Ahmad Jamal—I love Ahmad Jamal—Gil Evans, many artists. After a while some musicians asked me if I would be their manager but I said, no, no, I couldn’t do it. That is not my strong suit. And it’s not.
I like to help out in other ways. Sometime not long after I arrived, I volunteered to try and get some grants and help a nonprofit, Jazz Interactions, which did educational programs, some concerts, and a community service line: Jazz Line. Jazz Line listed every jazz gig in the New York area for the week. You could call up from anywhere, listen to who was playing where, and make your plans. It was a wonderful service and I organized that and was its voice for quite a while. [Writer’s note: she was followed by Rona Neufeld, who did the job admirably for about 13 years as well, who I worked with.] When I applied for some grants for Jazz Interactions, they got enough to fund their work for several years, I remember.
Collective Black Artists
Then in 1972 I went to work for Collective Black Artists, which was a repertory orchestra and support group for musicians in need. It was a wonderful repertory orchestra. They were really good. They needed someone to help them get funding and I had a track record of being able to do that. The first year, I was able to get them $110,000 for their projects, which was pretty big amount. Even though I was Executive Director, I only took a half salary. I wanted most of the money to go to the orchestra and its projects. There were some fantastic musicians in that orchestra: Stanley Cowell, Frank Foster, Charles Tolliver were some of them. The three main directors were Reggie Workman, Jimmy Owens and Kenny Rogers, the ones who ran the orchestra. They were the ones who hired me. Two and a half years later they were also the ones who fired me—they really thought a male black person should be in that job; it just looked better than an Asian woman. I couldn’t believe it. Later, they came to me and said that letting me go was the worst mistake they ever made. But by then it was too late to save the group. It went down the drain a couple of years after I was fired.
One of my major accomplishments for Collective Black Artists was starting a big collection of orchestral scores for them to play. I got all of Frank Foster’s, Jimmy Heath’s scores; Benny Goodman’s office sent over a lot. Everybody I asked gave us scores so that the orchestra would play them. I booked Town Hall for a big concert for the group; I just knew it would be a wonderful place to put the orchestra. I remember they charged $400 to rent the hall. I think now it’s something like $12,000 or $15,000. My idea also was to have some really big names to attract the audience: Art Blakey, Archie Shepp, and we welcomed Benny Golson to New York. It is a great place and I still love going to Town Hall.
Even after I was told I was being fired, I spent my last days there organizing the scores so that everything would be in order. But they all disappeared. The electric piano, the Scriptomatic typewriter I bought, the scores—everything disappeared after I left.
Meeting Paul Ash: A Life Partner
I met my wonderful husband, Paul Ash, while I was with the Collective, that's one good thing. I had organized a weekly gig at a place in St. Albans; it paid $400 for the 13-piece orchestra. One week the saxophonist, Gene Jefferson, who was with the ban d( I had always liked Gene and he and his wife liked me too, they were very nice people), told Paul, "I want you to meet our great director, our leader. She has a wonderful smile." So Gene brought me over to the bar, but I was so busy, in a rush to take care of the business, and I just said, "Hi." But he waited and after concert, he said, "Let me drive you home. I go right by your house.” Well, that wasn't true. We were in Queens and I lived in Manhattan, so I went home by train and bus with a friend. But he kept after me, kept after me, and finally I accepted a date. Really, we were meant to be, right from the very beginning. And he has helped me so much. Without his help, I could have done nothing—I know how to do everything, but Paul always helps out, financially and in other ways. He is wonderful. I like to say we were engaged for 17 years before we got married.
