Dolo Coker: California Hard (1976) Xanadu

More hidden treasures. You wait ages for a Dolo Coker post, then two come along at once. Marc Myers pipped me to the post with his JazzWax  post on Coker just a couple of weeks ago, here, describing Coker as “an insider’s jazz pianist…a confident, gentle player who could play tough and pretty.” My interest in this recording was captured not so much by Coker, as by the ensemble lined up for this recording. As the post was already in preparation any way, you get a a second helping of Dolo.

Dolo-Coker-California-Hard-Xanadu-142-cover-1920Selection:  Jumping Jacks


Blue Mitchell (trumpet, flugelhorn) Art Pepper (alto, tenor sax) Dolo Coker (piano) Leroy Vinnegar (bass) Frank Butler (drums) recorded Los Angeles, CA, December 27, 1976, recording engineer Arne Frager, mixing engineer Paul Goodman.

Look at the calibre of the (ahem) sidemen – Art  Pepper and Blue Mitchell, and in the rhythm section, Leroy Vinnegar and Frank Butler. It is the leader who was probably the least known. Dolo Coker, recording here the second of his four albums for Xanadu at the ripe old age of 49, two days after Christmas (or whatever euphemism people are required to use nowadays).


On California Hard Pepper records two tracks on tenor – one of his a few instances instead of his usual alto. Perhaps that was related to the previous day’s Xanadu session, with Harold Land on tenor. Or possibly Pepper had pawned his alto to meet an urgent cash transaction requirement, and took a loan of Land’s tenor in order to play on this session. Whichever, it is a delight to hear Pepper’s tenor voice – not the sweet pirhouettes and figures transposed to a lower register, but earthy, hard driving bop, a whole new Pepper.

Mitchell’s full fat tone on trumpet and flugelhorn renders the harmonies to perfection. Dolo bounces along for all he is worth, supported by one of the West Coast’s supreme rhythm sections, Vinnegar and FB. The whole session cooks, not to be overlooked because it is mid ’70s and an undervalued label – it is freshly minted in the grand tradition.

Coker’s earlier career found him in a variety of  rhythm sections, including Sonny Stitt (37 minutes and 48 seconds with) , Sonny Criss (Crisscraft), Art Pepper (Intensity) and Dexter Gordon (The Resurgence of)  Gordon and Coker were also paired on stage in the West Coast version of  Jack Gelber’s play The Connection (other versions including Freddie Redd /Howard McGhee/ Jackie McLean/ Tina Brooks made it to disc, plus I believe  couple of Dexter tracks on Blue Note’s  Dexter Calling)

Whence “Dolo“? Proper name Charles, perhaps he didn’t take to being called Charlie Coker.  His nickname is apparently a “diminutive taken from from a regional dance he liked to perform as a child”.  Warming to this idea, I’ve decided I wish now to be known as “The Hokey-cokey Jazz Collector

Dolo Coker left the stage for the last time, seven years later in 1983, attributed to cancer at the age of only 53.  His passion for teaching piano is continued in the form of the Dolo Coker Jazz Scholarship Foundation, which benefits high school and college students.


NYT Review described Coker’s piano thus –

Like most of the other musicians who matured during the be-bop era, he learned as much from earlier players (particularly, in Mr. Coker’s case, Art Tatum) as he did from his contemporaries.
Mr. Coker’s thorough but never rambling dissections of standards and originals were decorated with Tatumesque flourishes, and even with touches of stride playing. But he carefully and lovingly shaped each of his pieces, giving them balance, clarity and internal coherence.

I yield to someone who knows piano well enough to tease out his stylistic roots.

Vinyl: Xanadu 142

Cover Art:

It’s hard to imagine a less inviting piece of cover art. Xanadu’s Silver Series are (un)distinguished by their silver covers. A great music producer,  but the standard of Don Schlitten’s  photography falls some way short of Francis Wolff.


