Jimmy Cobb: The Reluctant Don

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L to R: Richard Wyands, John Webber, Jimmy Cobb, Peter Bernstein
By John Abbott
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Jimmy Cobb playing with Miles Davis in the late 1950s
By Lee Tanner

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After almost 60 years in the business, drummer Jimmy Cobb has earned many sobriquets. Just don't call him a bandleader. "I'm just the guy that plays the drums with the name out front," claims the 74-year-old.

It may seem a small semantic issue for one who played with so many jazz legends: Earl Bostic, Dinah Washington, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Cannonball and Nat Adderley, Miles Davis, Wynton Kelly, Sarah Vaughan. But Cobb's reluctance to don the mantle of leadership is due in part to such history. It turns out that his former duties didn't always end when he packed up the drum kit.

"I did a bit of that road manager thing many times-for Dinah, for Bostic, even Miles. But I got a real taste of what it would be like to be a leader with the Wynton Kelly Trio, even though Wynton's name was there up front. He was the piano player, and he'd go and do some interviews, and Paul was the bass player and that was his role. I took care of the money, the paying and the hiring, if we needed somebody like a saxophone. I took care of the traveling stuff, buying the plane and train tickets, renting the cars. I'd be the first one at the airport, cliffhanging, waiting for those guys to show up!"

Small wonder that over the years Cobb-though celebrated since the '50s for his seamless, edge-of-the-beat swing and distinguished by his ride-cymbal consistency-became marquee-shy, avoiding the titular role that he could easily have claimed. "That [road experience] let me know that I really didn't want to be a bandleader. So I said, 'No, I don't really want to do this.'"

That is, until the mid-'90s when he suddenly found himself heading a musical mob of his own making.

"But a little later I got to be a teacher at the New School [in Manhattan]. Not really a teacher-some guys would come in and we would all play tunes and then I would critique their efforts. So then that's where I met [guitarist] Peter [Bernstein], and I liked the way he played. He likes Grant Green and Wes Montgomery, so right away we got along. He started asking me, "Well, if I get a few little gigs around town would you be willing to play with us?" By 'us' he also meant [pianist] Brad Mehldau-who used to come to the school too-and [bassist] John Webber, who knew Peter.

We would go and get these little gigs and work around town, and that's the group that became Cobb's Mob. So they kind of forced me into being bandleader."

Just a few years after the Mob formed, a booked and varied schedule demands Cobb's timekeeping talent. His teaching continues, as do a few projects celebrating his association with Davis: the Kind of Blue band of 2000 was followed last year by the Four Generations of Miles CD on Chesky. And now there's the Mob's new and third CD, which is arguably its strongest outing to date.

Initiated and produced by former Keystone Korner producer and current Jazz at Lincoln Center programmer Todd Barkan, Cobb's Groove (Milestone) is a jaunty, satisfying, blues-ballads-and-bossa cocktail of mostly originals and a few cherry-picked covers: Mancini's "Moment to Moment" and Frank Foster's "Simone" are both delights. The title track is a head arrangement by Cobb that showcases an intense group sound. Bernstein's hand at familiar-sounding themes-channeling golden-era Blue Note-is highlighted by three of his tunes. Tenorman Eric Alexander is featured as special guest- "Eric is our first time doing a horn with Cobb's Mob"-and he adds edge and warmth to the quartet formula.

Cobb, if typically understated, seems satisfied with the disc. "We had some music and we had some ideas. We got some nice songs on it. There's a friend of mine who lives upstate-a trumpet player-singer named Steve Satten. One of the tunes on there is his ["I Miss You, My Love"]. It's my favorite because it started out being really slow but the guys figured out in the studio that it worked out better faster. It was spontaneous things like that that I think helped it. [The album] was just something we put together right quick. And it turned out to be pretty decent, I thought."

