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Meet Kenneth Cobb

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I take personal pride in knowing that my ancestors created this cherished form of music that has survived and been passed down through generations. Just the pure creativity, imagination, skill, and knowledge required to be able to both play and improvise on a piece of music amazes me.
We suppose it makes sense that our latest Super Fan, a high-level mathematician—a contractor for NASA, no less—would keep meticulous records about, well, everything, from his massive CD and LP collection, to his personal road trip "mix tapes," to every concert he's attended. But applying his mathematical genius to fitting an entire week's worth of music into three days strikes us as positively Einsteinian. (You'll just have to read on to find out how he did it.)

Tell us a bit about yourself.

First, thanks for the opportunity to be recognized as a Jazz Super Fan, and to participate in this series. I feel honored and humbled. I'm a Detroit native, born and raised, the middle of seven children, and am now a retired electrical engineer living outside Baltimore, Maryland. I have an MBA in finance, an MS and BS in electrical engineering, and a BS in engineering science. My 32-year professional career included Westinghouse in Baltimore; the FAA (government contractor), in Washington, DC, Northern Virginia, and south New Jersey; and NASA Ames (government contractor) in Silicon Valley. During my career, I was also an adjunct math professor at Stockton State College and Atlantic Community College. After I retired, I was a high school substitute math teacher for a year. I continue to tutor math free of charge. My passions other than jazz are Black theatre (plays, dance, choirs), independent films, writing, and current events. In my free time, I've self-published 12 books thus far, including two jazz journals entitled, New York City Jazz Chronicles: June 2013—December 2015, and Jazz Excursions Coast-to-Coast: 2010—SF Bay Area/NYC, as well as a family reunion newsletter in newspaper format.

As of late, ironically, from having to read four children's books as part of tutoring my nine-year-old-niece with her summer reading assignment, I've gotten back into reading. I recently completed My Life with Earth, Wind and Fire by Maurice White, I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump's Catastrophic Final Year by Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker, and Black Is the New White by Paul Mooney. I'm currently reading Griot: Examining the Lives of Jazz's Great Storytellers, Vol. I by trumpet player Jeremy Pelt, which has prompted me to begin Art Taylor's 1977 Notes and Tones: Musician-to-Musician Interviews. Per my request, my San Francisco Bay Area jazz buddies have suggested several autobiographies and biographies to read (e.g., Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Jimmy Heath, Wayne Shorter); these books should happily keep me occupied for a while!

What's your earliest memory of music?

Growing up in Detroit and coming of age in 1970s, I was into Motown, R&B, and funk. Between record stores, neighborhood bands, the church choir, and local radio stations CKLW, WJLB, WJZZ, and WCHB, music could be heard everywhere. My mother played piano; she was classically trained. My father's sister, also classically trained, played piano, too. During Sunday afternoon visits, my mother and aunt would alternate at the piano playing church hymns, spirituals, Christmas carols, and other music. Without realizing it, my dad and the seven of us kids were taking in free concerts while watching the Detroit Lions or Pistons on television.

How old were you when you got your first record?

I paid half my tuition to private high school and had only a Detroit Free Press paper route, so I don't recall buying any albums, though I'm certain I purchased many 45's. I believe the first album I bought was Bob James' One, in the summer of 1974, featuring "Feel Like Makin' Love." I just loved the mellow instrumental version of Roberta Flack's classic hit, written by Eugene McDaniels, with the strings arrangement, steady drumbeat, nice flute sounds, and James' soon-to-be trademark Fender Rhodes electric piano.

As a freshman at the University of Michigan that fall, I was big into jazz fusion with Bob James, Grover Washington Jr., the Crusaders, Roy Ayers, Donald Byrd, Herbie Hancock, Ramsey Lewis, David Sanborn, Weather Report, Return to Forever, and the other CTI/KUDU label artists—Stanley Turrentine, Freddie Hubbard, Milt Jackson, George Benson, Ron Carter, Deodato, Paul Desmond, Kenny Burrell, Hubert Laws, Chet Baker, Bill Evans, Idris Muhammad, Hank Crawford, Johnny "Hammond" Smith.

What was the first concert you ever attended?

