Sammy Cohen, Metro Columnist and Jazz Society Founder

Two giants of San Jose’s jazz world died in late August within a week of each other. One was tall and always immaculately dressed, a Bellarmine-educated pianist, raised in the Santa Clara Valley and married into one of its wealthiest and most prominent families. His parents were Italian immigrants who worked in local tomato canneries.

The other was round and simply dressed, a working drummer who kept time for musicians like Cab Calloway and Mike Bloomfield in the hardscrabble clubs of New York and New Orleans. His dad, a Jewish-American precinct pol from Chicago, dressed during his later years in colorful mismatched plaids, printed up business cards that read “Mr. Los Gatos” and spoke up regularly at Town Council meetings.

Both were passionate about music. Henry Schiro was the well-dressed impresario who booked performers; Sammy Cohen was the drummer who fought for fair compensation as head of the local musician’s union.

As Metro prepared to publish its first issue, Cohen walked into the storefront office and pitched a column. Called “Jazz Notes,” it recognized for the first time that the South Bay was a hotbed for jazz and blues performers, and the column helped coalesce a scene.  He became one of the newspaper’s most recognized writers in its early years, interviewing John Lee Hooker and other musical legends along the way.

Cohen’s next idea was to organize a jazz society, and Metro agreed to pay for a phone line, which played a recorded message of upcoming events. He pulled together a San Jose Jazz Society band, which performed at Schiro’s jazz venue at the Garden City card club in San Jose.

One thing led to another, and the result was the San Jose Jazz Festival, now one of the biggest events of its kind. What Cohen started, Schiro built into greatness. The humble drummer and the polished pianist transformed the cultural life of a city.

Services for Schiro were held Aug. 29 at St. Joseph’s Cathedral.

Cohen will be remembered on Saturday, Sept. 13 at a 4pm memorial in the De Anza Hotel’s Hedley Club Lounge. It will be followed by a musical tribute that is sure to be memorable.


  1. Dan: Thank you for remembering those vocalists like Sammy who built the music scene in downtown San Jose for all of us to enjoy.
    He was a Prince amongst paupers.  He knew when to make you laugh; when to make you think and when to get mad enough to do something about it!  His dedication to music; youth education; community and family were values that I embraced when I followed him unto the long, arduous road of creating a San Jose Jazz Festival that we could all be proud of.  Twenty years!  Sammy was that driving force and music advocate for those that did not know better.  Peace.  AMH

  2. sammy, then Sam was my roommate in Chicago from 1961-1962. A few months with him led to my marriage in 1962. He was a handful. An excellent technical drummer who was dedicated to jazz. Later in life he was business manager for 3 AF OF M locals in the Bay area after receiving his degree in classical pecussion from San Jose State. We often played together in the early 60s, including at the Collrgiate jazz Festival at Notre dame in 1962. I played vibes, poorly,
    I’m sorry to say.
    He playred with a number of name artists, but never for very long. He was a pro0blem child, who once punched a trombone player on stage with the Elgart Band.

  3. Sam used to play music with my father in a band.  My father and Sam were friends back in Chicago was teenagers. I also took a few drum lessons from Sam.  He was quite a character and personality, to say the least.  In the few lessons I had, I learned a great deal.  And the thing that sticks out in my mind, nearly 30 years later was Sam yelling at me “Don’t drop the backbeat, asshole!” smile

    I last saw Sam at my father’s memorial in 1997.  I’d like to think Sam and my father are playing some music together “up there”.

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