‘Weaned on the Horn’–The Mysterious Life of Ann Cooper

It’s a story almost as old as jazz itself: A musician is born in New Orleans, some time between 1900 and 1920, drawn magnetically to its music. After cutting their teeth in local bands they strike out across the nation, making their name in the dance halls and speakeasies of New York and Chicago. But occasionally that journey was made in reverse, as was the case with the little-recorded trumpeter Ann Cooper.

Little-recorded in the sense that she cut few sides—although cutting any at all was an achievement for a female horn player in 1930s America, according to the Historical Dictionary of Jazz—and in the sense that we know relatively little about her life. Even the dates of her birth and her demise are so uncertain that Sherrie Tucker, the leading researcher of early 20th-century female jazz players, lists none in her comprehensive thesis A Feminist Perspective on New Orleans Jazz Women.

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Other than a few contemporary news cuttings, Cooper is referred to only tangentially in books about her various employers. So the following review of her career draws substantially from Tucker’s thesis, plus a few other sources not referenced by her. It’s the story of a trumpeter who strove to be and became prized not just as a “girl player” but as an outstanding musician—a fact attested to by the time she spent working alongside some of the Swing Era’s top talents.

Ann Cooper was born in Indianapolis, although when is anyone’s guess. She learned both piano and trumpet (she was “weaned on the horn,” she told interviewers) and sang when required. She had pursued her dream of brass-blowing stardom to Chicago by the mid-1930s, where she worked with Lil Hardin’s Harlem Playgirls (which actually did most of its playing in the Midwest). By 1938 she was well regarded enough to be mentioned in a round-up of female jazz talent published by the African-American periodical New York Amsterdam News.

It was in the midst of this success that she set off on a Hajj-like pilgrimage to where it all began: New Orleans. It seems that Papa Celestin had poached her to play with his orchestra, but it was Joe Robichaux who ended up hiring her for his Rhythm Boys. Cooper wasn’t the only woman to join the Boys—singer Joan Lunceford (née Daisy Lowe) and dancer Neliska “Baby” Briscoe would bring a feminine touch to the testosterone-rich outfit from 1933 on, when Robichaux expanded it from a six-piece combo to a 14-piece big band.

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A “dependable high-note trumpeter” who could “hold her own in jam sessions,” according to Robichaux, Cooper stayed with the Boys for only a year: She was displeased when the bandleader tried promoting her to special featured player—the trumpeter saw this as being “cut out of the band,” Robichaux later recalled, and she quit. Tucker explains this counterintuitive stance in her thesis.

At that time, it was less controversial (to audiences and male colleagues) when a woman player sat off to the side, chiming in only on predetermined songs. (The same was often true of Black musicians playing with white bands, she adds.) Billie Rogers, who played with Woody Herman’s band, was a similar case: Starting as an occasional addition, Herman moved her to the main horn section in the 1940s. Her bandmates were, apparently, very salty about this. But Rogers had achieved what she always wanted—she was no longer a “girl player,” but a player like the men.

Cooper didn’t want to be a sideshow—she was one of the Boys. Robichaux’s perceived slight was enough to drive her out of New Orleans to Detroit, then New York, and finally back to Chicago. Her feminist flight would no doubt make a fascinating biography—unfortunately, not much else is known about it. She turns up in union records from time to time, and Robichaux recalls a pianist called Bubba catching her play in the Chicago Loop.

That 1938 news article, referenced above, noted that Cooper “[stood] out as one example of a woman who has gone places with that instrument”—even if we don’t know precisely where or when—adding that she could reliably hit the C above high C (double-high C). For the benefit of non-trumpeters (like me), this is apparently a big deal. At least, it is judging by a 2007 post on the Trumpet Herald forum. “How many people can actually play above high C?” the OP asks. No one who replies claims a double-high C, satisfying themselves that a high D or E is plenty high enough.

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Cooper was in Chicago by 1939 when she cut the only two sides of her career, both with the Harlem Hamfats. Herb Morand had just left, prompting the remaining members to recruit Cooper, who joined clarinetist Odell Rand and sax player Chris Reggell in the small horn section. But the light-footed lady didn’t stick around for long, and by 1940 she had won the “unique honor”—according to the Chicago Defender—of being the only woman recruited to Sir Oliver Bibb’s Swing Orchestra.

The newspaper slighted female players everywhere when it called Cooper “the only girl musician in the game today who actually holds down a chair in a man’s suit,” pointing out that she was no mere speciality trumpeter but had a “rightful place in the band” where she played “all the music along with the other swingsters”—something few women could claim, as Tucker explained.

‘Weaned on the Horn’–The Mysterious Life of Ann Cooper
The Darlings had a somewhat rotating group of musicians, their brass players included, among others: trumpeters Clora Bryant, Jean Ray Lee, Thelma Lewis, Ann Cooper, and trombonist Jessie Turner. The musicians in the photo above are (left to right): unidentified, Toby Butler, Marie Johnson, and Autora Bell. Photo and research from Sherrie Tucker’s Nobody’s Sweethearts: Gender, Race, Jazz, and the Darlings of Rhythm. We could find no clearly identified photo of Ann Cooper.

After just two months, DownBeat reported, the ever-aspirational Cooper poached all but two of Bibb’s musicians for her own band. This too seems to have been short lived, as by 1942 she was touring with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. And while it might seem as though Cooper had sold out, Tucker explains in her book Swing Shift that the Sweethearts were one of few all-female bands which actually won acclaim beyond mere novelty act status. (In a 1940 Defender poll, which attracted 50,000 votes, the Sweethearts were voted American’s eleventh best band—better than those led by Earl Hines and Lionel Hampton.)

Cooper was a well respected woman amongst well respected women—not that this made things easy. Trumpeter and jazz historian Susan Fleet notes that the outfit made two coast-to-coast bus tours in 1942, on which they played alternating sets with Fletcher Henderson’s band before combining with it for a 35-piece finale. Cooper was there when fellow trumpeter Toby Butler—the band’s first white member—joined in 1943. The mixed-race group would sleep on their bus while touring the South, as segregation laws stopped them from booking into hotels or even restaurants. Fairer-skinned members would even darken their faces, Fleet adds, to avoid arrest for playing in a racially integrated outfit (a fate which befell Butler in 1946).

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Moreover, Fleet recounts that the Sweethearts were exploited, paid well below union rates—just $50 each for five gigs played over one Christmas weekend—while Social Security deductions from their meager wage were never paid in. Bandleader Jesse Stone was not to blame. In fact, he quit after clashing with management over the treatment of his players. Cooper too had gone by 1944, joining the Darlings of Rhythm as their “new star” alongside Joan Lunceford, Helen Taborn, and others.

Tucker ends her biography of Cooper here, and I could find no source which detailed her life or career beyond this point. Some Darlings went on to play with Tiny Davis’s Hell Divers. Was Cooper one of these? There’s no suggestion that she was. She has been cited as an inspiration upon Dolly Jones (sometimes credited as Doli Armenra)—but Jones was also famous by the mid-1930s and was actually recorded first, in 1938. Whatever the rest of Cooper’s life brought, here’s hoping it was long and happy. But she certainly didn’t go down in history as she should have done, as one of the few female horn players to win widespread acclaim during the Swing Era.

Dave Doyle is a swing dancer, dance teacher, and journalist based in Gloucestershire, England. Write him at [email protected]. Find him on Twitter @DaveDoyleComms.

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