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Jimmy Cobb: Standard-Bearer

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You do what you do till you cant do it no more. Thats my intention.
Jimmy CobbOne night in 2006, drummer Jimmy Cobb walked through the foyer of a New York jazz club with a lit stogie jammed coolly between his teeth. Someone standing in line for the next show wondered aloud if smoking was allowed in the club. Another patron waiting nearby figured that anyone who could survive the uncertainties of earning a living playing jazz for over a half-century, especially the last remaining member of the historic sessions that gave us Miles Davis' Kind Of Blue (Columbia, 1959), could smoke, sit or drink anywhere and anytime he damn well pleased.

Cobb, born in 1929, has appeared on hundreds of recordings. A small sample of the other greats he's played with includes Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Wes Montgomery, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz and John Coltrane. He's also cut several albums as a leader, including those with Jimmy Cobb's Mob. This month he appears with the band from 4 Generations of Miles (Chesky, 2002), a live album that joined Cobb and three other musicians—tenor man George Coleman, guitarist Mike Stern and bassist Ron Carter—in tribute to various eras in Miles' career. Cobb enjoyed a bowl of green tea ice cream at an Upper West Side sushi bar as he shared his memories of the Kind Of Blue sessions and reflected on his life and career.

All About Jazz: Going back to that session for Kind Of Blue in 1959, did Miles give you and the other musicians any specific instructions on how he wanted things played or did you just let it flow as the sessions went on?

Jimmy Cobb: Well, it was probably both of those. He probably had talked to the horns at his house, he had a little piano in the basement, maybe they ran through it down there. So when he got to me he just kind of told me what it was, you know, like whatever the tempo was and stuff like that and how he wanted it to feel. But there wasn't a whole lot of preparation for me. But the other guys, I'm sure he probably told them what to do.

AAJ: Was there any time during the session where you listened to the music and felt that you were putting together something really special or did that come much later?

JC: We didn't think this one was gonna be more special than Sketches of Spain (Columbia, 1960) or Porgy and Bess (Columbia, 1958) or any of that. But this was a thing where we did everything pretty quick, maybe in one take, so I figured we were breezin' through it pretty good and it was soundin' good. So it was just another good soundin' Miles Davis take to me.

AAJ: Did you have any idea that it would become the huge phenomenon that it did?

JC: Nobody did. How could you? How could you think that something's gonna be that potent for fifty years? You can't even imagine that. I'm sure Milescouldn't. When he heard it I'm sure he thought it was what he wanted and everybody played good on it, but I don't think he thought it would stand up for fifty years.

AAJ: Was 4 Generations of Miles your idea or was it collaborative?

JC: I think producer David Chesky just thought about four guys who had been associated [with Miles] and were still alive that could do it. I didn't really know that much about the guitarist [Mike Stern] 'cause I didn't really keep up with Miles' turnover in his band that much after I left 'cause he was going one way and I was going the other. But it worked out good. I liked it. [Editor's note: Eleana Tee, Cobb's longtime collaborator and partner, explained by phone that she helped produce 4 Generations of Miles and that it was originally conceived with Cobb as the leader. But Chesky decided to change the focus of the recording toward Miles Davis, explaining that the company felt that a title invoking Miles would give it a more marketable hook.]

AAJ: The striking thing about 4 Generations is that there's no trumpet player.

JC: Well I guess if you're gonna do something about Miles it would seem feasible to have a trumpet player, wouldn't it? There's a lot of guys that kinda play like Miles. In fact, I just came off a thing down in Florida where they used Lew Soloff to play Porgy and Bess with the Florida Southern University Orchestra and it came out pretty good. So there's a lot of guys who could play that music but it just probably wasn't in this guy's perception to do it like that.

AAJ: Getting back to Kind Of Blu, is there anything that you took from working with Miles that you've applied successfully over the years?

JC: Maybe the discipline of trying to sound your best every night. I might've gotten that, but I think I probably had that before I got to Miles. That's probably how I got to Miles. I enjoyed being there because at that time it was the greatest jazz band in the world. I'm the only one that's able to talk about that particular band now. Listening to Miles play, well not only did Miles play great every night but everybody played great every night. That's a hell of a thing. That doesn't happen all the time with everybody.

AAJ: You're sort of a standard-bearer now.

JC: Well I guess if that's what you want to call me. I've been called worse!

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