As her husband, Dolo, lay dying in a cancer-induced coma in 1983, Sybil Coker stayed by his bedside and supplied him with encouraging words, his favorite music and a reservoir of hope even as Dolo slipped deeper into unconsciousness.
And then "the bar went flat," said Coker, and plans for a jazz foundation for youths that she had enthusiastically described to her ailing husband--something they had both dreamed about--seemed in danger of dying with him.
But Coker found the strength to pull back from despair and go forward with her plans. "I told (Dolo) the foundation was going to happen," Coker said. "I told him I was going to have hope no matter what. I dared anyone to be negative."
True to her word, Coker rounded up some friends that evening and, with a $10 donation, started the Charles (Dolo) Coker Scholarship Foundation.
Today, the foundation still invokes the spirit of Dolo Coker's most cherished wish: to instill and keep alive the traditions of jazz music among young black artists. Each year the Crenshaw-based foundation awards scholarships to three aspiring jazz musicians, ages 15 to 25, who attend high school or college full time. Scholarships have grown from the initial $100 to amounts from $1,200 to $1,500.
Several recipients have gone on to jazz careers, including drummer and former Wynton Marsalis band member Eric Reed. For 18-year-old drummer Demontray McQuarter, winning a Coker scholarship last year cemented his devotion to a musical form that has proved to be a revelation.
"I got interested in jazz music because of Mrs. Coker," said McQuarter, who lives in South-Central and attends Cal State Northridge. "I first heard it in junior high at a concert she invited me to. It was so different. . . . It moved me. I had never heard anything like it. It didn't have the regular backbeat of rap and other music. It could be anything it wanted."
A well-regarded pianist, Dolo toured internationally and recorded with some of jazz music's best, including Sonny Stitt, Harry (Sweets) Edison, Red Rodney, Dexter Gordon and Teddy Edwards. Yet his greatest joy came from teaching piano and performing at schools for audiences too young to check out his act at local jazz haunts such as the Zebra Lounge, Memory Lane and Mr. Woodley's.
"He was very concerned about perpetuating jazz, and he loved young people," said Coker, a counselor at Horace Mann Middle School. "He did a lot of clinics at schools, even played prom dates at L.A. and Crenshaw high schools. And he would play everything for them, not just jazz, but popular music of the day."
To raise funds for scholarships, Coker stages annual benefit concerts whose performers are chosen through auditions. Over the years, friends of the Cokers have pitched in as concert performers, event coordinators and judges at auditions.
John Rinaldo, a retired music teacher who led the award-winning Eagle Rock High School jazz band, said that his longtime involvement with the scholarship foundation is the least he can do for a man who spent many hours entertaining and teaching his students.
"He was a gentleman and a gentle man," Rinaldo said. "He loved music and he really enjoyed playing for young people. He would be happy to see that, even though arts programs have been cut so much in schools, we still get a lot of class performers."
This year's benefit concert is April 23 at the California Afro-American Museum's Kinsey Auditorium in Exposition Park.