Right after that, a friend of mine, Rosemary Armstrong, told me about a community activist grant I could apply for up in Boston; she'd heard about it from her sister who lived there: the people who got the grants would take a workshop at MIT under Mel King, the well-known activist who once ran for mayor there—he was a founder of the “Rainbow Coalition.” This workshop taught us the skills we needed to form nonprofit organizations, how to run them properly, all that. It was an invaluable experience. So Mel and someone—can’t remember his name (senior moment), the president of Boston College at the time—guided me in forming Universal Jazz Coalition. I had come to the workshop with a big plan, too big, and they cut it down and cut it down. I was left with this little nut from my giant plan, but boy that nut was even hard to do. I set up everything myself: I got my own tax-exempt forms in, all kinds of paperwork was needed. But that workshop had taught me how to do it. In those days, an ordinary person could set up a working nonprofit by being organized and having a plan. I'm not sure you could do that now.
The grant would have also allowed me to take more classes at one of the four participating colleges up in Boston free of charge. I didn't take advantage of that offer and I should have. It also provided a stipend every month to spend there or take home to spend on your projects.
Universal Jazz Coalition Was Born
So in 1976 I started my Universal Jazz Coalition. Board members included Paul Ash, who was chairman, Lee Berk of Berklee School of Music, Dr. George Butler of CBS Records, Betty Carter, Dizzy Gillespie, Fred Gretsch of Gretsch Drums, Herbie Hancock, Ahmad Jamal, Bob James, Melba Liston, the artist David Stone Martin, Jymie Merritt, Robert Moog of the synthesizer company, Clark Terry, George Wein, and Judge McM Wright. Later we had Abbey Lincoln too. I also had Music Directors helping out. Some of those were Art Blakey, Dave Brubek, Frank Foster, the Reverend Gensel, Leonard Goines, Milt Jackson, Jimmy Heath, Abbey Lincoln, Harold Mabern, Billy Harper, Charles Mingus, Monk Montgomery, Dan Morgenstern, Jamil Nasser, Fr. Peter O’Brien, Horace Silver, Dakota Staton, Maxine Sullivan, Ernie Wilkins and Mary Lou Williams. So many people helped me.
We provided technical help to musicians, showing them how to do their own promotion and things like that, presented concerts, did a lot of programs. My first jazz festival was that year; I presented it up at the New York Jazz Museum, which folded after a while when people say the director ran off with all the money. But my festival, I remember I had Billy Harper, who was very young then, the famous jazz dancer Pepsi Bethell and, I think, Bill Hardman...can't remember everyone.
I started a New York Women’s Jazz Festival around 1978. Women were so underrepresented at the jazz festivals I felt it was time to do something. We had music, workshops, jam sessions, all kinds of events, sometimes outdoors in Damrosch Park. Among the projects I got a $5000 grant to take an all-women band to the Kansas City Jazz Festival. We were invited and housed, but not as part of the regular festival exactly. We weren’t even on the program and the stage was outside. I remember that stage was near a big winding staircase. Well, at first the sound they gave us was so bad I made them break it down and start over. This upset the festival people. But it was the best concert! The people loved it and the band loved playing to that audience.
The first year we held the Women’s Jazz Festival at the Casablanca Club in New York, but when they saw how many people were coming to our shows, they upped the rental fee, really raised it, and when we wouldn’t pay—we were bringing in just enough to pay the musicians—they locked us out. So we held the concert right out in the street! I’ll never forget Mary Lou Williams sitting on a crate eating rice and beans as dignified as if she were in Carnegie Hall. Then George Wein came and saw what had happened to us. He donated Carnegie Recital Hall for the next night. Wasn’t that nice!
One of the UJC projects was a 32-page newsletter that I sent out every month, with a lot of articles and a listing of every jazz gig in the New York area. I called every musician and every venue to ask them what was on. That way, too, I could find out how the musicians were doing and their families, who was sick, who was having trouble with the bills, or whatever, and help out when I could, and let other people know too. I loved them all. I love everyone I work with. I added something personal to the listings. I asked people to donate articles and I'd compile them and give them to a young artist, the first of my "adopted children," Sokie Lee, and she designed it and put it together. She is very talented.
