by Rick Mattingly
If the only album Jimmy Cobb ever played on had been Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, he would have earned his place in jazz history.
“The first time I heard Jimmy was on Kind of Blue,” said PAS Hall of Fame member Jack DeJohnette, “and what got my attention was his touch and keen sense of dynamics. You can always count on Jimmy to provide the rightsupport for whatever the music or musicians call for. That’s why Jimmy was andis always called upon by the greats in jazz and will always be respected by the community. Also, he is a really good human being, and I am happy to know him.”
Cobb is the last surviving member of the Kind of Blueband—which included Davis, saxophonists John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, pianists Wynton Kelly and Bill Evans, and bassist Paul Chambers—and one of thelast of the great drummers who defined the post-bop style of the 1950s and ’60s. Although Kind of Blue is the best-selling jazz album in history, Cobb is not as widely known by the general public as some of his contemporaries such as Philly Joe Jones, Elvin Jones, or Roy Haynes. But as his extensive discography confirms, countless musicians wanted him in their bands for his solid, swinging timekeeping. With his understated, non-flamboyant approach, Cobb can drive a band harder with quarter notes on a ride cymbal or brushes on a snare drum thanmany drummers can with fast and furious cymbal patterns enhanced with syncopated snare and bass drum punches. Cobb’s drumming is never “in your face,” and even your ear might not immediately notice his playing, integrated as it is within the sound of the band and locked in with the bassist to the point that it seems that a single person is playing both instruments. But your foot will be responding to Jimmy, tapping along to his swingin’ pulse whether you realize it or not.
“When I was first starting out I used to hear Kenny Clarke play a certain way,” Cobb recalls. “He could play a little splash cymbal and it wouldn’t splash because he had such a good touch on the cymbal. So I just kind of fell into that. I didn’t just play four quarter notes; the little [swung] note was just soft. But I guess people only heard the quarter notes. Now it’s a little different; I dance with it a little bit on the cymbal, but it still has that same feeling.”
In June 2008, Cobb was the recipient of the Don Redman Jazz Heritage award. The following October, he was one of six to be presented with the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Jazz Masters award. In December 2009,the U.S. House of Representatives honored Cobb and the 50th Anniversary of Kind of Blue.
“It’s fitting and appropriate that this assembly of percussionists give Jimmy Cobb the greatest honor possible,” said Peter Erskine. “Simply put, the world’s a better place because of Jimmy Cobb’s drumming, and it’s delightful to know he is being inducted into the PAS Hall of Fame. The PAS is a better place now for this.”
Wilbur James “Jimmy” Cobb was born on January 20, 1929 in Washington, D.C. In a 1978 Modern Drummer interview he recalled buying his first set of drums when he was 13, from money he saved from being a busboy at a drugstore lunch counter. “When I first got my set of drums, I just set them upand played them, without looking at any music, he recalled. “I was trying toget some technique and find out if I liked the drums. When I could play alittle bit, then I learned to read.” He studied briefly with National Symphony percussionist Jack Dennett, started playing drums in his school band, and was soon getting professional gigs. “It was during World War II,” he recalled, “and it was easy for someone just getting started to get a job because many guys had been drafted and gone to war.”
Cobb’s first major gig was with saxophonist Charlie Rouse.“He was from Washington and had been to New York,” Cobb told Modern Drummer.“Rouse had worked with Dizzy Gillespie and all the bebop musicians, so he knew all the tunes. I had a job with him at the Republic Gardens on U Street in Washington. I was about 18. That’s how I started playing jazz. I wanted to play jazz because I always heard it in the neighborhood. My friends would play Billy Eckstine records—the hard swing, bebop thing. Eckstine’s band had stars like Dexter Gordon, Charlie Parker, and Gene Ammons. That’s the kind of music I’ve been listening to all my life.”
When it came to drummers, Cobb cited Max Roach as his biggest influence. “At the time, that was the hippest music going,” Cobb said.“I also listened to Kenny Clark, Shadow Wilson, and Big Sid Catlett. Then a little later there was Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones.”
While in Washington Cobb also played with Leo Parker, Benny Golson, Billie Holiday, and Pearl Bailey. When Cobb was 21, he went to New York and landed a job with Earl Bostic. “During those times the band used to travel to different places,” Cobb said. “In each city there was a variety theater and the band would have to play the show. We had a sextet and they would add other musicians to make a 13-piece band. I only stayed with Bostic a year. After that I went with Dinah Washington, and the same thing prevailed. You’d have an augmented band and play for other acts. It was good experience. Also, when I was with Diana we did a good record called For Those in Love that had some of Quincy Jones’s first arrangements.”
After working with Diana Washington for three and a half years, Cobb joined the quintet of Cannonball and Nat Adderley for about a year.“I met Julian [Cannonball] when I was with Diana Washington,” Cobb recalls. “He was still in Florida, and when we played there, he came to the hotel we were staying in because he wanted to talk to somebody from New York and find out what the scene was because he was thinking about coming up. After Charlie Parker died, I guess he figured he had a shot,” Cobb says, laughing. “So later on when he and Nat came to New York he hired me for their band, and we made an album called Sharpshooters, which was a pretty good album.”
