The beat of life

Veteran jazz fusion drummer Billy Cobham is coming here to perform and to teach.

Veteran jazz fusion drummer Billy Cobham (photo credit: )
Veteran jazz fusion drummer Billy Cobham
(photo credit: )
Billy Cobham the man is as forthright as Billy Cobham the drummer. That comes across in crystal clear fashion after just a few moments of conversation. The 69-year-old Cobham is the doyen of jazz fusion drummers, and he will be here soon to share some of his wealth of experience, both on the stage and on the road of life, with students of the Rimon School of Music. The workshops will take place at the school in Ramat Hasharon between January 6 and January 8 (all start at 3 p.m.) and will be open to the public.
Cobham will wind up his stint here with a workshop and a show at the Shablul Jazz Club at the Port of Tel Aviv on January 9, starting at 1:30 p.m. His colleagues in the show will be bass player Yurai Oron and pianist Avi Adrian.
Cobham has been strutting his stuff at the very highest level for more than four decades. He was born in Panama, grew up in the US and relocated to Switzerland in the late 1970s. He got into music in a serious way during his time at New York’s High School of Music and Art and further honed his skills in the US Army band from 1965 to 1968, occasionally moonlighting at New York jazz clubs. After completing his military service, he secured a valuable berth with pianist Horace Silver and accrued recording experience with the likes of saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, organist Shirley Scott and guitarist George Benson.
But it was with stellar trumpeter Miles Davis that Cobham first rose to prominence, contributing to some of Davis’s groundbreaking fusion recordings and concerts, such as the Davis’s tribute to legendary Jack Johnson on the eponymous record made in 1970. There were also fruitful collaborations with star fusion siblings Michael and Randy Brecker and guitarist John Abercrombie.
Cobham clearly has a lot to offer his students at Rimon and is a firm believer in the value of gaining a good educational grounding in the craft. The drummer says the learning process is definitely a two-way street. “Formal education is important to both the student and the teacher. The teacher has to find a way to open up the door, to have some keys to the mind of the student, to get the student interested in what’s going on,” he says. “The student, on the other hand, has to understand that there is a certain amount of direction that he or she has to take, and to take the information they receive in a way that will help to create the future for whatever experiences that will incur to life.”
That sounds like quite a challenge for both parties concerned. “It is not so easy for the teacher or the student,” Cobham observes. “It warrants a lot of things, especially mutual respect, and that’s not so easily done.” Sounds like the teacher has to start from scratch each time he or she takes on a new group of students. “Absolutely,” Cobham concurs. “It is a lot to ask of a teacher, especially as the teacher was also a student at one point. It’s kind of like the dog chasing its tail. If it’s lucky, it won’t bite too hard,” the drummer laughs.
In fact, Cobham has some pleasant training memories of his own to fall back on while endeavoring to inspire his students to ever greater heights of personal expertise and artistic expression. “My student years were some of the best times of my life!” he exclaims. “I had great models to pattern a lot of my future exploits. There were people like [pianist] Larry Willis, who was a year or two ahead of me in school. [Trumpeter] Jimmy Owens was a year ahead of me. And there was a keyboard player called Richard Ten Ryk – we called him Richard Tee – who played in a [jazz-funk] band called Stuff. He sat on my left, and on my right sat a great bass player called Eddie Gomez. And there was a pianist George Cables, who also lived just round the corner from me.”
That was obviously some generation of budding jazz musicians, and Cobham joined forces with Cables in his first jazz combo, called The Jazz Samaritans. It was Cobham’s first taste of what became his main avenue of musical exploration. “We’d play clubs and dances and stuff like that,” the drummer recalls. “We played what would now be considered fusion, but it was more pop instrumental at that time. We patterned ourselves after a [Huston-based 1960s] band called The Jazz Crusaders. We had a pretty big band, with multiple horns. We had a ball.”
Cobham says that fusion drew him in because it offered him the opportunity to combine his music loves. “I was into the rock ‘n’ roll thing. I also had this fundamental understanding of Latin and Caribbean music and then, of course, the jazz thing. It all seemed to fit. I could just move from one thing to the others seamlessly, and it continued that way, and here we are,” he says.
Fusion has been around for more than 40 years now, and Cobham feels it is an intrinsic part of the jazz mix and alludes to some of the bad press fusion has received in more recent times. “You can call fusion whatever you want, but you can’t get rid of it. You can call it whatever names you want, but you need it. You need to draw from it because it is highly intellectually rich. However much people try to debase it or get rid of it, they can’t really do that. You get bored with smooth jazz, and you get bored with hip hop. All these other platforms and concepts are very viable, but they kind of draw from someplace else. They come to fusion and jazz and gospel and the blues because they all have very strong foundations,” he says.
While technical skills and the ability to express oneself through one’s instrument are, of course, indispensable components of an artist’s offering and development, Cobham says there are other important lessons to be learned along the way, too. “You have to become a professional,” he declares. “You have to respect the music and the people you play with. I once did a rehearsal with [legendary South African trumpeter] Hugh Masekela. He liked the way I played, but I was young and I didn’t appreciate the opportunity he was about to give me, so I missed the chance. You can’t get anywhere without respect.”
Cobham says that classroom education is important but that it is when the musicians get out there, at street level, that they can really get a handle on life and music. “I call it the school of hard knocks,” he says. “You have to learn from your failures, pick yourself up, learn from them and move on. That’s the real education.”