Noal Cohen's Jazz History Website

Jazz in Rochester, NY, 1955-61

I was born (1937), raised, and educated in Rochester, NY. In the early 1950s, I began taking drum lessons and playing around town. These activities eventually brought me into contact with many of the outstanding musicians located in the upstate New York area at the time. Since the Eastman School of Music was located in Rochester, the local scene was substantially enriched by many talented Eastman students interested in jazz, even though no jazz studies program existed then. Nonetheless, I can well remember jam sessions held in the tiny Eastman practice rooms with a dozen or so musicians packed in so tightly that there was barely enough air to breathe!

Thus the local scene which already boasted such budding stars as the Mangione Brothers, bassist Frank Pullara, drummer Roy McCurdy, saxophonists Pee Wee Ellis, Benny Salzano and Joe Romano and others was enhanced and fertilized by Eastman students including bassist Ron Carter, pianists Wolf Knittel and Paul Tardif, saxophonists Larry Combs and Al Regni, and trumpeter Waymon Reed. John Eckert, another fine trumpet player, was also part of this scene although, like myself, he was a student at the University of Rochester rather than at Eastman.

In 1957, the Oscar Peterson Trio came through town and an unexpectedly well-publicized jam session was arranged to allow some of the young local talent to perform with Peterson. Besides the piano giant, the band included Ron Carter on bass, Chuck Mangione and Waymon Reed on trumpets, Benny Salzano on tenor saxophone and myself on drums. We were terrified and unprepared and the atmosphere was tense even though Peterson was very understanding. Somehow we managed to nervously negotiate a slow blues and Groovin' High before Herb Ellis and Ray Brown came on stage and the famous trio proceeded to give us and the audience a substantial lesson in jazz performance. It was one of those rather embarrassing learning experiences that every young, aspiring musician has to endure in order to grow and mature.

There were several clubs in Rochester which featured jazz and hosted jam sessions such as The Pythodd which regularly booked artists like The Three Sounds, Jack McDuff, Johnny Hammond Smith, Les McCann and Ray Bryant. Another was The Ridgecrest Inn where I heard the Miles Davis Quintet, Dizzy Gillespie, J.J. Johnson, the Sonny Rollins Trio, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, Billie Holiday, Horace Silver's band and Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers (the Benny Golson/Lee Morgan/Bobby Timmons version). At the Ridgecrest, I led a trio for several months in 1959 and had the opportunity to occasionally play opposite major groups like the Gerry Mulligan Quartet with Art Farmer. Needless to say, it was a wondrous and inspiring period for jazz and for young, aspiring musicians and I was privileged to have been a part of it, albeit from a perspective some 350 miles northwest of 52nd Street.

In May of 1960, the Chuck Mangione Quintet, of which I was a part, was a finalist in the first annual Intercollegiate Jazz Festival competition at Georgetown University. The ensemble included Larry Combs, alto saxophone; Paul Tardif, piano; Dick Samson, bass; and myself on drums. We drove to Washington to perform before a crowd of 3000 and a panel of judges made up of Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond, John Hammond (Columbia Records), Jack Pleis (Decca Records), Robert Share (Berklee School) and George Hoefer (Down Beat). Although the winner of the competition was the Charles Bell Contemporary Jazz Quartet, the Mangione group was clearly the audience favorite as reported in a Down Beat magazine article (July 7, 1960; p. 13). We were disappointed but the experience was exciting and Mangione's career has certainly outstripped that of Charles Bell. Unfortunately (but justifiably), Roy McCurdy replaced me in Mangione's group later the same year and I went on to playing commercial club dates before leaving Rochester for good in 1961 to pursue other avenues.

In revisiting this period, I have compiled a list of the many musicians active in the Rochester area during 1955-61 (see link above). This period is arbitrary and has been selected only because it was the time frame during which I was actively performing. I have also included musicians from Buffalo and Syracuse because there was considerable overlap among the players from these three proximate upstate New York cities. You will find many recognizable names of individuals who went on to fame and, in certain cases, even fortune. Sadly, some are no longer with us. If you have any additions, corrections or comments, please email me.

I have also begun to document the Rochester jazz club and concert scene during this period by scanning microfilm of Rochester newspapers stored at that city's main library. This is an enormous undertaking and will take years to complete. And unfortunately, this approach is limited to those concerts and club appearances that were advertised and/or reviewed in the Democrat and Chronicle or the Times Union. Nonetheless, I intend to gather whatever information is available on both major (national/international) artists as well as local jazz musicians (see links above).

On September 19, 2002, I participated in a panel discussion on Jazz in Rochester in the 1950s and early 1960s held at the Rush Rhees Library on the campus of the University of Rochester. This event took place in conjunction with the opening of an exhibit Mid-Century Jazz in Rochester, 1955-1962: Photographic Prints from the Paul Hoeffler Archive, which ran through May of 2003. Based for most of his life in Toronto, ON, Hoeffler was a student at Rochester Institute of Technology during this period and took many memorable photos of jazz artists both local and world famous, at various venues in Rochester. In fact, two of his photos can be accessed from my photos page. Sadly, Hoeffler passed away on July 30, 2005. Most of his jazz prints are preserved in an archive Paul Hoeffler - Rochester Jazz Photographic Collection, 1955-2003. This archive provides invaluable documentation of the musicians and venues in Rochester at the time. For further information, contact the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections.

On April 26, 2012, The Rochester Historical Society presented Tom Hampson Remembers: All That Jazz!, a talk and slide presentation that included many of Hoeffler's photographs. Hampson is the host of Mostly Jazz on WXXI Radio. Derrick Lucas of WGMC Jazz 90.1 was the moderator.

Please contact me by email with any comments or corrections.