We put a $15 subscription notice on the back of every newsletter. We sent out 4000 newsletters, addressing them on a Scriptomatic typewriter, and it cost $4000 to do. Nobody ever subscribed, almost nobody. So we sent them out free. I subsidized the newsletter from my day job (I was sending money home to my children too) and I guess I lived very frugally.
When someone needed money, we would help them. Not a loan, a gift. Sometimes we could do a fundraiser like the one for Papa Jo Jones. Max Roach and Jamil Nasser co-hosted that one and we were able to present him with $15,000. I also provided thousand dollar "grants" to young musicians who just needed a little money to help them get to the next level. I knew they were good and I was glad to give them the push.
Jazz Center of New York
After a few years I was able to rent a space for UJC on Lafayette Street and called it Jazz Center of New York. It was a big loft, 8,300 feet, and I had workshops, jam sessions and concerts there almost every day for five years. I would have vocal Discovery workshops, where young musicians could learn from professionals and decide if they had what it took to be a professional. They cost $100, but if the musician really couldn't afford it, I'd hand out "scholarships" so they could do it. I think I had a grant of $2000 to do the workshops. At those vocal sessions, Abbey Lincoln, Dakota Staton, and Maxine Sullivan came in to help. They were wonderful to me, always. I always paid what I could, but many of my artist friends gave me a very special price for anything I did with them. Later I produced the Abbey Sings Billie CD for Abbey Lincoln, which she sold to Enja Records. I truly miss her, miss talking to her. I was able to get Dakota some good gigs too, before she died: I loved her voice, her style, her delivery. I presented her at a place called Danny's every month for a couple of years. But she died before she could do three really well paying gigs I'd booked for her. Several young people, aspiring musicians, came to the Jazz Center, and I called them my adopted children. They were always around, grew up with me.
We came into the Jazz Center in 1983 at $4000 a month and the landlord promised that after five years we could have it at the same price. So we put in about $100,000, building the performing space, the stage, the kitchen, everything. Paul helped. Paul was at every concert every night and he worked hard with me. I think he worked harder for me than he did for his own store. He served all the drinks (sodas, coffee); he used to put his hand in the big vats holding the soda full of ice. At the end of the night, his hands would be so red! Then he would go home to Hempstead and come back again the next day. He still helps with coffee at Cobi's Place on 48th Street.
I presented a lot of people at the Jazz Center. Remembering back, a few highlights of the great, great people who played there were Dizzy Gillespie, Randy Weston, Ahmad Jamal, Billy Harper, the first Max Roach Double Quartet, George Coleman, Harold Mabern, so many many wonderful musicians. [Writer's note: Cobi would put into her concert schedule up-and-coming lesser-known musicians with the same respect and publicity that she gave these jazz giants, something for which these not-yet-famous ones were eternally grateful; my husband Peter Leitch did two such concerts there in 1985 and 1986 and she taught us a great deal...].
I also did a biweekly radio show of interviews with musicians for four years. I’m not sure now what years those were. I recall that the station didn’t keep an archive of the shows, so I had to pick up my tapes after the show aired or they’d tape right over them!
I do remember that when Viacom wanted to buy WRVR and end jazz on that station, Betty Carter and Dizzy Gillespie BOTH came out to help me. They were so good to me. A lot of people came out to support jazz. I lived in a small room at the Jazz Center with my dogs: A Rotty, two Dachsunds and a Pug. They never, ever barked during a concert. They were such good dogs. I lived very simply, always did, with just a tatami mat, and brown rice and vegetables every day for my meals. I was very thin then; now I eat with Paul and I’ve put on a few pounds. Once when I was sick, in the old days, Pastor Gensel came to see me. He was very surprised at how simply I lived. I wanted to put what money was available back into the Universal Jazz Coalition and I didn't need much for myself. I always dreamed of winning a MacArthur grant so that I could teach someone how to keep the Coalition going, and generate income to staff it and the programs far into the future, even if I wasn't there. Almost no one would not only work without a salary, but go to personal expense like I was doing. But sadly, I did not win a MacArthur.
