Jimmy Cobb: Gifted jazz drummer for Miles Davis

Cobb performs during a rehearsal in Madrid, 2009: AFP/Getty
Cobb performs during a rehearsal in Madrid, 2009: AFP/Getty

Jimmy Cobb, the jazz drummer who helped drive Miles Davis’ masterpiece Kind of Blue, an album of transcendent lyricism and spontaneity that also became one of the top-selling jazz recordings of all time, died on 24 May at his home in Manhattan. He was 91.

The cause was lung cancer, said his wife, Eleana Tee Cobb.

In a career spanning nearly seven decades, Cobb was regarded as a consummate accompanist of understated vibrancy. That warmth and deceptively relaxed approach drew the admiration of Davis, who hired Cobb in 1958 as part of a world-class ensemble that included saxophonists John Coltrane and Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, bassist Paul Chambers, and pianist Bill Evans (and later Wynton Kelly).

Cobb was the last surviving member of the musical combo known for its groundbreaking fusion of minimalism and improvisation.

Over two recording sessions for Columbia Records in early 1959, Davis would hand out the sketchiest of outlines for the music and leave the rest to extemporisation. “He’d say, ‘This is a ballad. I want it to sound like it’s floating,’” Cobb recalled 60 years later to the Associated Press.

The album’s release that August featured five tunes that became jazz classics: “So What”, “Freddie Freeloader”, “Blue in Green”, “All Blues” and “Flamenco Sketches.” They were exemplars of “modal jazz” improvisation based on scales instead of the chord progression found in Tin Pan Alley or blues standards.

Kind of Blue ushered in what jazz scholar Dan Morgenstern called “the beginning of a change in the jazz mainstream”, forming a bridge from the explosive bebop popularised by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker to a cooler, more introspective approach to the music.

“The album,” Morgenstern added, “was received very warmly, but it was many years before it was fully appreciated for having fully brought together [several] trends in jazz. But its appeal is that it’s very accessible, in a way very romantic in its mood-setting. That’s what got it to so many different kinds of audiences, and that’s why it’s achieved this landmark stature.”

The album sold more than 5 million copies. Rolling Stone magazine ranked it 12th on its list of the greatest albums of all time, and musicians as varied as Quincy Jones and Steely Dan frontman Donald Fagen considered the Davis recording an apex of the jazz form.

The musicians were paid as freelancers, and Cobb said he received a union-scale rate of $150. He told The Independent that, at the time, he considered it a fair wage and said neither he nor the other players had any glimmering it would do as well as it did.

“That never came up,” he said. “It was just another great Miles Davis recording and that everybody played well on. If Miles even had an inkling that that was happening, he would have asked for a truckload of money and four Ferraris sitting outside. That’s the way he thought about things.”

James Wilbur Cobb was born in Washington DC on 20 January 1929, and he was raised by his mother, a short-order cook. He developed an interest in drumming at 15.

“A guy in my neighbourhood, whose hobby was drums, used to hang out at our house during the day,” he told the Hartford Courant. “We used to listen to records and bang on the table with our knuckles and forks and stuff to the rhythm of the records.”

His mother found him work as a dishwasher and busboy so he could pay for his first set of drums. He would practice at Saturday night dances held on his grandfather’s tobacco farm about 30 miles from the city, playing with a band featuring saxophonist Buck Hill.

At 18, he played at the Blue Mirror club in Washington, backing up singer Billie Holiday. His memories of her remained vivid decades later: “She used to say, ‘Youngblood, help me zip up my corset.’” The engagement was a breakthrough that led to work in the early 1950s with Earl Bostic’s band and then with singer Dinah Washington, to whom he was romantically attached, and finally with Adderley.

It was Adderley who brought Cobb to Davis’ attention at a time when Davis’ previous drummer, Philly Joe Jones, known for his pyrotechnic firepower, was in the throes of drug addiction. The trumpeter-bandleader was in need of a dependable musician who also had a more delicate approach, given his plans for Kind of Blue.

“I was probably the soberest one in the band,” Cobb told The Village Voice. “And he knew I was going to be on time. And he knew when I got there, I would give 150 per cent. So like that, you know. That’s the pluses I had.”

He was in Manhattan when he got the call from Davis at 6.30pm, asking whether he could join him on the bandstand at 9 – in Boston.

“I said, ‘Nine o’clock? How am I going to get to Boston by nine o’clock, man?’ He said, ‘Man, you want the gig, don’t you?’ I say, ‘Yeah, man.’ I say, ‘OK, I’ll get there as fast as I can.’”

After Kind of Blue, Cobb was a mainstay of several Davis albums, including the Grammy Award-winning Sketches of Spain (1960) as well as Someday My Prince Will Come (1960) and Miles Davis at Carnegie Hall (1962). He left the Davis group in 1963 and continued a hectic recording schedule with the Wynton Kelly Trio and guitarist Wes Montgomery, among dozens of others.

Cobb toured with singer Sarah Vaughan for much of the 1970s and played with pianist Hank Jones and bassist Eddie Gomez in an ensemble called the Great Jazz Trio. He also started a teaching career that included stints at Stanford University, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and Berklee College of Music in Boston.

In the 1990s, Cobb shed his relative anonymity as a sideman to lead studio and touring groups, sometimes billed as Jimmy Cobb’s Mob, and he continued to appear at clubs and jazz festivals in recent years. In 2009, he was designated a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by two daughters.

Cobb often said the key to maintaining a strong rapport with Davis – on record or in person – was exuding a good-humoured nimbleness of mind. Davis, he recalled to the publication Jazzwax, used to invoke bandmate Kelly: “Man, I sure wish I could swing like Wynton.”

“I looked at him and said, ‘I sure wish you could, too, Miles.’ ... He gave me a look, but we were pretty good friends. He knew I was always there when we played. That was Miles’ thing. He was always watching to see what you were going to bring.”

Jimmy Cobb, drummer, born 20 January 1929, died 24 May 2020

© The Washington Post

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