Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Coles, Johnny

Trumpeter Johnny Coles knew how to say the essential with very few notes: his sound was fragile, endearing, soft and dry. Never an innovator or risk-taker, he played with a controlled, lyrical flow and made creative use of space and silence. His ability to adapt effortlessly to any setting made him a favorite of the top bandleaders in jazz of the 1950s and 60s.

His trumpet technique often drew comparisons to Miles Davis, but his fluidity and warmth on the mellow-toned flugelhorn had a more distinctive voice. He only released four albums as a leader, but he left a rich record as a soloist in groups led by Gil Evans, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Herbie Hancock, and Ray Charles.

Born July 3, 1926 in Trenton, New Jersey, Coles’s family moved to Philadelphia while he was still a child. At age ten, he taught himself to play the trumpet and later studied music at the Mastbaum Vocational School.

Coles played in Army bands during World War II and got his first professional experience playing in saxophonist Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson’s rhythm and blues band from 1948 to 1951, where he played alongside other aspiring Philadelphia musicians, including John Coltrane and Red Garland. Coles also played in the rhythm-and-blues groups of Bull Moose Jackson in 1952 and Earl Bostic from 1955 to 1956.

Coles joined saxophonist James Moody’s group in 1956. After leaving Moody in 1958, he joined Gil Evans’s orchestra, where he stayed until 1964. Coles can be heard in orchestra on Evans's masterful collaborations with trumpeter Miles Davis: Porgy and Bess, Sketches of Spain, and At Carnegie Hall.

Coles also shone on Evans’s records without Miles in this period, including the classic Out of the Cool, on which he takes memorable solos on “La Nevada” and “Sratusphunk.” For more of his fine work with Evans, check out tracks such as “Bird Feathers” and “Straight No Chaser,” which can be heard on the Evans compilation The Complete Pacific Jazz Sessions.

Coles’s first album as a leader, The Warm Sound, was released by Epic in 1961. Recorded in two sessions on April 10 and April 13, 1961, it featured Kenny Drew and Randy Weston on piano, Peck Morrison on bass, and drummer Charlie Persip. Coles’ laid-back lyrical swing, economical melodicism, and motivic development is showcased nicely on tracks such as “Hi-Fly” and his own composition “Room 3.”

His second and most well-known album, Little Johnny C, was released on Blue Note in 1963 and teamed Coles with Joe Henderson, altoist Leo Wright, pianist Duke Pearson (who also composed and arranged five of the six tracks), bassist Bob Cranshaw, and either Walter Perkins or Pete LaRoca on drums.

Coles plays with more confidence on this record than he does on his previous; highlights include his punctuated, staccato licks on Henderson’s groovy Latin blues “Hobo Joe” and his beautiful tone on Pearson’s ballad “So Sweet My Little Girl.”

In 1964, Coles was tapped to play in Charles Mingus’s sextet, one of the bassist’s most outstanding groups. The band featured Coles in the frontline alongside the brilliantly eccentric multi-reedist Eric Dolphy and tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan, as well as pianist Jaki Byard and drummer Dannie Richmond. The group toured Europe, but Coles was forced to leave the band due to a sudden illness that had him rushed to a hospital mid-set: this truncated concert in Paris was released in 1998 on the Jazz Time label as Fables of Faubus.

With Mingus, Coles can be heard in fine form on the albums Live in Oslo, The Great Concert: Paris 1964, Live in Stockholm 1964: The Complete Concert, Revenge!, and Town Hall Concert. Coles’s austere lyricism and thoughtful coolness added an extra dimension to the Mingus group; his playing in great contrast to Dolphy’s boisterous loquaciousness and Jordan’s confident swagger.

Once healthy, Coles returned to New York and began freelancing, working and recording with Duke Pearson, Astrud Gilberto, Booker Ervin, and again with James Moody and Gil Evans. In 1969, he worked with Herbie Hancock, playing flugelhorn in the pianist’s nonet on his ambitious and lush tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr., The Prisoner. Coles contributes a handful of well-structured improvisations in his usual mild-mannered lyrical style, though at times he projects a more aggressive, biting tone in rare, surprising moments of contrast. His solo on “I Have a Dream” is one of his best on record.

Remaining in Hancock’s working sextet, Coles is featured on the pianist’s first venture into the jazz-funk arena, Fat Albert Rotunda, recorded in October and December of 1969. Coles fit surprisingly well in this raw, R&B-styled, commercially conscious set of accessible and grooving Hancock originals, including an uncharacteristic screaming, blues-heavy trumpet solo on the album’s opener “Wiggle Waggle.” “Tell Me a Bedtime Story”, the most recognized and enduring track from the album, features Coles dreamily emoting the hauntingly beautiful melody.

Coles followed his tenure with Hancock with a two year gig with Ray Charles, from 1969 to 1971, and then a four year stay in Duke Ellington’s orchestra until 1974. He released his third album as a leader in 1971, Katumbo, which featured among others Cedar Walton on piano and Reggie Workman on bass.

Coles was less active in the late 1970s, and in the 1980s he worked in many tribute bands, including Dameronia, dedicated to the repertoire of Tadd Dameron, Mingus Dynasty, and the Count Basie band, led by Thad Jones.

OnNew Morning, Coles's 1982 final album as a leader, was recorded and released in 1982 and featured Coles strictly on flugelhorn. He retired from performing in 1989 and passed away from cancer in Philadelphia in 1996 at the age of seventy-one.

Select Discography

As a leader:

The Warm Sound (1961)

Little Johnny C (1963)

Katumbo (1971)

New Morning (1982)

As a sideman:

Red Top: The Savoy Sessions (Gene Ammons, 1953)

Flute ‘n the Blues (James Moody, 1956)

Moody’s Mood For Love (James Moody, 1956)

Fats Waller Songbook (Dinah Washington, 1957)

New Bottle, Old Wine (Gil Evans, 1958)

Porgy and Bess (Miles Davis/Gil Evans, 1958)

The Ellington Suites (Duke Ellington, 1959)

Sketches of Spain (Miles Davis/Gil Evans, 1959)

Great Jazz Standards (Gil Evans, 1959)

Out of the Cool (Gil Evans, 1960)

At Carnegie Hall (Miles Davis, 1961)

The Waiting Game (Tina Brooks, 1961)

Groovin’ for Nat (Donald Byrd, 1962)

Am I Blue? (Grant Green, 1963)

Astral Weeks (Charles Mingus, 1964)

Fables of Faubus (Charles Mingus, 1964)

The Great Concert: Paris 1964 (Charles Mingus, 1964)

Guitar Forms (Kenny Burrell, 1964)

Live in Oslo (Charles Mingus, 1964)

Live in Stockholm 1964: the Complete Concert (Charles Mingus, 1964)

Revenge! (Charles Mingus, 1964)

Town Hall Concert (Charles Mingus, 1964)

Honeybuns (Duke Pearson, 1965)

Booker ‘n’ Brass (Booker Ervin, 1967)

Fat Albert Rotunda (Herbie Hancock, 1969)

The Prisoner (Herbie Hancock, 1969)

Togo Brava Suite (Duke Ellington, 1971)

Farewell (Gil Evans, 1986)

Live at Town Hall, NYC (Gene Harris w/ the Phillip Morris Superband, 1989)

Contributor: Matt Leskovic