Rob Adams remembers drummer Jimmy Cobb who passed away yesterday, 24 May 2020, at the age of 91
When Jimmy Cobb left the studio after the second and final session for Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue album in April 1959, he knew he’d taken part in something beautiful.
In time he’d come to reflect that the album that took jazz in an entirely new direction and has proved endlessly inspirational was made in heaven. And while Cobb played on other notable Davis albums during his five years with the trumpeter and continued to set influential standards over the next sixty years, he will forever be associated with Kind of Blue.
Born and raised in Washington DC, Cobb got into drumming in his early teens. One of his friends was a music fan who used to beat on the table with his knuckles compulsively in time with whatever music happened to be playing in the background. When the friend took Cobb to check out a band and was invited to try and transfer his knuckle drumming onto the band’s drum kit, Cobb “got the fever.” He had to get a drum kit.
He’d seen one, a Slingerland with a photo of Gene Krupa playing it, in a shop he passed regularly but he didn’t have the $315 on the price ticket. So his mother got him a job clearing tables in the drugstore where she worked as a short-order cook and from the $28 a week he was paid, he saved $20 until he had enough to go to the shop and buy the kit. A percussionist with the National Symphony Orchestra gave him a few lessons to get him started but through listening to and working out what other drummers were doing he was soon proficient enough to play in the high school band.
For a teenage drummer, Washington DC in the mid-1940s was a good time to be starting out. A lot of the drummers around town had been drafted into the services and there were jobs to be had. One of these was with Charlie Rouse, the saxophonist best known for his long association with Thelonious Monk. Rouse was from Washington and had already been to New York, where he worked with Dizzy Gillespie. He gave the eighteen-year-old Cobb his first regular jazz gig and by the time Cobb set off for New York himself at the age of twenty-one, as well as having listened studiously to Max Roach, Kenny Clark, Shadow Wilson and Big Sid Catlett, he had gained experience with bands both small and medium-sized including two weeks spent accompanying Billie Holiday.
In New York he quickly found work with saxophonist Earl Bostic, touring as part of a core sextet that would be augmented to a thirteen-piece by local players. After a year with Bostic he joined Dinah Washington’s group, where he first met future Miles Davis colleague, pianist Wynton Kelly, before working with Cannonball Adderley, Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz and becoming friends with fellow drummer Art Taylor and Miles Davis.
Cobb used to accompany Davis to the boxing gym where Davis sparred and hang out at Davis’ house and although he remembered them always having a good time, he didn’t get involved in the hard drugs that were in and out of Davis’ life. In 1958 he joined Davis’ quintet and, as well as playing on Kind of Blue, he was onboard for other landmark albums including the Gil Evans collaborations, Porgy & Bess and Sketches of Spain.
While working with Davis, Cobb was also alternating with Art Taylor in fellow Davis band member John Coltrane’s quintet. He appeared alongside Wynton Kelly and bassist Paul Chambers on the Coltrane classics Giant Steps for Atlantic Records, the first sessions for which occurred less than a month after the first recording session for Kind of Blue.
Cobb, Kelly and Chambers recorded with another saxophone star, Art Pepper, in 1960 (on Pepper’s Gettin’ Together with trumpeter Conte Candoli) and after Kelly and Chambers left Miles Davis part-way through a tour shortly after this, Cobb stayed on before leaving Davis and joining his rhythm section colleagues the next year. They went on to record and tour with Wes Montgomery before Cobb began a long tenure with Sarah Vaughan.
Cobb’s extensive discography since he featured on Kind of Blue includes albums with Joe Henderson, Nat Adderley, Bobby Timmons, Cedar Walton, Sonny Stitt, Pat Martino, Geri Allen and Ricky Ford. He also ran his own trio for many years, nurturing younger talents and newer arrivals in New York, including latterly pianist Tadataka Unno and bassist Paolo Benedettini, and he celebrated 50 years of Kind of Blue by leading the Jimmy Cobb “So What” Band.
Although he once claimed not to have the temperament for academia and teaching, he took masterclasses at Stanford University’s Jazz Workshop and taught at The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York, the University of Greensboro in North Carolina, the International Center for the Arts at San Francisco State University in California, and in several international educational institutions.
Most valuably, he shared his experience generously on the bandstand, as the late trumpeter Roy Hargrove and bassist Christian McBride would attest, and he happily gave encouragement to young musicians. The British drummer Ollie Howell is just one musician whom Cobb took under his wing and gave the benefit of his seventy-plus years in jazz.
He was made a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 2009 and will be warmly remembered by everyone who came into contact with him and who has been enriched by his sure time and physically involving sense of swing.
Jimmy Cobb, born January 20, 1929; died May 24, 2020.