In person, modesty and generosity seem to define Cobb. In a favorite Manhattan sushi joint, over a plate of unagi and rice that he insists on sharing, Cobb looks healthy and toned, evidence of a weight-lifting regimen. His signature Van Dyke is intact if grayed. He enjoys laughing about past triumphs and foibles; to him, they often coincide.

For instance, when his Kind of Blue involvement inevitably arises in the conversation, and mention is made of his cymbal crash in the opening moments of Miles' "So What" solo, Cobb chuckles. "Herbie [Hancock] said that's one of his favorite moments on the album. A lot of people have told me that-I thought it was a mistake at first! I thought it was too loud! But you know, I'll take it."

Accepting praise seems easiest for Cobb when applied indirectly; he tends to deflect credit to fellow musicians. But he is not unaware of his own reputation. "Now everybody sees me as the quarter-note cymbal player, which is all right with me. You have to be known for something. But basically when I started everybody was trying to play like Max Roach, like Art Blakey. It still it seems like everybody has a little of that anyway. In this music you can't get away from that."

"My style matured because I played with a few bands where they wanted a strong drummer. We were playing-what did they call it?-rhythm and blues then; lots of shuffle rhythms and backbeats. Earl Bostic liked a lot of fire behind him. Then I had a little time with Dizzy Gillespie's small band. But then with Cannon and Nat-we were back to the fiery stuff. So I think my playing matured to where being more forceful made me strong on the cymbals too."

Rummaging through any jazz veteran's career history runs the likely chance of mentioning an influence, a friend, a career high point that opens a floodgate of fond memory. For Cobb, pianist Wynton Kelly is all three.

"The first time I sat down and played with Wynton I knew I always would want to play with him," Cobb says. "Every time was uplifting. If I was in a band with Wynton and, say, the trumpet player and then the alto player played, and it really wasn't happening yet, I knew when Wynton played it was going to happen. It was like that every tune. He never seemed to be scuffling any time. Like Jimmy Heath said, 'He puts fire in the music.' You can hear it when he plays. It's happy sounding all the time. It's got a West Indian kind of hop to it. Always sparkling."

Cobb's work with the Jamaica-born pianist is best known as part of Miles Davis' sextet of 1959 to 1961, where they joined forces with bassist Paul Chambers, and three gained further respect through the '60s as the rhythm unit of choice-known simply as the Trio. Yet the Cobb-Kelly connection was forged far earlier.

"When I was first on the road with Earl Bostic in 1951, I had to play behind Dinah Washington, who was part of the tour, and Wynton was her pianist. So at that time we formed the Wynton Kelly Trio with [bassist] Keter Betts. Then she made a couple of records and she made me the leader-just a couple of large ensemble things."

Kelly was an epileptic needing diligent self-monitoring lest a seizure cause him to swallow his tongue or dentures. Cobb recalls a moment on the road foreshadowing his friend's demise. "One time we were in Seattle working in the Penthouse up there. We got there a day ahead of time and were just walking around the town. We got back in front of the hotel and Wynton just kept walking. So I said, 'Hey, here it is, here!' But he kept walking. I looked at him, and he was going into shock. I knew how to handle it. We took him inside, took his teeth out and laid him down and he got some rest. The next night he went to work and played all night, man, with every muscle in his body aching! That's the way he was. He could play sick, asleep, drunk-he just had that much talent."

By 1971 the Trio had disbanded, and Cobb accepted a lucrative offer to join Sarah Vaughan. Kelly "was freelancing with everybody, dates, he did all kinds of stuff. [Trombonist/vibist] Tyree Glenn used to love to play with Wynton. So Wynton was up there with Tyree in Toronto and I was in Los Angeles with Sarah when it happened. Wynton called his girlfriend in New York and said, 'You know, I don't feel good.' She said, 'Why don't you go downstairs to the bar and if something happens somebody could tend to you.' We don't know if he did that, because when they found him he was in the room."

Kelly died after suffering a seizure.

