Jazz drummer Jimmy Cobb, who played on Miles Davis’ Kind of Bluealbum and many other classic albums, died on Sunday, May 24, 2020, at age 91, after a battle with lung cancer.
Cobb was the last surviving member of the Kind of Blue band—which included Davis, saxophonists John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, pianists Wynton Kelly and Bill Evans, and bassist Paul Chambers—and one of the last of the 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 was 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 could drive a band harder with quarter notes on a ride cymbal or brushes on a snare drum than many drummers can with fast and furious cymbal patterns enhanced with syncopated snare and bass drum punches.
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. He studied briefly with National Symphony percussionist Jack Dennett, started playing drums in his school band, and was soon getting professional gigs. 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.”
Cobb’s first major gig in Washington was with saxophonist Charlie Rouse. 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. A year later he went with Dinah Washington, with whom he recorded an album called For Those in Love, which had some of Quincy Jones’s first arrangements.
After working with Washington for three and a half years, Cobb joined the quintet of Cannonball and Nat Adderley for about a year, appearing on the album Sharpshooters. After that band broke up, Cobb worked with Stan Getz and Dizzy Gillespie and recorded with Tito Puente. In the meantime, Cannonball Adderley had joined the Miles Davis band, which had Philly Joe Jones on drums. Adderley told Cobb to come to the Davis gigs and play if Jones did not show up, which was often the case. Cobb ended up playing on half of Davis’ Porgy and Bessalbum, and then Davis hired him to be in the band. After joining Davis’s group full time, Cobb appeared on several Miles Davis albums, including Sketches of Spain, Someday My Prince Will Come, Live at Carnegie Hall, and Live at the Blackhawk, along with Kind of Blue.
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 a six-movement piece that featured drummers Mel Lewis, Don Lamond, Charli Persip, Louis Hayes, Gus Johnson, and Cobb. Around that same time, Jimmy participated in some Gretsch Drum Nights with Elvin Jones, Alan Dawson, and Art Blakey.
Cobb left Davis in 1962. The next day, he recorded Boss Guitar with Wes Montgomery. 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. Cobb cited the 1973 recording Sarah Vaughan: Live in Japan as one of his favorites. Afterward, Jimmy freelanced 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 also led his own groups starting in the 1980s, often under the name Jimmy Cobb’s Mob. Some of his notable releases include: 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; and New York Time with Christian McBride on bass, Javon Jackson on tenor sax, and Cedar Walton on piano. He released his two final albums, This I Dig of You and Cobb’s Pocket, in 2019.
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. In 2011, Cobb was inducted into the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame. “It’s fitting and appropriate that this assembly of percussionists give Jimmy Cobb the greatest honor possible,” said Peter Erskine at that time. “Simply put, the world’s a better place because of Jimmy Cobb’s drumming.”