harry cohen mr los gatos
HARRY COHEN was the town’s most colorful figure in the early 1980s. Photo: Keith Kelsen

“He won’t go away until you come out and see him,” our exasperated office manager, Marilyn Fitch, who’d been trying to protect me from the unscheduled visitor to our Royce Street office, came back and informed me. 

“Who?” I asked.

“Harry Cohen.”

I was always happy to chat with Harry, the town’s most colorful character. He had an opinion on most subjects and his signature thrift-store style made him hard to ignore. Born in England, he’d been a precinct captain in Chicago and lived in the El Gato Penthouse Apartments on Main Street. He turned 80 the year that we opened the Los Gatos Weekly.

Harry usually wore a loud patterned tie to clash with his equally loud patterned pants. He carried a business card that identified him as “Mr. Los Gatos” and attended Town Council meetings, where the octogenarian weighed in on multiple issues. He considered the town, where he moved after his wife died in 1976, “the best place in the world to live.”

When we started the weekly Metro, Harry introduced me to his son Sammy, a professional drummer and musician’s union official who became our jazz columnist.

Rising rents forced Harry out of Los Gatos and he moved to a seniors’ apartment in downtown San Jose. I’d see him out on the streets there, in understated dress. He was a lot more low key once he was no longer Mr. Los Gatos. 

Meantime, Sammy had started the San Jose Jazz Society in 1986 inside Metro’s offices. That grew into the San Jose Jazz Festival, which within a decade went from a single-stage affair to one of the West Coast’s premier festivals, with 90 acts, 12 stages and more than 100,000 attendees. Thirty-six years later, it’s still going, with both an annual Summerfest and a winter festival. 

Harry lived until three days shy of his 90th birthday in 1992, and Sammy crossed over in 2008, at 70. 

The family legacy continues, however. Harry’s granddaughter Jean Cohen was named executive officer of the powerful South Bay Labor Council a year ago and has become a leading advocate for the valley’s workers. Her presence will no doubt be felt in this year’s elections, which is shaping up to be a political year rife with change and drama.

Dynasties aren’t always button-down collar affairs, and sometimes the scrappy ones leave a big imprint.

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