Pete Cocoros’ trumpet takes him from Brooklyn to Barton, the long way

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Pete Cocoros, veteran, trumpeter, and photographer, plays “Taps” in Glover on Memorial Day, 2013.  Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar
Pete Cocoros, veteran, trumpeter, and photographer, plays “Taps” in Glover on Memorial Day, 2013. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

copyright the Chronicle December 23, 2014

by Joseph Gresser

BARTON — As he hears a visitor pull into the dooryard of his camp, only a stone’s throw from Crystal Lake, Pete Cocoros pokes the bell of his trumpet out his door and blows a fanfare. It proves to be an apt prelude to a two-hour conversation about music and the adventurous path blazed by a horn.

Mr. Cocoros has performed for generals, played before thousands at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, entertained troops in Iceland, Morocco, and Greece, and set people to dancing all over the United States.

Most people who know him these days think of Pete Cocoros as the man whose playing of “Taps” brings tears to the eyes of those gathered to celebrate Veterans and Memorial days in Barton. Or they know him as the man whose photographs of local school band concerts appear in the Chronicle a few times a year.

It’s also possible that many have heard his playing without seeing him. He and organist Jeannine Bernard established a Christmas tradition at St. Paul’s Church when she placed him and his trumpet in the balcony for a duo performance of “Oh Holy Night.”

Those are a couple of the things Mr. Cocoros has done during his time in Vermont, but his gift for music has taken him around the world.

Once Mr. Cocoros had welcomed his visitor and offered refreshments, including a glass of Ouzo, an anise-flavored Greek aperitif, he turned on a recording of a production of Man Of La Mancha dating back to the 1970s.

The production, directed by former Lake Region Union High School teacher Chuck Milazzo, featured a professional orchestra with Mr. Cocoros as first chair trumpet.

Man of La Mancha opens with a fanfare played by Mr. Cocoros, a performance that displays his solid intonation and a beautifully rounded tone. Mr. Cocoros beamed as he listened to his playing and the singing of Greg Tossi, the student who performed in the title role

“That was as good as the Broadway show,” he declared.

Mr. Cocoros’ stories tend to include hearty praise for those whose work he admires. Both Mr. Milazzo and Ms. Berard rank high in his estimation. He played with both in the Shangrilas, a dance band that toured Vermont and New Hampshire extensively. Ms. Berard’s son Roger was the drummer in the band, and in Mr. Cocoros’ estimation a very fine player.

The Shangrilas achieved quite a bit of success in the 1970s, but the popular preference for rock ’n’ roll eventually spelled its demise. It was not the first time the change in public taste affected his career path.

No one hearing a single word from Mr. Cocoros’ mouth could mistake him for a Vermonter. His Brooklyn accent makes Bernie Sanders sound like he grew up in the Kingdom. In fact, Mr. Cocoros only got to Brooklyn at age six.

He was born in the 1930s in Poughkeepsie, New York. His father, a restaurateur, took his family to Greece to visit before moving to work at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Mr. Cocoros grew up rooting for the Dodgers, watching them play at Ebbets Field.

“I used to go sit in the band box, right over third base,” he recalled. “In those days the players would bring kids out on the field before the game.”

His enthusiasms took a different turn when he reached age 12 and fell under the spell of trumpeter Harry James, an important band leader of the day.

Mr. Cocoros took some of the earnings from a shoeshine stand he ran and bought himself a cornet.

He found teachers who believed in him and encouraged him to continue in his studies. Eventually, he said, he became the pupil of Harry Berkes, a Russian émigré who was a fine teacher and excellent player.

Mr. Cocoros said he would finish his lesson with Mr. Berkes, and the two would play duets for an hour and a half or so.

“He would have a ring around his lips when we got finished,” Mr. Cocoros said.

He praised Mr. Berkes’ technique, saying he could play as rapidly as a machine gun. When Mr. Cocoros speaks of a good player, he often says the musician could read fly specks, or words to that effect.

By that he means a player can perform whatever music is put before him.

Mr. Cocoros’ own ability to sight read music was to prove its worth to him more than once.

When he was not allowed to transfer from his Brooklyn high school to the High School for Music and Art, an incubator for talented New York teenagers, Mr. Cocoros dropped out of school.

He got a job at one of the movie palaces that graced New York City in those years — the Loews State Theater on Broadway between 45th and 46th streets.

“First I was a barker. They gave me a long coat. I looked like Russian general,” Mr. Cocoros said.

