By Barbara Curtin
Like a surprising number of professional musicians in Oregon, Keller Coker had his life changed by a Salem-Keizer music teacher.In Keller’s case, the teacher was David Glazier at Judson Middle School in the late 1970s. Keller wandered into the band room and asked if he could play something. Glazier sent him to Weathers Music to rent a trombone and gave him free lessons all summer.
The result has been an extraordinarily varied musical career, one that takes 22 pages to sum up a curriculum vitae. Keller has been a respected studio musician; a record producer and booker of entertainment acts; and a longtime Western Oregon University faculty member who can teach early music, jazz orchestra and most things in between. He’s also co-owner of
Cokie’s Landing, the downtown Salem bar where he reads poetry on Tuesday nights.
At every juncture in his life, that trombone has opened doors. “That beautiful hunk of
metal,” he said recently, “has treated me right every time.”—
Keller is 45 now but looks younger. His ginger hair and goatee are cropped close. His blue eyes smile behind hip black glasses as he tells his story.
He skipped senior year at Sprague High School to study jazz at Mount Hood Community College. The head of the music department had heard him play and offered him a scholarship; Keller didn’t hesitate to accept.
That willingness to jump on opportunities — and to practice tirelessly — would become a theme through his life.
Spring break that year, Keller headed to Los Angeles with a friend who was visiting his grandfather, TV game-show producer Ralph Edwards. Knowing of Keller’s interest in music, Edwards made an appointment for the young man to meet the head of the jazz program at University of Southern California.
That meeting was enough to land Keller a full ride at one of the best schools in the entertainment capital of the world. He went on to earn his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music there, plus “one and three-quarters doctorates.”
The doctorates took time from his growing career. But, he said recently in his Salem condo/recording studio, “They made me a better musician, a smarter musician, a more convincing composer.”
During the years he lived in Los Angeles, he drifted from music teaching and jazz performance toward producing records. He had made his own early music recording; it was a short distance to co-founding a classical record label and making records for others.
Then life took an abrupt turn: In 1995 he contracted Hodgkin’s disease, an aggressive cancer of the lymphatic system.
“The doctor told me, ‘You’re going to be fine, but it will be hard,'” Keller said. During a year of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, both adjectives proved to be true.
Like many cancer survivors, Keller found himself re-examining his priorities. “I was still making records, with all the ups and downs of chemo, but I did notice that as enticing and glamorous a career as a record producer can be … I was not sure I was being true musically to what I set out to do.”
Thin and wasted, he moved back to Salem. He swam to recover his strength; he began practicing trombone seriously again.
He decided to forget about those advanced degrees and see if he could make a living as a trombone player.
“Within two years, I was playing 200 nights a year,” he said. “It felt so good: I was playing, I was doing a little writing. I won’t say I was having the time of my life because most of my life, I have had the time of my life.”
Serendipity opened the next door, as it had for most things in his life.
Keller was playing with a combo at Lenora’s Ghost in Independence. A couple of men walked in and without introduction joined the musicians on stage.
One of the strangers turned out to be Tom Bergeron, a sax player and chair of the creative arts division at WOU. Bergeron began steering Keller to other gigs, but the subject of academia never came up.
Then, at a social gathering, a friend commented on Keller’s doctorates. “Tom’s eyes got this big,” Keller said, miming Bergeron’s expression. “He almost couldn’t talk. He said, ‘Would you be interested in teaching music history?'”
Which is how Keller wound up at WOU.
The school has proved the idea place for Keller to balance his loves of teaching and performing.
“When I tell them I’m heading on the road to play two nights with The Temptations in California, they say ‘Great,'” he said.
Meanwhile, he has developed into a savvy booker of musical acts for convention centers, casinos and festivals. He has a knack for assembling horn sections — jazzspeak for the winds and brass that back up an act —and for matching performers with the right venues.
Three years ago, Keller took on the financially strapped Smith Fine Arts Series. His haggling experience helped put the series into the black. In fact, next season’s series ticket holders will get seven major acts, the most ever, for $119 (or $52 for students).
“I treated the series like my own booking engagements,” he explained. “When you’re entrusted with budgets, it doesn’t matter if it’s not your money, you have to treat it like it’s your money.”
Keller’s businesslike approach comes in part from an unconventional moonlighting gig: Cokie’s Landing, the Salem bar he co-owns with his dad.
Father and son have yet to draw a buck from profits, Keller said; but the bar employs seven full-time workers, and he trusts them to make it successful.
On a recent Tuesday night Keller was there, under the glare of flat-screen TVs and lottery terminals, presiding over Open Mic Poetry Night.
He read a few poems, then improvised on trombone while Adam “Bugbear” Bates riffed on vibraphone, bongos and musical saw.
“You’re not expected to read or come up to the microphone,” Keller teased a couple dozen patrons camped on all the available stools. “But the more you drink, the easier it gets.”
Pam Kerr, a school psychologist in Salem-Keizer, impulsively slipped forward to read from Joni Mitchell’s “Travelogue Lyrics.” Afterwards, she tried to explain how Keller makes the evening work.
“There is such a humility,” she said. “He’s very talented but he opens it up to everyone. He’s very accepting. … It’s an opportunity to be a little creative. He’s masterful at it.”
Bates, a former student of Keller’s, said, “He’s the international statesman. He’s a diplomat to the end. To me it’s amazing: He can talk to anybody. He’ll be their friend immediately.”
For Keller, his lives as an academic, deal-broker, barkeep and jazz musician have come together in a remarkably harmonious way.
“I’m the luckiest person I know, and the most spoiled person I know,” he said. “I’ve always been able to do exactly what I want to do.”
(503) 399-6699 or Twitter.com/BarbaraCurtin