Jazz Musician Stu Hacohen, 77: Bulgarian-born Pioneer of Israeli Jazz

Stu Hacohen, one of Israel's first jazz musicians, died on Saturday. He was 77.

Hacohen was a gifted arranger, who adapted music with Yossi Banai, Arik Einstein and Shimon Yisraeli, among others; an extraordinary composer, who integrated jazz and Balkan music; and an influential teacher, who inspired students who became prominent musicians. With his wife, singer Rimona Francis, Hacohen recorded one of the first locally produced jazz albums.

Hacohen was born in Bulgaria in 1929 and immigrated to Israel in 1949. His first instrument was the accordion, but like many of his Eastern European musical colleagues, who settled in Tel Aviv and found work there in hotel jazz bands, Hacohen learned to play a variety of instruments, including the piano, saxophone and double bass. In the early 1950s, Hacohen was a member of Maurice (Pisi) Osherowitz's band, which played seven days a week at the Dan Hotel in Tel Aviv.

"In those days, a band musician earned three times as much as a bank manager," says saxophonist Albert Piamante. A friend of Hacohen, Piamante played with him for years.

Piamante was 15 years old when he first met Hacohen.

"I came to see him perform in Jerusalem - to hear him play and also to impress him with my own musical skill. He was one of the only people here [in Israel] who played real jazz during that period and, for a kid just starting to play, he was an admired figure. His knowledge of all branches of jazz was incredible, and he knew how to pass that along to others."

His most well-known arrangements were produced with Yossi Banai for the "Ein Ahavot Smechot" concert program, which included adaptations of songs by George Brassens. That program ran for five years.

"During the War of Attrition, Stu and Yossi Banai performed for the troops," recalls pianist Dani Gottfried, "and Stu, with his typical sense of humor, said that he would take Banai aside, when they approached a military stronghold, and tell him, 'If we are taken prisoner by the Egyptians and they ask us who we are, do not under any circumstances say you are a singer. They will ask you to sing, see you have a terrible voice, and be sure we are spies. Then they'll kill both of us.'"

Hacohen's originality as a composer and adapter was expressed in his own premier album and that of his wife, "for which I vocalized without lyrics - singing that imitates a musical instrument," she says. "Another special thing about that album was that Stu created jazz arrangements of popular [Hebrew] songs like 'Shibbolet Basadeh.' Nowadays that's not unusual, but back then it was a major innovation."

One of the musicians who expressed admiration of Hacohen and Francis' first albums was the great jazz trumpeter and bandleader Dizzy Gillespie, who invited the couple to appear in a few of his concerts. Later albums by Hacohen and Francis are best known for their integration of irregular Balkan rhythms and jazz.

"Stu displayed extraordinary rhythmic freedom," Gottfried says.

The couple left Israel in the early 1970s to live in the United States, and remained there until the late 1980s. Hacohen taught, played and arranged music for a big band orchestra in the U.S. After returning to Israel, he focused on musical instruction and taught celebrated tenor sax player Eli Degibri, among others.

Hacohen suffered from poor health in recent years, and it deteriorated over his final weeks.

"He understood he was dying and asked us not to take him to the hospital. We honored his decision," says his son Amir Hacohen.