158 W. 48th St.
When Nobuko “Cobi" Narita moved from California to New York in 1969, she wandered into Central Park where she was entranced by a musician playing jazz for passersby. She spoke to him and he told her if she was interested in jazz to go to St. Peter's Church. The Jazz Ministry at St. Peter's Church was founded in 1965 by the late Reverend John Garcia Gensel who developed the Jazz Vespers, a religious service featuring jazz musicians. She became as she calls it,“Rev. Gensel's number one volunteer." It was from there that she supported and created opportunities for musicians in the jazz and tap fields long before there was a Jazz at Lincoln Center. Cobi Narita, who turned 83 this March, remains strong in helping to keep the local jazz scene alive for up-and-coming and lesser known jazz musicians in New York City. Early on, she helped at the Jazz Interaction Collective where she developed the Jazz Line, a phone service club list. In 1973 she was asked to help run the Collective Black Artists, a repertory orchestra, artist collective, and not-for-profit support organization for underprivileged musicians. In 1976 she founded the Universal Jazz Coalition which not only offered performances, but jazz workshops and seminars as well. While sponsoring and producing concerts in parks and venues around the City, she finally started her own space, the Jazz Center of New York at 380 Lafayette in 1983, where even people like Dizzy Gillespie would drop in. In 1996 she started the organization, the International Women of Jazz, which provided more exposure for women in the field, and Cobi served as its president and on its board. As far as producing events, Cobi personally and tirelessly filled thousands of envelopes and made flyers to promote the concerts. She has always worked this way to help connect and network people. “When I first came to New York there was jazz in the clubs but there were many, many young players who didn't know how to get into the clubs. They didn't know how to write a contract, how to make a deal. They didn't know how to make a record, write a grant, any of that." She has always worked hard to help connect and network people by producing concerts or getting information out in newsletters. At the age of 14 when her family was interned in the Gila River Relocation Center in Butte, Arizona with other Japanese families during World War II, she remembers writing newsletters and community news and distributing them though the camp. Cobi comments, “I love doing newsletters. Everywhere I go I do it." Throughout the years she has produced shows featuring everybody in jazz from Henry Threadgill, Abbey Lincoln, Jimmy Heath, Billy Harper, George Coleman, Clark Terry, Jerry and Andy Gonzalez, Hilton Ruiz, Bobby Sanabria, and Andrea Brachfield. But Cobi is as passionate about the concerts which draw only a handful of people to hear a great but unknown artist as she is about the celebrities. Her specialty and her joy is to present young artists and seniors “who never fill the house." Hundreds of well wishers attend her annual birthday parties at St. Peter's Church. In 2002 with the help of her husband, Paul Ash, she opened Cobi's Place, a fourth floor living room turned intimate concert hall, seating about 50, where the mother of seven, grandmother of 13 and great-grandmother of six continues to hold music events (due to building code issues they had to close Cobi's Place last year).
Credits: Interview of Cobi Narita conducted by Steve Zeitlin and Elena Martinez, February 2006. (2:27)