The first I recall was an Earth, Wind & Fire concert at Detroit's Cobo Arena in 1977. Back then, Cobo Arena was the home of the Detroit Pistons. I was a junior at the University of Michigan up the road in Ann Arbor. I treated my three younger sisters to the show. The opening act was Deniece Williams. Of course, the concert was AMAZING! It featured EW&F's pyramids show with magic, choreography, levitation, lighting, smoke, etc. Surprisingly, Niecy opened her show singing her "God Is Truly Amazing." The crowd, I'm sure, was expecting her to open with "Free," which she eventually got around to. As my contemporaries are fully aware, EW&F was/is THE quintessential R&B group of all time. Many groups sound great on record, but in live concert, it's a different story altogether; not so with EW&F. In fact, their songs still sound great almost 50 years later! And in concert these days, with only three original members in the touring band, it still sounds good!

Was there one album or experience that was your doorway to jazz?

Yes! In the late '70s, after growing my jazz fusion collection very well, but not yet having heard the "real stuff," I was introduced first to Lee Morgan's "You Go To My Head," after which I started to hear stuff like "Sweet Clifford" (Clifford Brown and Max Roach), "The Eternal Triangle" (Dizzy Gillespie), "Song For My Father" (Horace Silver), "Giant Steps" (John Coltrane), and "You've Changed" (Dexter Gordon). Man, I was hooked. From then on, jazz—bebop, hard bop, mainstream, straight ahead jazz—was my music, particularly that emanating from the 1950s. I do not play any instruments or read music. I have so much respect for those artists, past and present, who study, create, perform, and dedicate their lives to this beautiful and wonderful original American art form called jazz!

I have what I call my Big Seven: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Bird, Miles, Coltrane, and Thelonious Monk. I can't say enough about Monk's music. Of course, there are so many other favorite artists whose music I enjoy.

We hear you're a bit of a record collector.

My quest for more of this swinging, burning, ballad, and bluesy music, and the artists playing it, continued into the 1980s as I tirelessly searched the bins of several new and used record stores in Ann Arbor, Detroit, Baltimore, DC, Philadelphia, south Jersey, and New York City. Man, I was definitely on a mission!

As a result, I have about 3,400 record albums and approximately 5,200 CDs! I also have to mention that thanks to CD reissues in the early 1990s, I was able to get hold of many outstanding Blue Note, Capitol/Pacific, Emarcy/Verve/Mercury, Prestige/Riverside, Savoy, Impulse, and Columbia recordings from the 1950s/60s. Japanese import CDs and Mosaic box sets also helped out tremendously. Nowadays, thanks to the independent labels and to self-produced CDs, great jazz music is still accessible.

Since albums started phasing out in the early 1990s (I was one of the last holdouts), I hesitantly switched over to CDs. I still long for that hissing (clean analog) sound when the needle is placed on the record...

In fact, if I may digress, for music connoisseurs of a certain age (not hoity-toity audiophiles), it was all about building up one's sound system step-by-step so that when you purchased a new jazz album, you'd rush home to your "listening room" (aka "man cave"), carefully remove the album from the album cover and sleeve, place it on the turntable (NOT the "record player"), manually move the needle over and slowly lower it, turn up the volume, listen for the clarity of the sound, then proceed to start reading the liner notes and memorizing other album details (e.g., personnel, recording dates, studio, recording engineer, label, etc.) for later reference or argument. The better the stylus, the cleaner the sound! And you could always judge a person by the way they handled an album. If they touched the grooves, you'd cringe and your pulse would shoot up!

What does such a committed vinyl listener do for music when they're away from home?

For frequent long car trips, I used to burn my own 80-minute jazz CDs containing favorite tunes. To date I have a collection of 461 "best of" CDs, what the younger generation would call mix tapes.

And since CDs started phasing out in the early 2010s, I hesitantly switched over to exclusively downloading music via iTunes or artists' websites, and now I have lots of jazz on my iPhone for long drives, flying, or just running errands. I've never utilized software or services that allowed one to download music free of charge without paying the artists. I always thought and felt it was simply outright stealing, period!

How long have you been going out to hear live music?

In the mid-1980s, I began attending jazz shows after work, mostly all by myself, at two DC venues, both in Georgetown: Charley's (owned by Charley Byrd) and Blues Alley. The two notable performances I recall were by Oscar Peterson and Sarah Vaughan. From then through 2000, Blues Alley was basically the only local jazz venue I patronized (Charley's closed in June 1985). However, after 1995, while on business travel, once the meetings adjourned, I would scamper away in my rental car to local record stores and clubs, having done my research well in advance. That's how I discovered Yoshi's in Oakland, Jazz at Pearl's in San Francisco, Jazz Alley in Seattle, and Club Isabella in Cleveland.

