There are sublime moments in music that only the cognoscenti notice, plenty that millions love, and some that many sense without quite knowing why. Kind of Blue, the 1959 recording led by Miles Davis, had enough of all of them to become the bestselling jazz album ever.
Jimmy Cobb, the drummer and last surviving member of that landmark session, who has died aged 91, was not just a crucial contributor to a jazz revolution unleashed by it, but the instigator of a split-second playing choice on one of its best known themes that seems to define the here-and-gone magic of the best of jazz.
Cobb’s magic moment on So What, Kind of Blue’s opening track, was the quintessence of perfect timing and the definition of his receptivemusical character. The tune’s setup seems to suggest at first that the music has nowhere to go, with the pianist, Bill Evans, apparently lost in preoccupied reflections around a slowly shifting three-chord motif with the bassist, Paul Chambers.
Evans then implies he has found a route out, thickening the chord harmonies before Chambers brings in the tune’s famously catchy bass hook, while Cobb ticks off a quiet pulse with a cymbal sound like someone idly shaking a bag of loose change, and Davis and the saxophonists John Coltrane and Julian “Cannonball” Adderley repeat a minimally simple rising and falling two-note hook.
Then Davis hangs out a single sustained note as if dangling it over a long drop, resolves it with an answer an octave beneath and Cobb breaks into a disruptive drum hustle and a cymbal smash as the trumpeter’s solo eases into swing, and such a captivating improvised trumpet solo that composers have since transcribed it for performance as if it had been laboured over note by note.
Cobb was to react instinctively to situations like that all his working life. That moment was not fortuitous for him, but the obvious option at the time for the astute 30 year-old percussion accompanist who had already partnered the vocal-toned R&B saxophonist Earl Bostic, the gospel-rooted and pop-savvy singer Dinah Washington , and Davis partners including pianist Wynton Kelly and Adderley. Those connections taught Cobb the patience to wait for the turning moment – in jazz, usually unscripted – of a soloist’s entry, the drive to power a blues, and much more.
Born in Washington, Jimmy was the son of Wilbur Cobb, a security guard and taxi driver, and his wife Katherine (nee Bivens), a domestic worker. As a teenager in the mid-1940s he became obsessed with jazz, staying up at night to listen to the American wartime DJ Symphony Sid’s broadcasts and washing dishes in diners to save money for a drumkit – on which he aimed to learn the polyrhythmic innovations of the bebop drum gurus Max Roach and Kenny Clarke. Largely self-taught, though he briefly studied with the National Symphony Orchestra percussionist Jack Dennett, Cobb had accompanied Billie Holiday in Washington and partnered Charlie Parker and Davis on Symphony Sid’s roadshow before he was 20.
By 1950, he was on the road with Bostic, whose hit-making R&B band of the period included such jazz-sax luminaries as Coltrane, Benny Golson, and Stanley Turrentine. Cobb and Kelly then accompanied Washington for some years, a period in which Cobb was having a relationship with her, and a young Quincy Jones was writing some of the singer’s arrangements.
The drummer’s antennae were retuned by the musical differences between his own Catholic background and Washington’s Baptist one. “When I heard that Baptist sound, it took me over,” Cobb later told the jazzwax.com’s blogger Marc Myers. “I wasn’t used to hearing that. It would make the hairs stand up on my arms and neck, where people are singing and shouting in church. That struck me right away. She taught me to put the passion into what I was doing.”
In 1956, Adderley hired Cobb to play on his Verve Records sessions Sophisticated Swing, Quintet In Chicago and Takes Charge, with the latter two staffed by the Miles Davis band without the trumpeter. Those connections led via brief stints with Stan Getz and Dizzy Gillespie to Kind of Blue, though Davis’s work in the period following ran on different tracks, with Coltrane and subsequently Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock exploring more modally stripped-down, scale-based music rather than the songlike forms Cobb had experienced with Bostic and Washington.
Cobb and Kelly played with the jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery between 1962 and 1965, formed a trio with Kind of Blue bassist Paul Chambers that recorded with guitarist Kenny Burrell, and from 1970 to 1978 the drummer partnered the operatically eloquent vocalist Sarah Vaughan. He worked thereafter with many leading younger musicians of the postbop generation including sometime Miles Davis saxophonist David Liebman, trumpeter Art Farmer, and pianists Kenny Drew and John Hicks.
Cobb taught in summer schools in Europe organised by Duke University, North Carolina, and for the New School for Social Research. New York, in the 1980s, worked regularly with Adderley’s cornetist brother Nat, and toured and recorded regularly in the US and Europe in the following decade.
Drawing from his New School student connections among others, Cobb formed the quartets and quintets he called Cobb’s Mob in 1998, performing and recording with them into the 21st century in lively postbop lineups including a young Brad Mehldau, the composer-guitarist Peter Bernstein, tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander, and the Marsalis family patriarch, the pianist Ellis Marsalis.
On the 50th anniversary of Kind of Blue, an 80 year-old Cobb memorably went to the UK with a group including the uncannily Miles-like trumpeter Wallace Roney and the saxophonists Javon Jackson and Vincent Herring – spurring those timeless themes with his old lazily springy dynamism, even if the renditions might have been a little lighter and funkier for some.
In June 2008, he received the Don Redman Heritage award from Michigan State University, and the following year a National Endowment for the Arts NEA Jazz Masters award. Cobb continued to perform and teach, aided by his wife, Eleana Tee (nee Steinberg), and daughters Serena and Jaime, all of whom survive him. He had previously been married to Ann Porter, who died in 1987.
He was often asked for the secrets of his light and buoyant drum sound and hair-trigger reflexes, but he had no magic formula. “The first thing is they have to love it” was his advice.
• Jimmy (James Wilbur) Cobb, drummer, born 20 January 1929; died 24 May 2020