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Jack Coen (1925-2012) arrived in New York in 1949 from a small farm in Drimnamuckla South, a townland just outside the village of Woodford. He was the second of nine children in a musical family. According to Jack:

“If the boys and girls wanted to dance, they’d come to our house. My father [Michael Coen] played a concertina … he was the only musician around that village. It was the poor people’s entertainment in Ireland.”

He started on the tin whistle when he was about eight years old, later graduating to the fife, which he played in the parish fife-and-drum band. Flute-playing neighbor Jim Conroy and older members of the fife band got him started on the wooden concert flute. After practicing on borrowed instruments, he got his own flute in a Dublin pawnshop.

Jack arrived in New York in 1949 and after lodging for a few months with an uncle in the Bronx, he moved to East Rutherford, New Jersey, where he worked in a produce market for a year and a half before returning to the Bronx to take up a job on the railroad. Good fiddle players were thick on the ground in the Bronx in those days, but flute players were few, and Jack found himself welcome at house sessions and dances. Button accordionist Paddy O’Brien and fiddler Larry Redican were perhaps his closest musical associates and when the New York Céilí Band was founded in 1958, Jack was among the members. He also joined Joe Madden’s dance band in the early 1960s, playing the traditional numbers alongside fiddlers Paddy Reynolds and Denis Murphy.

Starting in the 1970s, Jack taught the whistle and flute to many young students in the Bronx. Joanie Madden of the celebrated band Cherish the Ladies was his best-known student. Joanie, like many of Jack’s pupils, started on the metal Boehm system flute as wooden models were hard to find. To fill that gap, Jack and a couple of carpenter friends started turning out their own wooden flutes in the late 1970s.

In the revival years of the 1970s, Jack resumed public performances at local concerts, festivals and pub sessions, and was recruited by banjo playing folklorist Mick Moloney to perform at the Smithsonian Institution’s 1976 bicentennial Festival of American Folklife. That same year, Moloney recorded Jack and his brother Charlie playing in Jack’s Bronx home. The tracks were issued as the Topic LP The Branch Line, a masterwork of east Galway traditional style.In 1991, Jack was honored as a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts, the U.S. government’s highest honor for a traditional muisician. Two years later, he joined fiddler Séamus Connolly, accordionist Martin Mulhaire and pianist Felix Dolan on Warming Up, a recording that faithfully recreated the style and repertoire of the 1950s and 1960s.

Jack’s final recording, Traditional Irish Music on Flute and Guitar, released in 2001, is mostly a collection of duets with his son Jimmy who flatpicks the melodies on guitar. Jack wrote the liner notes about the tunes, and co-produced this album. Jack Coen passed away in 2012, survived by Julia, his wife of 56 years, and their six children.

See also Jack’s brother Charlie Coen.

  • The New York jig ; Contentment is wealth, jig ; The Killimor jig [comp. Seán Ryan] / New York Céilí Band [Paddy O'Brien, accordion ; Andy McGann, fiddle ; Larry Redican, fiddle ; Jack Coen, flute ; Gerry Wallace, piccolo ; Felix Dolan, piano]

  • King of the clans, reel ; Golden keyboard, reel [comp. Martin Mulhaire] ; The peeler's jacket, reel / New York Céilí Band [Paddy O'Brien, accordion ; Andy McGann, fiddle ; Larry Redican, fiddle ; Jack Coen, flute ; Gerry Wallace, piccolo ; Felix