Not so blue

At 81, legendary jazz drummer Jimmy Cobb – sole survivor of the group that made Miles Davis’s 1959 'Kind of Blue' – is still doing what he believes in.

jimmy cobb311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
jimmy cobb311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There are events that don’t give the sense of being anything special at the time, but which gradually grow to achieve iconic status and take on paramount artistic value. It is debatable whether Miles Davis’s 1959 Kind of Blue record was palpably extraordinary when it was made, but over half a century on, it is the biggest-selling album in the history of jazz.
With all the other members of the group having moved on to the great bandstand in the sky, drummer Jimmy Cobb is the only surviving contributor from what has become a universally accepted landmark event.
“I don’t know if we realized then how out of the ordinary the record was,” says the 81-year-old in a telephone interview from New York. He was speaking to Metro prior to coming to Israel to give a master class and four concerts as part of a jazz series run by the Center for Jazz Studies, Israel Conservatory of Music, Tel Aviv – aka Stricker – in collaboration with The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, NYC.
Then again, in the Kind of Blue - Made in Heaven documentary made recently, Cobb clearly says about the record: “It felt like it was made in heaven.
“If it’s in the documentary, I guess I must have said it,” chuckles Cobb.
He is here this week after completing a long worldwide tour called So What, named after the opening track of Kind of Blue. While Cobb says he is not quite sure what numbers he and the rest of the band will perform in Israel, it is possible that some of the Davis material will find its way into the shows.
The octogenarian drummer will team up here with three Israeli musicians – guitarist Ofer Ganor, pianist Omri Mor and bassist Gilad Abro – who will join him, trumpeter Eddie Henderson and guitarist Peter Bernstein.
“What we play will depend on what the piano player is capable of doing. We’ll rehearse in Israel, and then we’ll be wiser about what we’ll be doing at the gigs,” Cobb says.
He certainly enjoyed his time with Davis, from 1957 to 1963, and the people around him were all of the highest caliber. There were two pianists on the Kind of Blue recording date – Bill Evans for all but one cut, and Wynton Kelly on Freddie Freeloader only. Evans was probably the most influential member of the band after Davis, while Cobb and Kelly had worked together before.
Alto saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley was another former colleague of Cobb’s, and tenor saxist John Coltrane had already started setting the jazz scene alight with his melodic and emotive approach. Coltrane was subsequently to become one of the leading lites of the Sixties’ avant-garde scene before his untimely demise in 1967.
Paul Chambers, who so memorably kicked off the whole Kind of Blue shebang with the intro to So What, was on bass. It was a simply magical lineup.
“I loved being in that band,” says Cobb, adding playfully, “I’d go along with what Miles said about it back then – it was the best time I ever had with my clothes on.”
The drummer, at least in terms of enduring appeal, raises the recording to lofty musical echelons.
“Yes, everyone in the band was at the top of their game at the time. It’s like classical music – Beethoven and the other great composers – their music is still popular today so many years after they died.
“I presume many of the people who buy and listen to Kind of Blue today weren’t even born when we made the record. This music obviously transcends generations.
“I wish I had the formula,” Cobb says. “I’d be a millionaire.”
In fact, the Washington DC-born Cobb had paid his dues and chalked up some formative working experience long before he joined Davis’s band.
“I started out with [saxophonist-bandleader] Earl Bostic,” Cobb recalls. “He was the first guy who took me out on the road. I was just 21 years old and pretty raw, but I’d learned a lot by playing with local bands for a few years.”
Cobb’s individual learning curve was supported by the jazz he managed to catch on the radio and in his own environment.
“I’d walk past a Baptist church and hear the singing, even though I was raised as a Catholic, and I’d listened to Symphony Sid’s shows – he was the only guy playing jazz on the radio back then. I’d listen to him until 6 in the morning, and then I’d have to get up two hours later to go to school. I was always tired,” he recalls, “but it was well worth it.”
Cobb is mostly self-taught, but, intriguingly, he has spent a good part of his career to date teaching at the New School, whose jazz department was founded by veteran drummer Chico Hamilton and late saxophonist Arnie Lawrence. Lawrence made aliya in the late ‘90s and did much to galvanize the jazz scene in Israel, particularly in Jerusalem. One of his star students was Omri Mor, Cobb’s pianist on this week’s gigs.
After his time with Bostic, Cobb worked with divas Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday, and with a host of youngsters who were to become the mainstay of the jazz scene from the mid-Fifties, including future Kind of Blue cohort Cannonball Adderley, Adderley’s trumpeter brother Nat, pianist Junior Mance and bassist Ron Carter. Carter also played on the So What world tour.
Like almost every other budding jazz musician, Cobb eventually graduated to New York, where he soon blended into the Big Apple jazz milieu when it was in its halcyon days.
“I lived in a place on 7th Avenue. Dinah [Washington] lived there, as did [iconic trumpeter] Dizzy [Gillespie] and his wife Lorraine and [pianist] Erroll Garner. It was like an artists’ building.”
Besides regular gigs around the city, Cobb just enjoyed being there and mingling.
“In New York, you ran into loads of famous people the whole time. There was so much energy about the place back then, and there were lots of opportunities for work.”
It is interesting to note that Cobb’s time with Miles Davis coincided with the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll, followed by pop music, which began to replace jazz as the popular music of the streets.
“When the Beatles came through, that changed everything,” he recalls.“Young people went for their music, even though, to begin with, theywere just playing the rock ‘n’ roll they’d copied from earlier bands.It wasn’t until later that the Beatles started doing their own originalmusic.”
While other jazz musicians, notably Davis, took the pop and rocksensibilities on board and eventually established the jazz fusiongenre, Cobb stuck to his guns.
“It wasn’t a matter of liking or not liking pop or rock; I just keptdoing what I believed in. A jazz drummer has to swing and find newrhythmic patterns and musical directions, regardless of what others aredoing in other areas of music.”
Cobb has been doing that for over six decades, and he’s still going strong.
Jimmy Cobb will perform at the Enav Center in Tel Aviv on May 29 at 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.