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Miles Beyond

Jimmy Cobb Reflects On The Past Five Decades Spent Leading Bands And Accompanying The Greatest Jazz Legends Of All Time

It was at the National Endowment For The Arts Jazz Masters ceremony, held last October in Rose Theater at Jazz At Lincoln Center in New York City, that drumming legend Roy Haynes (himself a 1995 NEA Jazz Masters recipient) began reminiscing about 2009 inductee Jimmy Cobb. In making his award presentation, Haynes expounded on Cobb’s unorthodox decision to tap consistent quarter-notes on the bell of his ride cymbal in tight unison with bassist Paul Chambers at the intro to "Someday My Prince Will Come,” the familiar waltz-time Disney theme from Snow White and title track of Miles Davis’ 1961 Columbia recording. The sound of it was so fresh and compelling to Haynes’s ear that it had remained a vivid memory all these years later.

Cobb’s deft touch on the kit has made its mark on countless landmark recordings since his 1951 studio debut with R&B alto-sax stylist and showman Earl Bostic. But none has had the lasting impact of Davis’ 1959 masterpiece, Kind Of Blue. Widely regarded as the most important jazz recording of the past 50 years and heralded by critics as a defining moment in 20th century music, it was certified quadruple platinum (four million) in sales last year by the Recording Industry Association Of America and continues to sell briskly, upwards of 5,000 copies every week.

What accounts for such incredible, unprecedented success? Record company executives far and wide have been trying in vain for decades to figure that out. But one thing is clear: Something magical happened on March 2 and April 22, 1959 in Columbia Records’ fabled 30th Street studio, and it still captivates us to this day.

Cobb himself, the lone surviving member from those March 1959 sessions (which included alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, bassist Paul Chambers, and pianists Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly) commented that “it must have been made in heaven.”

While munching on fried chicken at his favorite Upper West Side sushi restaurant in Manhattan, the remarkably fit 80-year-old (who looks 20 years younger) added some thoughts about that milestone session. “There was no way when I woke up that morning, got dressed, and came to the studio that I knew I was about to become a part of jazz history. Now how am I going to know that? I knew it felt good when we were doing it. It always felt good to play with those guys. But you’re not going to say after the recording and you’re listening to the playback, ‘Yeah, this one’s going to last 50 years.’”

And yet, there it was — an instant classic. In his liner notes to the original release, pianist Evans compared the process of recording Kind Of Blue to the ancient art of Japanese line painting: “There is a Japanese visual art in which the artist is forced to be spontaneous. He just paints on a thin stretched parchment with a special brush and black water paint in such a way that an unnatural or interrupted stroke will destroy the line or break through the parchment. Erasures or changes are impossible. These artists must practice a particular discipline — that of allowing the idea to express itself in communication with their hands in such a direct way that deliberation cannot interfere. The resulting pictures lack the complex composition and textures of ordinary painting, but it is said that those who see will find something captured that escapes explanation.” And so it was with Kind Of Blue. From the opening anthem, “So What” (with Cobb’s resounding cymbal crash at precisely the 1:32 mark jump-starting the introspective and classically influenced intro into a full-blown swinger), to the transcendent closer, “Flamenco Sketches,” underscored by Cobb’s uncommonly sensitive, trance-like brushwork and delicate cymbal fills, the music flows with a sense of ease and perfect balance on this pristine, organic session. In between those two stellar bookends, Cobb’s loose, loping swing feel fuels the funky-smooth “Freddie Freeloader,” his sublime brushwork creates a fragile feel on “Blue In Green,” while his clean, controlled, steadily swinging ride-cymbal pulse and off-time rimshots enliven the classic jazz-jam vehicle “All Blues.”

Kind Of Busy. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of this milestone in jazz, Cobb has been touring the world with his So What Band (trumpeter Wallace Roney, alto saxophonist Vincent Herring, tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson, pianist Larry Willis, and either bassist Buster Williams or John Webber), re-creating the music from Kind Of Blue with a sense of reverence and also with an eye for playing in the “now.” “I’m sorry it’s only me that’s left from the original lineup,” Cobb says in a reflective mood. “I can’t do nothing about fate. I don’t know how it happened, but it did.” Following standing ovations for his So What Band at concerts all throughout Canada, Cobb and company met with similarly ecstatic reactions in Spain, Italy, Germany, Greece, and throughout Europe before returning Stateside for a gala performance at the Hollywood Bowl. The fall leg of their tour commences in September, then in January Cobb is back in New York for a week-long engagement at the Iridium nightclub with his Sketches Of Spain Band, celebrating the 50th anniversary of that lush orchestral collaboration between arranger Gil Evans and Miles Davis (released in 1960), in which Cobb also played a key role.

