Jimmy Cobb: Standard-Bearer


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One 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!

AAJ: A lot of the greats that you played with and grew up with, so to speak, have gone on.

JC: For me, most of 'em haven't gone on 'cause I've got 'em right here. (points to his temple). I got Wynton [Kelly], I got Miles, I got Trane, I got Paul [Chambers], 'cause you know whenever I see some things it brings other things back to my mind, you know, and the way we played in certain places and stuff like that.

AAJ: In the forward to the book Kind Of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece (Da Capo, 2000) by Ashley Kahn, you wrote that when you listen to all of those men you mentioned, you hear other people in their playing.

JC: That's right. It's the history of the music in all that music. For instance, I knew where Cannonball [Adderley] came from 'cause he loved Benny Carter. Benny Carter was his mentor. I knew the history of Trane, when he was back playing alto in Philadelphia, until he heard Charlie Parker and then he said "I'd better give the alto up. I know different guys' histories. When I have clinics sometimes guys ask me about players like that. I say it's always good to know the history because if you know the history, if you're gonna be improvising something, you've got a basis, the base to deal with. [You've] got [a] more fruitful mind for improvisation.

AAJ: Like Charles Mingus said: you just can't improvise off nothing. You've got to improvise off something.

JC: That's right. You got to have something. So the more you got the more you can do. 'Cause certain things appear and you know they go with certain other things. You know like, doo bop shoo bop, doo bop shoo bop, doo bop shoo bop. Don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing. So it's that kind of connection.

AAJ: What drummers do you listen to today?

JC: I listen to the guys that I know from a long time ago that are still alive. I listen to Ben [Riley], I listen to [Ed] Thigpen, I listen to Roy Haynes because he's just a little bit older than me and we have a good rapport. Chico Hamilton, you know, all those people. And there's a host of young boys. There's a few that I had the good grace to teach. I like Lewis Nash, I like Steve Gadd. I met him when he was a little boy. His mother used to bring him by a place we played in Rochester when I was with Dizzy Gillespie's small band.

AAJ: When you teach and give lectures or seminars, is there any one lesson you try to teach everyone in approaching jazz?

JC: I usually tell 'em that if you're gonna do this, stay here [in New York] and get all that's available that you can learn because when you get out here you gonna have to be able to do everything. It's not gonna be just jazz a lot of times, you might have to play something else that might sustain your life. This is the nature of this game.

So I usually tell guys if they wanna do this to learn all you can while you're in school and be serious about what you're doing, 'cause if you're not, why do it? I don't know if they like it when I say that, but the truth is the truth. Me, I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. I knew some good people; they put me in touch with some more good people, so I've been able to maintain this music thing without going to something else. There have been some really sparse times but I think I was able to creep through it a little bit.

AAJ: So you've been creeping for a half-century.

JC: Oh yeah, so far. I've just been trying to do the best I can, trying to stay healthy enough to do it.

AAJ: So what do you have in store for the next fifty years?

JC: Well, I don't know. I think the latter part will be me resting somewhere. I'm gonna do this as long as I can do it. I've had friends of mine drop dead on the bandstand. So you do what you do 'till you can't do it no more. That's my intention.

Selected Discography

Jimmy Cobb, Marsalis Music Honors (Marsalis Music/Rounder, 2005)
Cannonball Adderley, Sophisticated Swing: The EmArcy Small Group Sessions (EmArcy/Verve, 1995)
Sarah Vaughan, Complete: Live in Japan (Mainstream/Mobile Fidelity, 1973)
Wynton Kelly Trio/Wes Montgomery, Smokin' at the Half Note (Verve, 1965)
Wes Montgomery, Full House (Riverside/Concord, 1962)
Miles Davis, Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959)

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