The former professional baseball and football player Bo Jackson once starred in a series of TV commercials in which he demonstrated a myriad of skills, real and imaginary. Before each vignette, a voice would intone, "Bo knows." For example, "Bo knows football" (true), or "Bo knows tennis" (not). The funniest moment, for me, portrayed Bo playing the guitar very badly while an aptly named blues legend called out, "Bo…you don't know diddley!" In a still later ad, Jackson was shown playing the guitar expertly while the same blues legend, Bo Diddley, observed, "Bo…you do know diddley, don't you?"
I was reminded of this moment in advertising history after meeting David Cohen, a native Philadelphia musician (not to be confused with the local Comcast power broker of the same name, or the late Philadelphia City Councilman, or the Philadelphia lawyer who defended Communist teachers in the '50s). David could easily make a similar commercial, except all the episodes would be real: David knows pastry; David knows classical guitar; David knows flamenco guitar, pipa and bagpipes. Recently, he added Hebrew and Russian.
Cohen has also known hunger. His father abandoned his mother, and as a part Mexican, part-Jewish child, David and his siblings lived for long stretches on bouillon cubes and water. When his mother got extra money, the family would have eggs or, if there was a windfall, egg noodles.
One day in the '70s when David was still a child, there was a knock at the door. His mother moved the boards that substituted for windows and saw a stranger whose arms were laden with edibles—apparently, a neighbor had called the local food bank. Unfortunately, without gas or electricity, the only way the family could use some of this bounty was to go to a neighbor's home. Nevertheless, the Cohens were free from beef broth, at least for a while.
Inspired by Joan Armatrading
Cohen, who now teaches four different instruments at his studio in Ocean Grove, N.J., says two things changed his life: the food bank, and classical music. At 15, he was inspired to play the guitar after hearing Joan Armatrading (he remains one of her groupies to this day). He was told that she played like a classical guitarist, so that was the style he pursued. It never occurred to him to study music in a college setting; his first experience with post-secondary education began just a few months ago. Instead, he identified the teachers he admired and moved wherever they were.
This strategy required that he be able to find work quickly and easily. As a result, Cohen learned to bake and further developed his skills to become a pastry chef; there are sweet tooths everywhere across the nation, so he never had a problem earning enough money to pay for music lessons.
After classical guitar came flamenco guitar, followed by the pipa (he discovered Chinese music, fell in love, and commuted from Philadelphia to New York's Chinatown to study with the master musician Sun Li, after spending months trying to convince his future teacher that he was indeed serious enough to commit to all that driving).
When David fell in love again— this time with Turkish, Armenian and Middle Eastern music— he sought out another master teacher so he could learn how to play the oud. A few years later, David started studying bagpipes with the Pipe and Drums of the Jersey Shore Shillelaghs, located in Belmar, N.J.; today he's a member of that marching band.
In effect, music became Cohen's "life-quest." He didn't expect riches, but he knew he'd find a way to earn a living pursuing his passion for classical music.
That passion led to yet another endeavor. One night Cohen and his wife tried to go out for an evening of classical music, only to find themselves overwhelmed by the profusion of websites offering pertinent information. If a classical music maven like himself had to work so hard to figure out which concert to attend, David reasoned, the average person would be completely baffled, and concerts by lesser-known musicians might get lost in the shuffle. So he did something about it. The result is PhiladelphiaClassicalMusic.com and Jerseyshoreclassicalmusic.com, two websites that provide calendar listings of classical performances in their respective areas.
A classical concert for hunger
Cohen, who is now 47, has always contributed to food banks, but six years go he decided to do more. The result of this decision was the Monmouth and Ocean Counties Food Bank Benefit Concert. The annual event occurs on the last day of January, a time when people have given their feel-good holiday donations and the shelves of the food banks are bare.
The first hastily organized concert, held at the Thornley Chapel in Ocean Grove, consisted of a single performer: David Cohen playing a variety of instruments in a variety of styles. Since all of the music was classical, Cohen expected "maybe ten people" to attend, in a chapel that holds 80 people. Before the concert began the place was already full. To Cohen's amazement, people continued to arrive throughout the show, "sitting in hallways, standing in the bathrooms."
Clearly, the benefit needed a new home. The next year, the concert was held in its current location, the Ocean Grove Youth Temple, at Pilgrim Pathway and McClintock Street in Ocean Grove. This time 400 people attended. And so it has flourished with each passing year. This year's concert will offer something or everyone, worldwide— the oud, the pipa, the Shrewsbury Chorale (directed by Anthony La Gruth); the Jersey Shore Shillelaghs playing pipes and drums; and blues singer and guitarist Jo Wymer.
Two birds with one stone
Cohen says his goal is to feed the hungry and boost classical concerts simultaneously. "You always hear about jazz and rock musicians getting together to raise money for a cause," he notes, "but never classical musicians." Using a classical concert as a benefit, he hopes, will help move classical music into mainstream culture from its current peripheral role as an elite activity. He envisions classical musicians gathering together on the last Saturday of January and performing to packed houses to benefit food banks, not only in Ocean Grove, but across the country.
He's currently working with the Temple University School of Tourism and Hotel Management to realize this dream. It sounds impossible, but only if you're unfamiliar with David Cohen's track record so far.