Of course, Cobb had a hand in so many other important jazz recordings that it boggles the mind. Here’s the short list: John Coltrane’s Giant Steps and Coltrane Jazz, Wes Montgomery’s Smokin’ At The Half Note and Full House, Wayne Shorter’s Introducing Wayne Shorter, Bobby Timmons’ This Here Is Bobby Timmons, Miles Davis’ Porgy & Bess and Sorcerer, Cannonball Adderley’s Sophisticated Swing and Sharpshooters, Dinah Washington’s Dinah!, Joe Henderson’s Four, Wynton Kelly’s Full View.

Meanwhile, the hard-working octogenarian remains active on the New York scene with his working quintet, Jimmy Cobb’s Mob (guitarist Peter Bernstein, pianist Richard Wyands, bassist John Webber, saxophonist Eric Alexander). Together they have documented their hard-bop chemistry on 1998’s Only For The Pure Of Heart (Lightyear) and 2003’s Cobb’s Groove (Milestone). In 2006 saxophonist Branford Marsalis released a tribute CD, Marsalis Music Honors Jimmy Cobb (a quartet date with bassist Orlando Le Fleming, alto saxophonist Andrew Speight, and pianist Ellis Marsalis), on his Marsalis Music label. Cobb’s latest for Chesky Records is Jazz In The Key Of Blue, an inspired ballad session that showcases the sensational trumpeter Roy Hargrove alongside guitarist Russell Malone and Cobb’s Mob bassist Webber. “I like being surrounded by all these young guys,” Cobb says of his various working situations these days. “It keeps me young.”

Circuitous Route To Drums.

Born on January 29, 1929 in Washington DC, Cobb was initially attracted to the tenor saxophone as a teenager. “I used to see one hanging in a pawn shop that I would pass every day in my neighborhood,” he recalls. “So I checked to see if I could afford it and the man said it was $75. Eventually I had gotten $75 together, so I went in there and bought it and took it home, and before I could learn the scales on it a friend of mine, who later on got me interested in drums, took it back to the pawn shop and I never saw that saxophone again. And actually, what I thought was a tenor saxophone turned out to be a C melody sax.”

Around that time, one of the customers on Cobb’s paper route in DC befriended the young aspiring musician. “A lady found out that I was interested in music so she used to buy me all the latest records,” he recalls. “This was before bebop was selling in record stores, so it was mostly Tommy Dorsey and all the big-band things of the day.” Eventually, young Cobb began seeing bands come through town like Billy Eckstine’s band, with killer soloists like Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Leo Parker, and others, as well as the Count Basie Orchestra with Jo Jones on drums. After getting a busboy job at the drugstore fountain where his mother also worked as a short-order cook, he began saving money to buy a drum set he had seen at Herman Ratner’s music store on 13th and G Street in DC. “In the window they had an advertisement for Gene Krupa playing Slingerland drums, so I went in there and asked how much the set of drums was, and it was too much for me to afford. But he made a deal with me where I could bring in whatever money I could bring in every week and he’d put it in the drawer that he had there until I got enough money to buy the drums.”

Cobb took his first drum kit home several months later and began working by ear. “I was fooling with them at home and also playing in the marching band at school. And later on in high school I began playing with a piano player named Ellsworth Gibson, who played like Milt Buckner. He was a house rockin’ kind of a player and I began working with him a little bit. After I learned how to play a little bit, we used to go down to my grandfather’s farm in southern Maryland. He’d have a few of us come on Saturdays and play baseball, one neighborhood against another. And after the games they wanted some entertainment in the barn, so I used to take Ellsworth Gibson, Buck Hill, and a bass player named Ben Stubbenville with me to play. Actually, that was the first jazz group I ever had.”

Shortly after, Cobb began studying with Jack Dennett, a classical percussionist with the National Symphony Orchestra Of Washington DC. Aside from those free lessons, Cobb is largely self-taught, although he points to a number of elders who contributed to his development as a musician. “I credit Charlie Rouse with helping me learn how to swing,” he says. “Rouse told me what to listen to and who to listen to. Also, I learned a lot from an older drummer in town named George Brown, who had been on the road with Louis Armstrong’s band. And there was a guy named Charles Jenkins, who had played piano for Billie Holiday. We had a quartet together, so when Lady Day would come to town, we would play with her.”

Cobb played around DC in a quartet with saxophonist/flutist Frank Wess and also worked with baritone saxophonist Leo Parker. “We put together a quartet with a piano player from Kansas City named Sedrick Williams, who was about my age,” Cobb says. “We had a gig where we played six days a week and played anything that we wanted to, including bebop. And on the weekend we would open for entertainers like Redd Foxx and Pearl Bailey. I even played in some burlesque shows around DC when I needed to. So there were a lot of good opportunities for young musicians in DC at the time.” Cobb’s primary drum influences at the time were Kenny Clarke, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Cozy Cole, Papa Jo Jones, and Buddy Rich. “I got to see everybody and learn from everybody,” he says of those times in DC.