During out-of-town family visits and annual reunions, I discovered the Jazz Kitchen in Indianapolis (where I saw the Pat Martino Trio), Blue Wisp in Cincinnati (Dan Faehnle Quartet), Jazz Showcase in Chicago (Chicago Soul Jazz Collective), and Churchill Grounds in Atlanta. Of course, while visiting my hometown of Detroit, I'd always check who was playing at Baker's Keyboard Lounge, Bert's Marketplace, and the Dirty Dog Jazz Cafe.

When I relocated from the East Coast to the West Coast in August 2001 due to a job change, I was introduced to additional Bay Area jazz clubs (Savannah Jazz, the Purple Onion, Anna's Jazz Island) and festivals (the Stanford Jazz Workshop, San Jose Jazz Festival, Healdsburg Jazz Festival, Oakland Jazz Festival, and San Francisco Jazz Festival). I also discovered the Los Angeles jazz clubs: Catalina Bar & Grill, the Jazz Bakery, and Charlie O's, frequently trekking five-and-a-half hours on I-5 South on weekends. Over the next four years, my free time was consumed with (mostly) West Coast jazz clubs, festivals, plays, independent films, and record stores.

When did you finally get to the New York clubs?

Ironically, during the many years I lived in Baltimore, as well as five years in south Jersey, I never ventured to New York City for jazz. Amazing, and what missed opportunities, when I think about those fertile years (1981-2000) and the many jazz artists I missed seeing. Well, that's life—I was quite busy with my career, graduate studies, teaching, local jazz shows, record stores, movies, playing sports, hanging out with the fellas, and chasing women!

Then, in late 2006, dealing with the loss of both parents in 2005, I decided to plan a week-long visit to the Mecca of the jazz world: New York City!

I had a wonderful, unforgettable week of great jazz shows at night, sightseeing, and matinee plays during the day, reasonable accommodations, and pretty good food. I captured my experience in an essay entitled, "NYC Jazz Pilgrimage Summary/Highlights."

What's the most trouble you've gone to to get to a jazz performance?

In 2007, while living on the West Coast, I undertook the effort to compress a week's worth of jazz concerts into a weekend. Being an engineer at heart, I figured it out! I'd take Fridays off from work, fly to New York early in the evening, take in four shows with staggered start times for three nights (12 total), see movies or sightsee during the day, then fly back first thing Monday morning and, with the three-hour time difference, arrive back into the Bay Area by noon, in time for work. No problem!

I started out slowly with eight such weekend trips in 2007, emailing out my itinerary in advance to jazz buddies and a few jazz artists, then increased every year to a high of 24 trips in 2010 (220 total shows). That year, I was essentially an East Coast "jazz cat" half the time, and a West Coast "surfer dude" or "rocket scientist" the other half of the time. I slowly trailed off each year with only three weekend trips in 2013 for a total of 82 trips over a span of seven years.

In the process, many jazz artists and other frequent jazz patrons who saw me in practically EVERY jazz club in New York City thought that I actually lived there! Throughout, with me being naturally conversational, I found most jazz artists, both young and old, to be very approachable and personable. To this day, I make it a point to speak to visiting jazz artists when they come to Baltimore or Washington, or when I see them in the airport. It's funny that the young upstarts I first saw in 2006 are now doing their thing big time in 2021.

Then, when I returned to the East Coast in June 2013, I went to New York City for jazz practically every Saturday for the next two-and-a-half years, this time via car (a three-hour drive from Baltimore), seeing four shows each time, then driving back home afterwards, usually leaving Smalls at 1:30 AM. This came to an abrupt end due to the "Blizzard of 2016" that January. I saw a total of 496 jazz shows in 123 trips and documented each Saturday's itinerary and band members, along with my brief "Reflections" on each evening.

That's dedication! What is it about live music that makes it so meaningful to you?

The first thing that comes to mind when I'm sitting in a jazz club anticipating the start of a set is: Wow, I feel so lucky and blessed to be in a financial position to be here listening to LIVE music, to have the opportunity to witness such a beautiful art form full of rhythm, melody, and harmony. On the way in, I may have had a chance to poke my head into the back room, or at the bar, to wish the cats, "Hey, have a great set!" I take personal pride in knowing that my ancestors created this cherished form of music that has survived and been passed down through generations. Just the pure creativity, imagination, skill, and knowledge required to be able to both play and improvise on a piece of music amazes me. For the next 70 minutes, I'm about to hear artists come together to play a set of tunes, including originals, standards, blues, ballads, burners, mid-tempo, etc., all the while displaying excellent musicianship, camaraderie, and give-and-take with the audience.