After that band broke up, Cobb worked with Stan Getz and Dizzy Gillespie and recorded with Tito Puente. “Then Julian went with Miles Davis, and at the time Philly Joe [Jones] was on drums, but sometimes he wouldn’t show up,” Cobb explained recently. “So Julian told me to come by when they were playing, and if Joe didn’t show up I could play. So I did that a lot,and then I went to a record date with them one day and Joe didn’t show up, so they pressed me into service, and that record date was for Porgy and Bess. They had already done about half of it with Joe, and I’m on the other half. Sometimes we’re each doing half of the same tune. So I finished the date, and a little while after that Miles asked me to be in the band.
“I had played with Miles before,” Cobb added. “When I was with Diana, a disc jockey called Symphony Sid gathered a lot of musicians together and called them Symphony Sid’s All-Stars, and he had Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Milt Jackson, and Toots Thielemans, who had just come from Belgium, and Diana’s rhythm section. We played together for a week.”
After joining Davis’s group full time, Cobb appeared onseveral albums, including Sketches of Spain, Someday My Prince Will Come, Live at Carnegie Hall, and Live at the Blackhawk. At the time the group recorded Kind of Blue, Cobb had no idea it would become one of the great jazz classics of all time. “It was just another Miles Davis record date,” he said. “When we went in, I didn’t have any music. He probably had some lead sheets for the guys. It was an ordinary date, but we were playing some different music that sounded like Bill Evans, Gil Evans, and Miles Davis. It was the modal thing, and that was the first time we had done that.” Cobb wrote the foreword for the 2000 book Kind of Blue: the Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece by Ashley Kahn.
During the time Cobb was with Davis, he also recorded with a number of prominent jazz artists, including solo albums by Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, Paul Chambers, and Wynton Kelly—who were all in the Davis group with Cobb—as well as with Kenny Dorham, Wayne Shorter, Paul Gonsalves, Art Pepper, Bobby Timmons, Donald Byrd, and Pepper Adams.
Cobb also appeared on a 1960 album called Son of Drum Suite, which was the sequel to a pervious album called The Drum Suite. Son of Drum Suite was a six-movement piece composed and arranged by Al Cohn that featured Mel Lewis, Don Lamond, Charli Persip, Louis Hayes, Gus Johnson, and Cobb. Even with all of those drummers, no drum solo is longer than eight bars, and the drum solos function as interludes and parts of the suite. The other musicians included trumpeter Clark Terry, trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, and saxophonist Zoot Sims. Around that same time, Jimmy participated in some Gretsch Drum Nights with Elvin Jones, Alan Dawson, and Art Blakey.
Cobb left Davis in 1962. “I was playing on some records for Riverside at the time, and the day after I left Miles Davis’s band, I recorded Boss Guitar with Wes Montgomery,” Cobb recalls. Shortly after that, Cobb, Paul Chambers, and Wynton Kelly formed a trio. In addition to performing and recording as the Wynton Kelly Trio, they toured with Montgomery and backed him on several albums, including Smokin’ at the Half Note and Willow Weep for Me.They also backed J.J. Johnson and Joe Henderson, working together until Chambers died in 1969.
In 1970 Cobb began working with singer Sarah Vaughan, with whom he stayed until 1978. “Since joining Sarah, I’ve been around the world,” Cobb said during his final year with her. “One year we went to four continents. It’s an education just to be on this job, because we do a lot of things—trio, big-band, and symphony jobs. It’s educational.” Cobb cites the 1973 recording Sarah Vaughan: Live in Japan as one of his favorites.
Afterward, Jimmy free-lanced with a variety of artists throughout the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s including Sonny Stitt, Nat Adderley, Hank Jones, Ron Carter, George Coleman, David “Fathead” Newman, the Great Jazz Trio, Nancy Wilson, Dave Holland, Warren Bernhardt, and many others.
Cobb has also led his own groups over the past couple of decades, often under the name Jimmy Cobb’s Mob. Some of his notable releasesinclude: Four Generations of Miles with guitarist Mike Stern, bassist Ron Carter, and saxophonist George Coleman; Yesterdays with Michael Brecker on tenor, Marion Meadows on soprano, Roy Hargrove on trumpet and flugelhorn, and Jon Faddis on trumpet; New York Time with Christian McBride on bass, Javon Jackson on tenor sax, and Cedar Walton on piano; West of 5th with Hank Jones onpiano and Christian McBride on bass; and Cobb’s Corner with Roy Hargrove, Ronnie Mathews, and Peter Washington. His most recent recordings with the Jimmy Cobb Quartet are Cobb’s Corner and Jazz in the Key of Blue. He also leads the Jimmy Cobb “So What” band, celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Kind of Blue and the music of Miles Davis, and he has a new album called Remembering Miles. In October, Cobb began a tour in which his group is celebrating the music of John Coltrane.
Over the past decade, Jimmy has taught annual master classes at the Stanford University Jazz Workshop. He has also taught at Parsons: The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York City, the Brooklyn-Queens Conservatory of Music, Florida State University, the University of Greensboro in North Carolina, and the International Center for the Arts in San Francisco.“Most of the drummers I get can already play,” Cobb says.“The first thing I ask them is, what do they want that they think they can get from me? Most of them want to learn that cymbal beat." As Peter Erskine attests, “Nobody has ever played better quarter notes than Jimmy Cobb."