Jimmy Cobb, last surviving member of the band who made Kind of Blue with Miles Davis – obituary

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Jimmy Cobb in 2009 - Richard Ecclestone/Redferns
Jimmy Cobb in 2009 - Richard Ecclestone/Redferns

Jimmy Cobb, who has died aged 91, was the drummer with the Miles Davis sextet which, in 1959, recorded Kind of Blue, the bestselling and most widely acclaimed album in jazz history. Cobb was the last surviving participant in its creation; it had occupied two days of his five years with Miles Davis, in a career lasting more than 70 years.

Wilbur James Cobb was born in Washington on January 20 1929. Largely self-taught from the age of 13, he began playing at clubs and dances in the city and the surrounding district. “It was during World War Two,” he recalled, “and it was easy for someone just getting started to get a job, because so many guys had been drafted.”

In 1950 he moved to New York and joined the band led by the saxophonist Earl Bostic. He arrived at an exciting moment. Bostic was soon to record his worldwide hit, Flamingo, and Cobb found himself briefly in the big time. But the work did not appeal to an ambitious young jazz drummer, being “mostly just backbeats and shuffles”.

The following year he joined the singer Dinah Washington’s accompanying band, where he met Wynton Kelly, the pianist who, he claimed, never failed to inspire him. He toured with Dinah Washington until 1956, when he joined the Adderley brothers – the alto saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley and his cornet-playing brother, Nat – and their band.

With Miles Davis and the bassist Paul Chambers at the Apollo in New York in 1960 - Herb Snitzer/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
With Miles Davis and the bassist Paul Chambers at the Apollo in New York in 1960 - Herb Snitzer/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Cannonball joined Miles Davis in October 1957 and Jimmy Cobb followed him in May 1958. Wynton Kelly was the pianist, Paul Chambers the bassist, and John Coltrane completed the sextet on tenor saxophone. This, with Bill Evans replacing Kelly on four of the five tracks, was the band that recorded Kind f Blue in March and April 1959.

Whole books have been written about the music recorded on those two days, but the simple point to be made about Cobb’s playing is that it is the work of a supremely alert and sensitive musician. Other drummers had more attention-grabbing styles but few could listen as keenly or move with such finesse.

No doubt these were the qualities which led Coltrane and Adderley, along with many others, to choose him for their own recording sessions at around this time. He can also be heard on the exquisite Sketches Of Spain (1960), by Davis, with orchestrations by Gil Evans.

In 1963, Davis made one of his sudden and radical shifts in direction. He changed the band completely, bringing in the 19-year-old Tony Williams on drums. Cobb, Chambers and Kelly stayed together as a trio, touring and recording under Kelly’s name.

Davis's classic album was recorded over two days in 1959
Davis's classic album was recorded over two days in 1959

Although he grumbled at being handed the job of road manager, dealing with airline tickets and so forth, Cobb recalled the years with the trio as perhaps the most musically satisfying of his career. They ended in 1971 with Kelly’s death.

For much of the 1970s he toured with Sarah Vaughan, with whom he played on two notable live albums, one recorded in Japan in 1975 and the other at Ronnie Scott’s club in London in 1977.

At the Jazz Cafe in London in 1991 - Heritage Image Partnership/Alamy
At the Jazz Cafe in London in 1991 - Heritage Image Partnership/Alamy

Cobb worked briefly with many bands from the 1980s onward, but he was essentially freelance. His recordings as a sideman number around 110 albums. They include highly regarded work with Coltrane, Nat Adderley, Joe Henderson, Wes Montgomery, and Wayne Shorter’s 1959 debut album, Introducing Wayne Shorter.

In fact he was so busy imparting lift and drive to other people’s music that he was 54 before he made an album under his own name, So Nobody Else Can Hear (1983). It was followed by 16 more, some billed as being by Cobb’s Mob. The last, You’ll See, came out in 2016.

Jimmy Cobb is survived by his wife and two daughters.

Jimmy Cobb, born January 20 1929 died May 24 2020

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