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Originally published Friday, May 27, 2011 at 3:12 PM

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James 'Curley' Cooke, blues master with the soul of a teacher

Blues guitarist James "Curley" Cooke, who created Pacific Northwest Blues in the Schools to help troubled kids through music, died at age 66.

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BLUES guitarist James "Curley" Cooke founded Pacific Northwest Blues in the Schools to share his musical passion, and reach tough kids and difficult students.

Cooke, who died May 16 from cancer at age 66, was a well-traveled, 40-year veteran of the music industry, and an original member of the Steve Miller Band.

He was a tireless performer around Puget Sound. Over the years he shared the stage with Annette Taborn, Paul Green of Cooke 'n' Green, and Rod Cook of Double Cookin'. The stellar list goes on and on.

More than a dozen years ago, Cooke drew inspiration from a blues-in-the-school program in Charleston, S.C., and he brought the idea to Seattle. Nearly 30 sponsors eventually joined Starbucks and Key Bank of Washington, which had helped Cooke launch his vision.

He introduced students to the blues, but his clear intent was to mix in the discipline, focus and rigor to create music.

Backed up by other professional musicians, Cooke would go into schools and teach students how to play instruments, and read and memorize lyrics for the songs they would perform.

I saw the results at Echo Glen Children's Center, the state's juvenile-corrections facility at Snoqualmie. Cooke, Al Rowe, Albritton McClain and Doug McGrew had tutored young felons on guitar, bass, vocals and drums.

That 2005 maximum-security concert in Toutle Cottage offered a subtle but powerful lesson. Cooke and his colleagues made a profound statement by showing up, caring enough to patiently invest weeks of their time into the project.

In 2009, Cooke told me his lung cancer had spread. Chemotherapy had taken skin off his hands. He lost the calluses from four decades of performing and playing guitar became intensely painful.

Among the remembrances planned to honor Cooke's life and music will be a special Blues Vespers at 5 p.m., Sunday, June 5 at Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Tacoma. The Rev. Dave Brown was a 2011 honoree of the Washington Blues Society for his monthly blend of the blues, guest musicians and evening worship.

Cooke, a recipient of multiple honors from the Washington Blues Society, was a Blues Vespers favorite.

A robust musical lineup is developing. As always, Blues Vespers welcomes the public at no cost. Any money collected that evening will be given to Blues in the Schools. The church is at 901 North J St., Tacoma.

Cooke possessed great talents and he shared them. A rich legacy.

— Lance Dickie

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