I also think of how, only in jazz, could you sit twenty different pianists in front of the same Steinway—let's say Monk, Duke, Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Wynton Kelly, Bill Evans, Tommy Flanagan, Phineas Newborn, Jr., Erroll Garner, Hank Jones, Gene Harris, Cedar Walton, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Barry Harris, Ahmad Jamal, Monty Alexander, Cyrus Chestnut, Benny Green, and Joey Alexander, just to name a few—ask each one to play the same standard, improvising as they wish, and know full well that they'd all sound unique. That's what I look forward to each and every set, each and every club, each and every night... Get ready and buckle your seatbelts! You're in for a ride!

Is there one concert that got away that you still regret having missed?

Even though I'd seen Roy Hargrove and his quintet perform every year since 2006, in the Bay Area, New York City, or DC, I was eagerly looking forward to hearing his group at Blues Alley on Saturday, November 10, 2018. Unfortunately, while attending a Curtis Lundy Trio performance (with his sister, Carmen Lundy, making a guest appearance) at An Die Musik in Baltimore on Friday of the previous week, word shockingly spread of Roy's unexpected passing. To me, ANY missed Roy Hargrove Quintet concert is one that got away...

If you could go back in time and hear one of the jazz legends perform live, who would it be?

Thelonious Monk. If I had a second selection, it would be John Coltrane.

What makes a great jazz club?

The piano sound, acoustic bass microphone volume (make sure I can hear it), lively (NOT talkative!) crowd, courteous wait staff, friendly greeters, ambiance, buzz, etc. Since I have so many favorite New York City jazz clubs, I can't choose one favorite. I've enjoyed them all over the years: Smoke Jazz & Supper Club, Dizzy's, the Village Vanguard, Smalls Jazz Club, Mezz Mezzrow, Birdland, the Blue Note, Iridium, Ernest Anderson III, Minton's Playhouse, Fat Cat (too noisy, however), e; Django's, Ginny's Supper Club, Jazz at Kitano, the Jazz Standard. I've also had the pleasure of having front row tables or bar seats saved for me since I rush from one venue to another.

My favorite jazz clubs outside New York include: Yoshi's Oakland, SFJAZZ Center (San Francisco), Blues Alley (Washington, DC), Keystone Korner Baltimore Baltimore (Baltimore), Caton Castle (Baltimore), An Die Musik (Baltimore), Kuumbwa Jazz Honors Band (Santa Cruz), and Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society (Half Moon Bay).

Which club(s) are you most regularly to be found at?

Depending on who's performing: Smoke, Dizzy's, Village Vanguard, Smalls, Mezzrow, Birdland, Blue Note, Jazz Gallery, and Django's. Since I try to maximize my out-of-town visits, I see my favorite artists wherever they appear.

Is there a club that's no longer around that you miss the most?

The Kitano and the Jazz Standard, both of which closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. I'm really going to miss Gino Moratti, who booked performances at the Kitano. He passed in January.

Do you have a favorite jazz anecdote?

Several, but this one in particular stands out. While living in the Bay Area, I attended the annual two-week Healdsburg Jazz Festival, located in wine country approximately 70 miles north of San Francisco. In June 2007, its closing Sunday afternoon outdoor concert featured the George Cables Trio with Roy Hargrove. The previous Friday evening's concert featured the Cookers (George Cables, Cecil McBee, Billy Hart, Billy Harper, Eddie Henderson, Craig Handy and David Weiss). When I arrived, I recognized a very good jazz buddy from Oakland and joined her on the lawn. As expected, it was an outstanding concert! Afterward, Jessica Felix, the founder and then-director of the festival, and very good friend of the person I was sitting with, invited us to an exclusive after-party dinner at someone's home nearby. Wow! Many of the performers showed up with their instruments, and I had a chance to sit next to George Cables and his partner Helen ("Helen's Song"). Except for Cecil McBee (to whom I mentioned his playing on Lonnie Liston Smith's Expansions) and his fellow Cookers' cohorts, I forget who else showed up. Of course, I was awestruck. Had it not been for me sitting next to my friend during the concert, I would have never had this wonderful experience!

How do you discover new artists?

Independent jazz label websites: a special shout out to Jazz Depot, Cellar Live, Posi-Tone, Sunnyside, Mack Avenue, Smoke Sessions, WJ3, Whaling Sound, Origin/OA2, Capri, and Steeplechase independent labels, just to name a few, whose websites I constantly check for new releases.