He eventually met and befriended bassist Keeter Betts, who had come to town with Earl Bostic’s band at a time when they were looking for a drummer. “He asked if I wanted to go on the road with them, so I got the gig and went on the road with Earl Bostic. And when I got on that gig, I was leaning into a bebop style of playing, but Bostic wouldn’t let me play that way. He wanted mostly backbeats and shuffles all night long, so that’s what I had to do. And it was good experience too. I built up a lot of endurance on that gig.”

Earl Bostic, who had a massive instrumental hit in 1951 with “Flamingo,” toured as part of a package with singer Dinah Washington, a soulful gospel-tinged blues shouter who was also adept at jazz standards. “So that meant when Dinah sang, Bostic’s rhythm section — me and Keeter Betts — had to play with whoever she had on piano, and she was traveling with a guy named Wynton Kelly,” recalls Cobb. “The first time I met him with Dinah he was 19 and I was 21. And the first time we played together I knew we were a perfect match. But that’s how he was with everybody. He could play with everybody and sounded great every time. So we did that for a while, until Dinah eventually stole us away from Bostic, and that became our first trio — me, Keeter, and Wynton Kelly.”

Move To NYC. Cobb became romantically involved with Washington and ended up leaving DC in late 1951 to join her in New York. “She had an apartment on 122nd Street and 7th Avenue in Harlem, which was in the same building where Dizzy Gillespie and his wife Lorraine, and also Erroll Garner, lived. Sugar Ray Robinson lived nearby as well. He owned the whole block between 123rd and 124th Street. And I used to see Malcolm X on the corner, talking. Yeah, Harlem was a very vibrant place back then.”

Cobb stayed in Washington’s band for three years, honing his skills as an accompanist. And while their relationship breakup was not exactly amicable, he has no regrets today. “Dinah opened me up to a whole lot of things and I got to meet a whole lot of people that I probably wouldn’t have met had I not been in that situation,” he says.

Meeting Miles. Between his road-warrior experience with Bostic, which included driving from coast to coast doing one-nighters along the way, his three-year stint with Washington, and his work with Cannonball Adderley’s group in 1957, word spread about the journeyman drummer until his name reached Miles Davis, who was looking for a replacement for erratic drummer Philly Joe Jones, who began missing gigs due to his unfortunate heroin addiction. Adderley, in fact, was instrumental in providing the hookup, which came in the form of a fateful phone call. “I was here in New York when Miles called me at about 6:30 one evening,” Cobb recalls. “And he says [affects Miles’ famous raspy voice], ‘I want you to come in the band,’ and I said, ‘Okay, when’s the gig? Where is it?’ And Miles says, ‘The gig’s in Boston. It starts at 9:00 … tonight!’ And I say to him, ‘How am I going to get to Boston by 9:00, man?’ And Miles say, ‘Man, you want the gig, don’tcha?’

“The gig was at George Wein’s club, Storyville, in Boston. So I had two and a half hours to get to the airport and fly the shuttle to Boston, then get to the club in time for the gig. By the time I got there, it was already 10:00 and they were already playing ‘Round Midnight,’ so I went up there on stage and quietly started setting up my drums. That tune starts off with a soft interlude before the full band comes in. And as soon as the downbeat came to signal the band, I was ready. So that was it. I was in the band. No rehearsals, no nothing.”

Cobb’s tenure with Davis began with 1958’s On Green Dolphin Street and culminated with 1963’s Quiet Nights, an ill-fated bossa nova project with Gil Evans that received scathing reviews. Cobb left Davis’ band at the end of a tour in 1963, shortly after his former Miles bandmates Paul Chambers and Wynton Kelly had split. Together they formed a piano trio that gained popularity through the late ’60s. When that group broke up, Cobb played with jazz-singer extraordinaire Sarah Vaughan for nine years. Since the mid-’90s he has been leading his own groups while also appearing in the occasional Miles Davis alumni setting, like 2002’s Four Generations Of Miles on Chesky (with guitarist Mike Stern, tenor saxophonist George Coleman, and bassist Ron Carter) and 2007’s Miles From India on Times Square Records (with Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Pete Cosey, Dave Liebman, Badal Roy, Michael Henderson, Robert Irving III, Vince Wilburn Jr., Marcus Miller, and Lenny White). He’s now hoping to document his So What Band in the studio. “We’re playing the same material, but we’re being a bit more raucous with it,” he says.

Pearls. Cobb suddenly becomes philosophical. “You listen, you feel it, you lock in. If you are the bass player and your beat is wider than mine, then we have to figure out how we’re going to adjust, because if I adjust, the tempo might go down or something. I can’t stop and try to get the way you’re playing. That ain’t gonna work.” He credits both Paul Chambers and John Webber with being easily adaptable bassists with big ears. “When you get someone like that, hold on to him. Because that really helps a rhythm section happen,” he says. “You got a beat, I got a beat — it’s just a question of getting it all together and making it happen.”

And that’s where the chemistry lies on Kind Of Blue and all the other countless sessions that Jimmy Cobb has played throughout his storied career. And even at age 80, it seems there’s still plenty more ahead for this master timekeeper and jazz legend.

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