Cover art direction: imaginary scene, NY studio photoshoot

Dolo: How do you see it? How about me and a piano like those Blue Notes? 
DS: Hell, we got no piano here, Dolo, no. I got an idea. Rest your head on your hand and make like you are thinking great thoughts, you know, like The Thinker, that Gaugin sculpture.
Dolo: Smile for the camera, Don?
DS: No, Miles never smiles, Mingus never smiles, you are a serious artist, try to look …thoughtful. Oh and keep an eye on my car out of the window will ya, watch for the cops, I’m parked on a yellow line.
Dolo: Cops, Don!
DS: Damn, gotta run, I’ll make do with the one shot in the can. I think the expression is “bored” but it’ll have to do.


Unlike their covers, Xanadu Silver Series are generally very good pressings, and California Hard is no exception. To quote myself, “the stereo staging on Xanadu is excellent, and the dynamic range  strong throughout the spectrum, with punchy tuneful bass through to the sibulance of symbols”(LJC Guide to Xanadu label). The Xanadu  Gold Series of historically important recordings I have sometimes found less satisfactory due to original recording limitations.


No indication of pressing plant or studio, merely a very faint pin-etched catalogue number. Label area bears a large shallow soup-bowl depression, presumable some sort of groove-gard design die to offset autochanger damage.



Collector’s Corner

Thumbing through a store rack of mostly uninspiring jazz titles, this one jumped out at me due to the line up. Previous encounters with Schlitten’s Xanadu record label had always been very satisfactory, apart from one rare but poorly recorded Ronnie Cuber album. With a price barely in double figures, you have nothing to lose, and the payback can be quite high. The seller also had another Xanadu, an Al Cohn title which similarly came up trumps, all in all, an interesting pair.

Checkpoint: would you have recognised the tenor player if you hadn’t been told? Own up. Any Xanadu recommendations, have your say.

The Hokey-cokey JazzCollector


17 thoughts on “Dolo Coker: California Hard (1976) Xanadu

  1. I knew Kent Hazen who wrote the liners. Last saw him a week before I moved from MPLS – haven’t run into him in the 20 years since I moved back. Stereo for sure. Nice record.

  2. According to the website Xanadu Records Listing, the company released more than 100 albums. A review of the listing shows quite a wide range of artists. I noted I have more albums than I realized. Check it out. You may find the same.

  3. I pulled this out because you guys piqued my interest in re-listening. I believe it is stereo, but there is not a great degree of spatial separation from left to right. On my rig the piano is clearly on the left, horns in the center, bass center right and drums on the right. That said there is a pretty good amount of smear across the two channels. Thanks for posting this LJC. Its great to rediscover gems in my collection.

    • The only way to check it out is to listen through headphones and press the mono button for comparison. I’m telling you it’s mono.

  4. Pepper picked up the bigger horn in different occasions, as well as clarinet, since 1957.
    My impression is he was not completely at ease on tenor which he played the same way as alto.

  5. does the piano sound weird to anybody else? it almost sounds electric to me, if i didn’t know better. definitely not full-bodied… hm.

    these xanadu titles are so ugly but they have such nice music. would you believe i have never come across one in the wild? i have none on vinyl. sad.

    • Not to nitpick either – I have a higher in the history of European art – it’s “ironic”, the character in voice doesn’t recall the sculptor Rodin, but he remembers the painter Gaughin, they sound similar, the affectation to knowledge is exposed. Sometimes you guys don’t get the humour, maybe because it’s British.

      Sample: Edina in the new Absolutely Fabulous movie is told by her daughter, after she has accidentaly “killed” supermodel Kate Moss, that she is “a pariah”. Saffy asks: “You do know what a pariah is, don’t you?” Edina replies, “Of course darling. It’s a fish”

      Pirahna. British humour.

      You missed the point. More interesting, what do you think of the music?

  6. I may be wrong, LJC, but I can hear no stereo here. To my ears it’s the most genuine, most unambiguous mono that there is. Is something wrong with my sound card?

    • Anything is possible. I’m away from home so I can’t verify anything, but the LP is stated to be stereo, my preamp was definitely set in the stereo switch. So either Audacity settings have inadvertently been altered, or that recording is mono, despite stating stereo. My recollection is that the soundstage on listening to the vinyl was stereo. So, mystery, watch this space.

        • Xanadu deserves high praise! They recorded the West Coast when everybody else was was doing theEast Coast. They recorded jazz artists which were lost to listeners for at least a decade. High praise to a label with guts and a knack for recording the lost masters!

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