Donald B. Cohen

Donald Cohen

Donald B. Cohen, a Baltimore musician who formed the Don Cohen Trio and the Jazz Express, which performed at various venues and social functions, died Jan. 8 of heart failure at the Warren Place senior housing complex in Cockeysville.

He was 78.

Donald Beryl Cohen, the son of a mechanic and homemaker, was born and raised in a distinctly non-musical family in Lancaster, Pa.

"He really was the odd man out in our family," his sister, Leah Frank, a retired registered nurse, who lives in Haddonfield, N.J., said with a laugh.

"Don started playing when we were kids in junior high school and got really good in high school. That's when he really took off. It was something he always enjoyed. It was his passion and he knew he wanted to do it early on," said Mrs. Frank.

"He often recalled that his father, after being unsuccessful at convincing young Donnie to practice his trumpet, hid it in the clothes hamper and told him he gave it away," said his daughter, Melissa Anne Parker of Sparks. "He cried and cried and promised to practice more, which he claims made his life what it was."

While in high school, Mr. Cohen began playing at jazz and night clubs around Lancaster, his sister said.

After graduating in 1952 from McCaskey High School, Mr. Cohen enlisted in the Air Force and spent four years playing trumpet in various bands.

"He played at various bases and at military functions," his sister said. "He admired Dave Brubeck and that style of jazz. That's what he played. He could pick up and play whatever you wanted, though. It was like magic.

"However, Miles Davis was his all-time favorite," said Ms. Parker.

After being discharged in 1956, he married the former Natalie Rosenfarb and moved to her family-owned hotel in the Catskills in upstate New York, where he played trumpet in their house band.

The couple divorced several years later, and Mr. Cohen moved to Philadelphia and took a job at E.J. Korvette as a display manager.

"He didn't go to college, but he had always been very artistic and creative," said Mrs. Frank.

He moved to Baltimore in the early 1960s, when E.J. Korvette opened a new store, and he became its display manager.

"He was very excited to be moving to an area where he could participate in the African-American jazz scene," said Ms. Parker. "He worked at Korvette's by day and played the city jazz club circuit by night."

While playing at the Surf Club, he met and fell in love with the former Judith Brink whom he married in 1966. They later divorced.

In the late 1960s, Mr. Cohen began playing with Rae Girard's Orchestra, which was the house band at the old Tail of the Fox restaurant and supper club on York Road in Timonium.

When the Tail of the Fox closed in the late 1980s, Mr. Cohen formed the Don Cohen Trio, Brass Image and the Jazz Express groups, which played at weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, downtown hotels, and at events staged at Lexington Market.

Ms. Parker said one of her father's favorite songs that he enjoyed playing and singing was "Yellow Bird," which was written by Marilyn Keith and Alan Bergman. "It's a classic jazz tune," she said. "He had a vast love and knowledge of jazz and the blues and would eagerly engage anyone in a lively conversation."

Mr. Cohen stopped playing when his third wife, the former Charlene Tosches, whom he married in 1993, received a kidney transplant. She died last year.

When the Korvette chain closed its stores about 1980, Mr. Cohen went to work at Michael's Arts and Crafts and later at Shoppers Food Warehouse, where he continued as display manager until retiring in 2011.

"He didn't want to sit around, and wanted to go back to work. Of course, who wants to hire a 77-year-old man, but he was persistent and got a job bagging groceries at Shop Rite in Timonium," said his daughter. "He worked a couple of hours each day, but just wanted to be around people."

Plans for a memorial gathering in the spring were incomplete.

In addition to his daughter and sister, Mr. Cohen is survived by a son, Dr. David Thomas Curiel of Birmingham, Ala.; a stepson, James Carroll Lolley of Bel Air; and four grandchildren.