One afternoon in 1978 throngs of spectators clogged the sidewalks at the corner of Broadway and 52nd Street, while musicians and caterers set up in front of the club Casablanca, for the third day of the third annual Women In Jazz festival. A greedy club owner, wowed by the crowds, unexpectedly raised his fee and chained his doors. Refusing to pay, Nobuko "Cobi Narita, producer of the event, emerged from the situation with legendary finesse.
Thankfully, Sam Ash Music was able to send over a PA system and electric piano; a garage next door allowed them to plug in; and the musicians, like Mary Lou Williams who, Narita recalls, sat calmly on a drum case and ate her dinner off a paper plate, were able to relax and enjoy the music.
"A thousand people had to have lined up on that street, it was amazing! We were in every paper and even on the news in Europe and Japan! exclaimed Narita, who celebrates her 80th birthday this month at St. Peter's Church. George Wein, founder and C.E.O. of Festival Productions, donated Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall, then known as the Chamber Music Hall, to Narita for the last night of her festival. "He happened to be walking by that day and said to me, 'You can't buy that kind of publicity!.'
The California native began producing jazz concerts when she moved to New York in 1969. Nearly four decades later, she has gained a reputation as a champion of little known but hugely gifted artists. Saxophonist Billy Harper, who played at Narita's first jazz festival in 1976 at the New York Jazz Museum, said while many were proclaiming jazz dead, Narita kept it going. "She always had something happening so that musicians could perform, he said.
"She went by talent not name quality, explained saxophonist Jimmy Heath, who played in many of Narita's concerts. "We could always count on her to come up with some place for us to perform. After leaving the International Council of Shopping Centers, the job that brought her east, she managed the Collective Black Artists, a repertory orchestra and support group for underprivileged musicians. "They're all black men and I guess they didn't realize at first that I'm Asian because after two and a half years they decided they wanted a black male to run the organization. Narita had raised over $100,000 in funding, set up concerts with stars like Benny Golson and Archie Shepp and collected an array of charts, so she was a shocked to hear the news. "Two years after I left it went down the drain, she said. "It hurt my feelings of course, but I put it behind me. They're all good friends of mine still. Jimmy Owens said letting me go was one of the dumbest things they did.
As a teenager at the Gila River Relocation Center in Butte, Ariz., during World War II, Narita learned how to make the most out of a bleak situation and, bidding a fond farewell to the Collective Black Artists, she immediately set off on her own. In 1976 she founded the Universal Jazz Coalition. "I didn't want to be a big famous repertory orchestra, she explained. "I just wanted to help youngsters and seniors that weren't getting hired that often.
At first she took advantage of the city's public spaces, holding concerts in the parks, recruiting friends as volunteers and always paying the musicians. Eventually she set up her own clubs. She presented vocalists Dakota Station and Abbey Lincoln at the Jazz Gallery on 19th Street before moving to an 8,000 square foot space she called the Jazz Center of New York on Lafayette in 1983. "Everybody that was anybody came, she reminisced. "Henry Threadgill had a birthday party there. Dizzy Gillespie came. It was wonderful and it was a lot of work. I was very young and very strong.
Pianist Frank Owens remembers one night in June 1985 when he and singer Sandy Patton performed a tribute to Erroll Garner as part of Narita's "Late Great Black Composers series. Actor Maurice Hines tapped and reminisced about times with Garner and historian David Chertok showed films. Fast forward 30 years and step inside Cobi's Place on 48th Street which opened in 2002 and you'll find a similar situation. Owens travels up from Washington, DC every third Sunday of the month for an open mic and vocal class he hosts. Delilah Jackson shows jazz films and Toes Tiranoff leads an open tap.
"Jazz in New York would not have been the same without Cobi, said Heath. "Some of the musicians would not have survived and prospered if it hadn't been for Cobi. When she helped to build your reputation, you have to honor her. Only a few months younger than Narita, Heath is usually on hand to celebrate her, but this year he flies back from Germany on March 5th, the day of her party. "If the plane is on time I will be there, he promised.