After five years, the landlord tried to double the rent. He thought we were so successful that he should have some of the money. I just couldn't afford that much rent and he wouldn't give us back the $8000 deposit either—said we'd broken some windows that had been broken since before we ever moved in. It doesn't seem like a lot of money, maybe, now, but it was then. And we had to go. It was very sad the way that happened.
Of course, the many young people I had mothered there and helped along stayed close to me, even though the Jazz Center was gone. I kept working at presenting jazz, and helping out artists, even without that permanent home. Paul decided that we should have our own house and we did that. He wanted to just buy the first place we saw; he is very impatient. I had to convince him to wait and see at least five, and luckily we saw a nice one on the fifth try. We’re out on Long Island. After we moved in he decided to add some rooms so that when my kids came from California, they would have a place to stay. He is wonderful.
I’ve been asked to help out for some other organizations, too. I was one of the founding people of International Women in Jazz. I remember that in 1995 Pastor Lind from Saint Peter’s brought Lorraine Gordon from the Village Vanguard—by this time, Max her husband had died—the writer Leslie Gourse, the singer-organist Sarah McLawler, and me together to serve on a panel about women in jazz. He had put it together as a place for women artists to come and complain, vent about how underrepresented women jazz artists were. Out of that panel, International Women in Jazz was born. Some people say I founded it, but the idea came from all of us. I did serve as President for the first three years and then Chairman of the Board for the next three. I still help out on the advisory board.
I’ve also been on some other Boards: Flushing Council of Culture and the Arts, Japanese American Association of New York, Asian American Arts Alliance and the advisory board of Y’all of New York. For seven years, I provided Asian American groups for the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, when they do their cherry blossom festival every year, and for Arts Connection for a really long time.
I’ve won a lot of awards, can’t remember them all, from big places like the Kennedy Center and Government of Japan, and from smaller places that I have helped out, many of those. But I have just always been happy to do what I could to support this wonderful music and the wonderful people who make it.
After a while my husband got me my present space and I’ve been back to presenting in my own room, Cobi’s Place, for several years. It’s right above his store, Sam Ash, on 48th Street in New York. We do programs every Saturday, concerts, films, tap dancing, all kinds of things. We have a free raffle; Paul gives out the tickets and the winners get books and DVDs, six or seven winners every time. Al Heywood presents a film on the first Saturday of the month; Delilah Jackson still does the second Saturday. We have a birthday celebration—going by the signs, around the 22nd or 23rd of every month. The third Saturday is hosted by Frank Owens. This month he’s also doing “Elegant Ellington” on the fifth Saturday of October. I’ve just asked Walter Taylor if he’d like to show his old movies every fourth Saturday at Cobi’s Place; he was doing that in Brooklyn. We have a great time every week at Cobi’s place. Paul helps out, of course. We still serve coffee, soft drinks, chips and cookies for free.
I still go out to hear music. I’ll never miss a Jimmy Heath performance. He’s a good friend. I’ll go hear the Heath Brothers, the Jimmy Heath Big Band, and the Jazz Orchestra. I love Ahmad Jamal, Billy Harper, and used to go hear Abbey Lincoln, and Dakota Staton, everywhere, and so many others. I love their music and they have been good to me. I still send out a newsletter, too, just to a couple thousand now. And I use the Constant Contact email service instead of my Scriptomatic typewriter. Come to Cobi’s Place sometime; I know you’ll have a good time. We’d like to see you.
Update: Cobi’s Place was recently (end of October) closed by the New York Fire Marshall, because she did not have Public Assembly zoning. Now she has no place to put on her wonderful programs of film, music and dance. Cobi asks, if you are reading this, to help think of a new intimate space in New York that she could move to. If you have an idea, please write to her at: [email protected]
[Writer’s Note: Cobi Narita provided me with an historical CV written for her in the 1980s by Charliese Drakeford and during the interview , when the timeline got fuzzy or when some names or places had receded too far into distant memory, I referred back to Charliese’s excellent work.]