Jazz magazines, websites, and radio stations: All About Jazz (new releases), Downbeat magazine (new releases), Jazziz website (reviews), Jazzweek website (Jazz Chart/Jazz Add Dates), Hot House magazine, jam sessions, and WEAA (Baltimore), WPFW (Washington, DC) and KCSM (San Francisco Bay Area) radio stations.

Vinyl, CDs, MP3s, streaming?

Mostly streaming via iTunes nowadays, and sometime CDs purchased directly from the artists after concerts. This way, the artist receives the monies directly. I've had a few instances when artists, because I'm always inquiring about their next release and am a huge jazz fan, just give me free copies of their new CDs. I always offer to pay, but they refuse.

If you were a professional musician, which instrument would you play and why?

Probably piano or guitar. I've always liked the piano (took short-lived lessons as a young teen) and I now have my late mother's grand piano, purchased by my father for her back in 1994. I've also liked the guitar (Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, Kenny Burrell, Joe Pass, George Benson) and frequently dabble on both my electric and acoustic guitars. Nothing serious, however. I once had an opportunity to purchase a used acoustic bass back at a music instrument store in 1990; however, when I finally had the funds, it had already been sold. I also have an electric bass.

What's your desert island disc?

Very difficult choice... I'd have to go with John Coltrane's Giant Steps.

What do you think keeps jazz alive and thriving?

These up-and-coming young lions who display raw talent. The fact that many universities and colleges now feature experienced jazz performers on their jazz program faculties makes a huge difference. It also has given established jazz artists more deserved opportunities in the world of academia. And thank God for independent jazz labels!

Finish this sentence: Life without music would be...

...very sad indeed. In general, the performance arts (music, dance, theatre) add so much to the quality of life, and the world is much better with the international language of jazz. I know my life certainly is!

Is there anything else we should know about you?

Spike Wilner, who runs Smalls and Mezzrow, and with whom I'd frequently make conversation outside Smalls before descending down the steps, once called me the world's biggest jazz fan! I truly love my jazz!

You can see Kenneth's writings here.

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Out and About: The Super Fans Tessa Souter and Andrea Wolper Jeremy Pelt Art Taylor Charlie Parker Thelonious Monk John Coltrane Miles Davis Jimmy Heath Wayne Shorter Bob James Roberta Flack Eugene McDaniels Grover Washington Roy Ayers Donald Byrd Herbie Hancock Ramsey Lewis David Sanborn Weather Report Return To Forever Stanley Turrentine Freddie Hubbard Milt Jackson george benson Ron Carter Deodato Paul Desmond Kenny Burrell Hubert Laws Chet Baker Bill Evans Idris Muhammad Hank Crawford Johnny "Hammond" Smith Earth, Wind & Fire Deniece 'Niecy' Williams Lee Morgan Clifford Brown Max Roach Dizzy Gillespie Horace Silver Dexter Gordon Louis Armstrong duke ellington Charley's oscar peterson Sarah Vaughan Blues Alley Yoshi's Jazz at Pearl's Jazz Alley Club Isabella Jazz Kitchen Pat Martino Blue Wisp Dan Faehnle Jazz Showcase Chicago Soul Jazz Collective Churchill Grounds Baker's Keyboard Lounge Bert's Marketplace Dirty Dog Jazz Cafe Savannah Jazz Purple Onion Anna's Jazz Island Stanford Jazz Workshop San Jose Jazz Festival Healdsburg Jazz Festival Oakland Jazz Festival San Francisco Jazz Festival Catalina Jazz Club Jazz Bakery Charlie O's Art Tatum Bud Powell Wynton Kelly Tommy Flanagan Phineas Newborn Erroll Garner Hank Jones Gene Harris Cedar Walton Chick Correa Barry Harris Ahmad Jamal Monty Alexander CYRUS CHESTNUT Benny Green Joey Alexander Roy Hargrove Curtis Lundy Carmen Lundy An die Musik Smoke Jazz and Supper Club Dizzy's Village Vanguard SMALLS Mezzrow Birdland Blue Note Iridium Jazz Gallery Minton's Playhouse Fat Cat Django's Ginny's Supper Club JAZZ at KITANO Jazz Standard keystone korner Caton Castle Kuumbwa Jazz Bach Dancing and Dining Society Gino Moratti George Cables cecil mcbee Billy Hart billy harper Eddie Henderson Craig Handy David Weiss Jessica Felix Lonnie Liston Smith Wes Montgomery Grant Green Joe Pass Spike Wilner

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