Soul Man

Long-time musician Kenneth Cooper, a.k.a. “K Brick” believes anything he’s accomplished in music all happened by accident, but a little cosmic intervention may have played a bigger role than even he wants to admit to. And, when all those arrows on a person’s life path point in the same direction, sooner or later it’s time to follow them just to see what happens next.
His crazy good talent had to take a backseat for many years, because life has a tendency to get in the way, however, music has never been far from his mind. He never stopped playing with words and music, or experimenting with different genres so after he retired, Cooper decided to dust off his instruments, and start practicing again.
Music has gotten him noticed all his life, no matter whether he’s playing with a small group, going solo in an intimate setting or sitting in with fellow musicians in a jam session. He doesn’t remain the unassuming guy for very long, because Cooper’s secret is out—especially here in the Colorado River area.
Many people believe Cooper’s path led him here to do exactly what he’s supposed to be doing—making music and entertaining people by singing his self-penned songs, along with timeless classics that include stories, while playing his variety of horns.
Places like the Laughlin River Lodge and Lisa’s Bistro, is where Cooper has developed a strong following of people who love nothing more than to sit and listen to his unique approach to many a classic song.
But his story began years ago when he was a small child growing up in Southern California. His father, Frank Cooper, was a jazz tenor sax player with friends like Quincy Jones, Bill Hughes and Thelonious Monk who regularly held impromptu jam sessions in his living room. But Ken’s love of music was first realized long before he even met his father.
“I fell in love with music watching football in the early ’50s,” he said. “I loved the marching bands. My dad was a jazz musician but I didn’t live with him until I was 12. When I moved in, it really allowed me to do the music I wanted to do most. My influences came from my father, but I fell in love with music independently of him.
“I became a professional musician by accident when I was a freshman in high school in 1962. I was a serious clarinet player when I got to high school. This guy by the name of Larry Neal was a drummer in high school and he told me I should start learning the saxophone for the jazz band—but he had a plan for a surf band. The next thing I know, I’m in Larry’s band called the Bassmen.” He never asked me to be in the band, he told me to come over to practice and I learned to play the saxophone. Then immediately we had gigs with it.”
Throughout his early school years, Cooper gives credit to all the teachers who encouraged and mentored him despite a learning disability. In between the spelling and grammatical errors, they could see and understand the messages he was trying to get across. Because of them, he developed a strong work ethic that did not include drug use, drinking to excess and chasing skirts. The only thing young Cooper focused on was music.
“I was always told I had a lot of talent and people would always help me. At first, I thought it was because of my dad, but one mentor told me, ‘no, I’m doing this because of you.’
“My father recognized I was a good player, but he wasn’t good at encouraging me.” Cooper said. “He didn’t want me to get a big head, so he told me, ‘no matter how good you think you are, there’s always someone better.’ He wouldn’t encourage me, but he would talk about me, telling people, ‘he sees the music in his head and he writes it.’ Before he passed away, he gave me his praise, but I knew I would continue to have to work at it.”
For the next 14 years he played with bands in California and Virginia. Some highlights include being the house band for the Hollywood USO (1965/66); being part of the opening band called the Royal Neptunes at college concerts for performers like the Detroit Guitar Band (1972); and they had a contract to play at NCO clubs (military clubs) in the Peninsula/Tidewater area in Virginia (1972-1976).
“Then I walked away from all of it when my grandfather who raised me died,” he said. “I finished my masters degree and helped my grandmother back in Virginia. “I spent 32 years in corporate sales and marketing with the 3M Company because I had a family to support,” he said. “I retired in ’09, picked my horns back up and started practicing. I moved to the area in 2010…and so I’d been practicing for a year and a half, mostly considering myself a songwriter because I’d been writing music for 50 years and I wanted to get back to it when I moved here. I was more interested in publishing music, sitting in with bands here and there with no intention of getting back into playing music.
“I went to jam sessions starting in May and by September I was sitting in with my now buddy, Leonard Interior at what used to be Cork & Beans and Alan Marciocchi told them, ‘give him a night to play,’ and they did. I’ve been blessed and playing ever since—one night here, two nights there—playing all over ever since.
“My big break here came in 2011, when I was the first musician to play live music at the Food Fest in October before it moved to June” he said. “From there I’ve been playing for New Year’s Eve at Harrah’s, for special events, VIP parties, Valentine’s Day and things like that.
“A couple of years ago I started playing at Lisa’s Bistro across the river and I’ve been doing that ever since. About the same time Leonard and I were asked to audition and we both got a gig at the Laughlin River Lodge. That’s my main gig and we’ve been alternating as the premier musicians over there now.
“The thing is I had not planned on doing this once I started doing my solo act,” he said.
“I do different styles of jazz, Latin jazz is one of them, and I do little bits of everything and I blend it with R&B and soul. Basically I’m calling what I do ‘soul jazz,'” he said.
One of the cool things about Cooper’s approach to playing the classics is his unique interpretations, which came about as result of his front row seat to most of it growing up.
“I didn’t listen to records from people everyone has heard about,” he explained. “All of my hearing the music came from the live jam sessions in my father’s living room or standing outside the clubs where my dad played because I wasn’t old enough to go in. That’s how I learned about it, it was part of my background.
“So when I play songs that were popular in 1936 or 1942, like “It Had To Be You,” “The Very Thought Of You,” or “I Only Have Eyes for You, people may not recognize them at first, because they’re used to hearing them from a record. Since I didn’t know the songs from records, I put my own arrangements on them.
“I never do anything the same way twice,” he added. “My interpretation of songs is how I feel that particular night. So, don’t try to follow along and sing, sometimes I hold the measure before I come in with words and how I feel about the song.
“One thing I pride myself on is I have my specific style and either you like it or you don’t. I’d rather you not like my style than try to have me do the song the way you like. I don’t take requests because I’m a horn player. It’s not like someone who plays piano or guitar who can maybe come up with something. I can’t generate it because I don’t have a track for it and I find people want you to do it like the record. Since I didn’t learn from the record, when I do it, I’ll do my interpretation. If I’m asked to do ‘Moondance,’ I have my arrangement totally on tenor sax. That person might ask, ‘That was ‘Moondance?’ That’s the way I do it.”
Cooper also surprised a lot of people, including himself, when he discovered he could sing.
“I didn’t start singing until I got here,” he said. “Nobody in my family knew I could sing. I mean I thought my voice was decent, but I don’t consider myself a singer. I’m a horn player. It’s challenging because I don’t know the words to anything, but I get more compliments for my voice.
“Because I have a specific style, good or bad, based on how I write music, it’s the same as singing. But since 89 percent of what I write has lyrics to it, I thought why not sing it? Besides, the other reason I started singing—I couldn’t get anybody to sing, so I have to do it on my own.
“People sometimes compare my voice to Nat King Cole, but he didn’t consider himself a singer either—he was a piano player.
“I’m very blessed any way you look at it,” he added. “Who thought after 32 years, I’d be doing this. My goal is to get national recognition for the music I write—but I’m still an okay horn player who’s getting better every day.”