Later on, he was moved inside, made an usher, and given a tuxedo to wear. He liked the tux, and he’d wear it across the street to Lindy’s, a well-known Broadway restaurant, where he’d order a martini. Although he was only 14, the formal attire got him served, he said.

In addition to movies, the Loews State featured live vaudeville acts, including Mae West, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, before they hit the big time, and Mickey Rooney. The theater was very popular.

Mr. Cocoros remembers seating Irving Berlin, the great songwriter, at one performance.

At another show, Henny Youngman, the famous comedian, was performing when a woman in one of the front rows started making a fuss.

Mr. Youngman asked from the stage what was going on, a question to which Mr. Cocoros replied with a big shrug. That drew the comedian’s attention toward Mr. Cocoros, who then weighed only about 100 pounds dripping wet.

As he walked back up the aisle, Henny Youngman pointed to Mr. Cocoros and said, “We ought to send him to Europe to show them that people here are starving, too.”

Just before his eighteenth birthday, Mr. Cocoros saw a film about paratroopers. It so impressed him that he enlisted in the army when he turned 18, much to his parents’ surprise.

He was ordered to Japan during the occupation that followed World War II. There he performed in the divisional band.

“I became the general’s bugler,” he said. With another trumpeter he would accompany the brass to meetings and play fanfares as they made their entrance.

While in Japan, Mr. Cocoros picked up some of the language, which he recalls to this day.

“I have a good ear and learned enough to get around,” he said.

When he got home after his three-year hitch, Mr. Cocoros started up his lessons with Mr. Berkes again. For quite a while his teacher had refused to take money from his prize student.

When he wasn’t playing, Mr. Cocoros spent a lot of time in a Greenwich Village club called Nick’s, where a lot of musicians hung out when they weren’t working. The club featured a small combo, and visiting musicians often sat in for a number or two.

After hearing Mr. Cocoros talking about music night after night, trumpeter Pee Wee Erwin, decided to see what the young man could do.

“Here’s a trumpet, go play,” he said.

As he started, Mr. Cocoros recalled, the piano player looked up and said, “Wow, listen to that kid. What a sound.”

Mr. Cocoros turned to his visitor and asked him if the story sounded too egotistical. He admitted a reluctance to be the subject of an article. That might surprise many of those who know him, but he said he had been persuaded to cooperate by his friend Lynne Berard.

Still, he reveled in the memory of sitting in with the band at Nick’s.

“It was like playing with the New York Yankees,” he said.

Another gathering place for musicians was Jim and Andy’s, a bar that was farther uptown and where studio musicians spent their down time.

There, he met the man he refers to as his mentor, Bobby Hackett, a trumpet player who played with Benny Goodman’s and Glen Miller’s bands. The highest compliment he acknowledges is having his trumpet work compared to Hackett’s playing.

“When he played a solo, even a fast one, it was so melodic you wrote it down for an orchestra to play,” Mr. Cocoros said. “I learned a lot from him.”

At the time, Mr. Cocoros was working steadily playing club dates — one-night gigs, where the players were presented with music just before they went on. His sight reading ability stood him in good stead.

Those dates meant working with a wide variety of musicians.

“If you did well, they put their arms around you. If not, they wouldn’t talk to you,” Mr. Cocoros said.

He eventually got a steady job at the Miami Club on Staten Island, where the entertainment consisted of a stripper, a comedian and the band. Mr. Cocoros played from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m., although one night an organized crime boss, recently out of jail, insisted on keeping the place open until 4 a.m.

One evening a paint salesman came into the club, explaining that he wanted to get into comedy. He did and made the name Rodney Dangerfield famous, Mr. Cocoros said.

On another evening, Mr. Cocoros said he got into the bad graces of a stripper by upstaging her while playing high notes on his horn with one foot in the air.

He also performed with pianist Jack Reilly, who he terms an innovator. His trumpet took him as far afield as Bethlehem, New Hampshire, known in those days as the “Jewish Alps.” Mr. Cocoros added tunes to his repertory on those trips that stood him in good stead later, when the Shangrilas were booked to play for Jewish weddings.

When he got back to New York, he returned to Jim and Andy’s where a violinist from the Radio City Music Hall orchestra asked to hear him one day. They went up to a rehearsal studio and Mr. Cocoros impressed the fiddler enough that when one of the ensemble’s four trumpet players turned up too drunk to play one night, Mr. Cocoros was dragged into the theater, put into a tux and seated with the orchestra.

The musicians, he recalled were seated on a platform 60 feet below stage level. After a performance on the Radio City organ, the orchestra was elevated into view.

Mr. Cocoros had not seen the music before the performance and was a bit startled when someone told him that he had a solo coming up.

