Nobuko “Cobi” Narita’s tireless devotion to the jazz community has spanned more than forty years. Every artist she has presented or assisted becomes part of her jazz family, which means that her extended family has thousands of members. Born and raised in California of Japanese heritage, Cobi remembers listening to jazz on a local radio station, which prompted her to volunteer at a club called Memory Lane, where jazz trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison, tenor saxophonist Houston Pearson, and singer Etta Jones performed.
In 1941 when she was fifteen, the U.S. Military Police abruptly took Japanese- American Narita from her high school classroom in California to the Gila River Detention Camp in Arizona. There she and her siblings (two brothers and two sisters) and parents were detained until the end of World War II, living in a room 20×20. Cobi says it was her cultural background never to complain that gave her a positive spirit and strong ambition in spite of her adverse circumstances. Despite the oppressive conditions, Cobi started a detention camp newsletter to let detainees know what was happening throughout the camp, including pregnancies, marriages and always-positive messages. Following the Narita family’s release from detention, Cobi completed high school and received a scholarship to Gettysburg College (in Pennsylvania) where she majored in theater. While in college she married and gave birth to seven children, eventually dropping out of college to work when her marriage ended in divorce.
On Fourth of July weekend in 1969 at the age 44, Cobi moved to New York City. “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. Upon arriving in New York, she walked through Central Park and hearing some good music playing, she discovered the bass player Gene Taylor, an old friend who told her to go to Saint Peter’s Church and volunteer for Pastor John Garcia Gensel’s jazz ministry. Shortly after, she volunteered to write grants for Jazz Interactions, an organization devoted to the preservation of jazz, founded in the 1960s by jazz trumpeter Joe Newman and Rigmor Newman (later to marry Harold Nicholas). Jazz interactions did educational programs, concerts, and a community service line, Jazz Line, that 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.
In 1972 Cobi went to work as Executive Director of Collective Black Artists, a repertory orchestra directed by Reggie Workman, Jimmy Owens and Kenny Rogers. That first year she raised $110,000 for projects, taking only half salary so as to give most of the money to such orchestra members as Stanley Cowell, Frank Foster, and Charles Tolliver. Two and a half years later the directors fired Cobi. “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 it was too late.”
While working with the Jazz Collective where she was organizing weekly gigs for a 13-piece orchestra in St. Albans, Queens, Cobi met Paul Ash, who would become her life-long partner. Ash, the owner of the most renowned music store on 48th Street in Manhattan was smitten with Cobi. He asked to drive her home, she politely refused, he persisted. “But he kept after me, kept after me, and finally I accepted a date,” says Cobi. “Really, we were meant to be, right from the very beginning. 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 seventeen years before we got married.”
In 1976 Cobi founded the Universal Jazz Coalition to present and provide technical assistance to jazz artists with embers of the Board that included Betty Carter, Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Hancock, Ahmad Jamal, Melba Liston, Clark Terry, George Wein, and Abbey Lincoln. The Coalition’s first jazz festival was presented at the New York Jazz Museum with jazz saxophonist Billy Harper and jazz dancer Pepsi Bethel.
By this time, Cobi had solidified The New York Women’s Jazz Festival, which began as the Universal Jazz Coalition Salute to Women. Its purpose was simple: “I had always felt women jazz musicians did not get the attention as artists that they should. Club owners will always pick a male leader for a band. And the male leader, with an opportunity to choose among equally qualified musicians, will pick men rather than women. I felt that women needed something like that Kansas City [Women’s Jazz] Festival in New York to give them an opportunity to show that they can play. When that first year’s Women’s Jazz Festival was presented at the Casablanca Club in New York, so many people attended that the club upped the rental fee, locking them out of the venue. So the concert was held 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” says Cobi,” adding, that George Wein came and saw what had happened and donated the Carnegie Recital Hall for the next night. “Wasn’t that nice!”
When a jazz artist needed money, Cobi’s organization helped. Not a loan, but a gift. “Sometimes we could do a fundraiser like the one for Papa Jo Jones,” says Cobi. “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.” In 1983 Cobi rented a space on Lafayette Street and called it Jazz Center of New York. It was a big loft, 8,300 feet, producing workshops and jam sessions almost every day. In her Vocal Discovery workshops, young musicians learned from such professionals as Abbey Lincoln, Dakota Staton, and Maxine Sullivan, at a cost of $100. If the musician could not afford it, Cobi handed out “scholarships.” Artists presented at the Jazz Center included Dizzy Gillespie, Randy Weston, Ahmad Jamal, Billy Harper, George Coleman, and Harold Mabern, along with the first Max Roach Double Quartet.
In 1995, Cobi was asked to sit on a panel with Lorraine Gordon from the Village Vanguard, writer Leslie Gourse, and singer-organist Sarah McLawler to address the issues facing women in jazz, hoping to attract women artists to come and complain, and vent about how underrepresented women jazz artists were. Out of that panel, International Women in Jazz was born. Cobi served as President for the first three years, Chairwoman of the Board for the next three, and on the advisory board. She also served on the boards of the 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, she provided Asian American groups for the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, when they do their cherry blossom festival every year, and for Arts Connection, winning prestigious awards from the Kennedy Center, the Government of Japan, and Jazz Foundation of America’s first Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 2005 the Tap Extravaganza’s Flo-Bert Lifetime Achievement Award from the New York Committee to Celebrate National Tap Dance Day.
Cobi’s support of tap dancing has been a constant in her life-long support of jazz. Cobi’s Place, right above Sam Ash on 48th Street in New York, was the stronghold of Saturday, concerts, films, tap history, and tap jams, presenting such notable historians as Delilah Jackson and Walter Taylor, and pianist Frank Owens, “the tap dancer’s best friend.” Though Cobi’s Place was forced to closed by the New York Fire Marshall due to the lack of public assembly zoning) she found a new space for the tap community. In 2010 Cobi founded the Queens Tap Extravaganza at the elegant Flushing Town Hall, expanding the public’s awareness of tap dancing across the boroughs. She has been a constant supporter of tap jams at Small’s Jazz Club; hosted by Michela Marino Lerman, the jams feature a live trio of jazz musicians and allow young dancers to improvise within the musical form.
Cobi has been a constant star in the jazz community. “Cobi is the glue for the jazz family. She holds us all together and she’s a guiding light for young musicians,” bassist Earl May noted. Tap dancers say the same: “Cobi is one of the most giving persons that I have ever, ever in my life known,” said tap diva and vocalist Mable Lee. “She gives to everybody. She loves people . . . She is an angel to everybody.” The legendary Duke Ellington was known to greet his close friends with a kiss on each cheek, but when greeting Cobi Narita, he would three times kiss her cheek in affectionate recognition of the queen of our jazz community.
Constance Valis Hill