Jazz Drummer Jimmy Cobb Tells All About Being A 70-Year-Old Legend In His Prime.
By Dave Irwin
JUNE 21, 1999: DRUMMER JIMMY COBB is working, doing what he loves. At 70, when most folks think grandkids and line-dancing at the senior center, Cobb is still performing the hard bop style of jazz he mastered more than four decades ago, while playing with Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
A self-taught musician, Cobb's career has been legendary. Growing up in Washington, D.C., he was influenced by big bands before he became one of bop's most creative and subtle drummers.
"I had a chance to see a lot of guys playing in big bands at variety theaters (like the Apollo in Harlem)," he explains. "You could get hooked up and do maybe four or five weeks of just going around playing theaters. Chick Webb (the 1930s band leader whose singer was Ella Fitzgerald) was way in front of me, but I heard about him. He was a tremendous drummer. When I was coming up, it was like Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. In the ghetto I used to listen to Billy Eckstine's Band with Art Blakey. I listened to Max Roach, Shadow Wilson, Joe Jones. So I came up in a good time when you could see a lot of stuff. Not like it is now. I'd hate to be a guy coming up now, because they don't really get to see as much as we did."
Cobb played behind touring artists such as Charlie Rouse and Billie Holliday. In 1951, he married singer Dinah Washington. Cobb became his wife's musical director and led the Jimmy Cobb Orchestra.
Jazz in the '50s was not only aggressively reinventing the genre through bop, it was reinventing itself nightly through intense improvisational sessions. By the mid-'50s, in New York City, Cobb was gigging with some of the hottest talent ever--Coltrane, Julian "Cannonball" Adderly and Dizzy Gillespie to name a few--during the music's most fertile period.
Most of the analysis of bop looks at how artists like Charlie Parker, Coltrane and Davis dissected harmonic structure into something never heard before. But the new style also required a different drummer.
"Back in Coleman Hawkins' time," Cobb remembers, "they liked a drummer to put four beats on the bass drum, which changed when the bebop came in, because the whole thing got shifted all around the drums. Bebop was a breaking up of the rhythms and the time and playing patterns, instead of a straight 4/4 in a steady swing, like the big bands. The big bands used to like to have a large bass drum so everybody in the band could hear it. But bebop changed that. If you had a bass drum sound, it would be really light. You didn't just play 4/4. A lot of the time you didn't even play the bass drum. The guys used to have a saying: 'Not a whole lot of bombs, baby, just a little kitchyboom.' "
He relates a tale about the birth of bebop drumming: "How that happened," Cobb states, "was when (Davis' drummer in the early '50s) Kenny Clarke was playing, he used to play like that four on the bass drum, and his brother, who was a bass player, told him, 'Oh man, that gets in the way, you can't hear the bass notes when you do that.' So he kind of pioneered the bebop way of playing."
Cobb had worked with Miles Davis on the 1955 recording Miles and Coltrane. In 1958, he formally joined the band, replacing Philly Joe Jones. The Miles Davis Sextet at the time included Coltrane on tenor sax, Adderly on alto sax, bassist Paul Chambers and pianist Wynton Kelly, who had replaced Bill Evans. Their crowning achievement was 1959's Kind of Blue, one of the best loved and most important albums in jazz history. Cobb can also be heard on Sketches of Spain, Live In Stockholm 1960 and Porgy and Bess, among others.
"It was not a small part of my life, but it was a pretty good part," Cobb admits, "because it was a time when the music was great and I was playing with some great, great musicians. I feel like I was part of something good. At one time, Miles had Sonny Rollins and Coltrane in the sextet. They would play whatever figure they were going to play and he would maybe play the first chorus and he'd finish and go sit down and just watch 'Trane and Sonny battle each other. It's something that's probably never going to happen again."
When Davis disbanded the ensemble in 1963, Kelly, Chambers and Cobb kept the rhythm section together, playing as a trio and also backing guitarist Wes Montgomery. After Kelly's death in 1971, Cobb continued drumming, backing singers Sarah Vaughan and Nancy Wilson.
Today, Cobb is leading the Jimmy Cobb Mob. The quartet includes Peter Bernstein on guitar, pianist Richard Wylands and John Webber on bass. They are touring behind their first album, Only For The Pure At Heart.
"I was teaching a rhythm class at the New School in New York," Cobb explains. "It was just a thing where younger guys wanted to play with me, so we'd pick out jazz tunes and play them. Then I would critique what I thought they needed to work on in their playing. The guitar player and a couple of saxophone players that I liked to play with, they were in school and they wanted to get some gigs and they figured I could get some. So we got a couple gigs and that's how it started."
Cobb's playing is still as precise and inventive as ever. He laughs and says, "Well, that's about all I got, I guess. That's just the way I play. I got like that from being in bands a long time ago, and drummers used to get blamed for anything that happened to the time."
"I'm doing something that's been taking care of me all my life," he says. "I'm glad I've got something that works. It's the only thing I know how to do. It's what I picked out to do in the first place." Then he laughs again. "But I never thought that I'd be 70. I thought by now my ass would be grass."
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