It was a mellow solo, played along with the violins to accompany a soft shoe routine on the stage.

As he finished, Mr. Cocoros said, he saw Raymond Paige give him a kind of salute, and he knew he had done well. That got him a job as a substitute trumpet, a more difficult gig than playing a steady part. Any night Mr. Cocoros had to be prepared to play one of four trumpet parts in an orchestra whose repertory constantly changed along with the stage show.

After a while, he heard that the United Service Organization (USO), the group that provided entertainment to U.S. troops overseas, was looking for musicians to go on tour.

Mr. Cocoros went down, signed up, and after an FBI background check, was off, with a first stop at a radar base in Thule, Greenland. The tour went out with a three-piece combo, a singer and a comedian who also played the part of master of ceremonies. Occasionally a Hollywood star would join them, Mr. Cocoros recalled.

The tours lasted several months at a time, during which the group performed six days a week, traveling by bus or plane, depending on how far they had to travel.

On one tour Mr. Cocoros traveled into the Russian-controlled zone of Berlin — he still has his pass, dated April 1963, only a couple of years after the Berlin Wall was built.

On another occasion, his troupe was sent to Greece, where his fluency in the language and heritage won the group many friends.

While in Marrakesh, Morocco, Mr. Cocoros recalled, he found actors Anthony Quinn and Arthur Kennedy sitting outside a small bar. It turned out they were in town to work on a movie — Lawrence of Arabia.

On a trip to Ethiopia, he performed at high altitude, which he discovered impeded his ability to hit high notes on his horn.

Eventually, the traveling wore on him, and he returned to the States. There, he found that rock and roll had supplanted his type of music, and club owners were realizing that it was cheaper to hire four guitarists than a big band.

He toured into the late 1960s and early 1970s. One day while he was performing in western Vermont, Mr. Cocoros saw an ad for a small cabin on Crystal Lake.

“I drove over, looked at it and bought it in ten minutes,” he said.

Once in the Northeast Kingdom, he found a group of musical friends, with whom he formed a band.

He also began pursuing his hobby of photography, with the same seriousness he put into his music.

In 1989 he decided to drive to Montana with his camera.

“I always like to see the other side of the mountain,” he said.

Taking only $400 and sleeping in his car to save money, Mr. Cocoros made it west where he met and befriended members of the Crow nation.

He attended a re-enactment of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, where George Custer and his men met their fate. He photographed the event and played the “Star Spangled Banner” as well.

On this and on subsequent trips, Mr. Cocoros made a series of images that would put most professional photographers to shame.

One, taken at a rodeo, shows a bronco rider laying back on his mount which has all four legs at least three feet off the ground. Others show a herd of horses galloping toward the camera and close up photographs of bison, each of which seem to have been taken without regard for life or limb.

Mr. Cocoros’ interest in photography and cinema dates back many years. At one time, when he was between musical jobs, he worked at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in the film department.

He befriended photography curator Edward Steichen, who is known both for his own pioneering work and for assembling a seminal show titled The Family of Man.

While a museum job may sound tame, Mr. Cocoros ran into some excitement when a fire broke out, and he was called on to help rescue a priceless painting of water lilies by Claude Monet.

These days, Mr. Cocoros has cut back on his playing, except for performing “Taps” on national holidays.

He said he has to practice five or six hours a day to get his lip into shape for real playing.

When it was in prime condition, he said, his lip “was like iron.”

That was important for his specialty, hitting stratospherically high notes.

He recalled the end of his USO act, when the band would play “When The Saints Come Marching In.” He would play the concluding phrase, as his fellow performers shouted, “Higher, Pete, higher.”

With them egging him on he would end the show with a G above high C, high enough for any player.

Mr. Cocoros still makes a point of going to every performance by the Lake Region Union High School Band and the Orleans Central Supervisory Union Band. He shows up at the Chronicle with photographs, but more importantly with enthusiastic commentary on the quality of the performers he has heard.

He is always delighted to find a musician or a singer who displays real talent. But at the same time, he is dismayed when he feels such a talent is being wasted by someone who is not willing to put the time and work necessary to bring it to fruition.

Toward the end of his time with his visitor Sunday evening, Mr. Cocoros put on a record by the man he calls his mentor, Bobby Hackett.

Sitting back in his chair, he basked in the sound. He pointed to his heart and said, “You’ve got to play from here.

“You can’t just play notes. If you play ‘Taps’ and the people are crying, you know you’re doing a hell of a job.”

contact Joseph Gresser at [email protected]

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