"I came back for the funeral and, oh, Lord. It really broke me up because I was older than him so I wasn't expecting nothing like that. Paul [Chambers, who died in 1969] too. Same thing: some guys go before their time. That's really hard to take."

The drummer points to two albums that for him, remain evidence of himself and Kelly at the top of their game. "Full View [Milestone/OJC, 1967, with bassist Ron McClure] and then I like the one called Four [recorded in 1968] that Joe Henderson sold to Verve. We used to go to this place called the Baltimore Jazz Society every Sunday. The guy would say, 'We want you down here any time you can, just get a horn player.' But Joe wasn't the leader. The Trio was the leader, and Joe took it on his own to sell the tape [in 1994] without coming to me. He should have, because I was the only one left. We never got that straight." (Henderson died in 2001.)

Today, Cobb seems to use frustration with long-standing issues of credit or compensation to power a DIY business approach. He notes that Cobb's Groove is but one of a number of recordings "in the can that we are trying to put out"-the "we" being Eleana Tee, his business and life partner, and himself. He shares demo copies of various projects the two are shopping: an album titled Yesterdays featuring an all-star lineup-Michael Brecker, Roy Hargrove, Eric Lewis, Jon Faddis and Marion Meadows, with Bernstein and Webber-and an early-'90s video production called The Session that saw Gregory Hines, Bill Cosby, Freddie Hubbard and many others mixing it up with Cobb in the studio.

While his self-produced efforts continue, Cobb still finds the good side of surprise at the New School. "I'm the kind of guy that thinks that a guy who's going to teach people is supposed to be a professor and have a master's and some stuff like that. But I found that I can share what I do know, and students appreciate what it is that I can tell them about, even if it's just them wanting to know my history of how I came to do what I'm doing and what did I do to try to get there."

The drummer-as-educator conversation conjures names like Art Blakey-whose classrooms were clubs-and brings the conversation full circle. "Yeah, I was getting to Art. A lot of drummers were bandleaders. There was Max, Chico Hamilton and Shelly Manne. I guess I just kind of fell into it finally. But right now I'm probably still not what you'd call bandleader-I'm just playing with four guys."

Perhaps because his self-image remains more bandmember than headliner, Cobb keeps himself available for tours, sessions, special tributes-though he wouldn't mind a hand in the programming. "In the future I'm thinking about trying to direct some of the stuff the way I would want to do it myself, with some guys I'd like to play with and some music I'd like to play. Like, I worked with the Adderleys a long time. When they first came to New York, I was in their second band-Nat, Cannon, Junior Mance, Sam Jones and myself. We got to be tight like a family. I would like to do an album with a couple of their tunes giving them that kind of respect."

As respectful and finely played as such a project would doubtlessly be, Cobb should finally feel comfortable putting his name to it-out front and center.

Gearbox:

Drums: "I use what they called in the '50s a bebop set. When I started out it was with probably a 20-inch bass drum, which, when the bebop thing came in, I went to an 18-inch. I use a 5-inch snare, an 8 x 12-inch tom tom and the floor tom is 14 x 14-inches.

For a long time I played Pearl drums, which are nice drums. Then I was with Slingerland, but they went out of business or something. I haven't heard nothing from them recently. Now I've been getting overtures from DW. So at home I got a Slingerland set, two sets of Pearls and a set of DWs. What determines which one I use is what sounds good in a room. On this new album with Cobb's Mob I used the Pearls."

Cymbals: "Most of the time I've been getting along with Zildjians, just using a small 18-inch on the left-that's a K. I got that from Mel Lewis after somebody stole a set of drums from me. I used to get K's when I was advertising for Gretsch drums. But since [I shifted over to Slingerland] I've been dealing with Avedis upstate. So, I have a 20-inch Avedis ride, and the hi-hat is As."

Sticks: "I just got some sticks from Zildjian. Actually I got some 7/8ths from them, which I found are good when I play in smaller rooms. Then I change to what they call Zildjian Jazz, which is a little longer and heavier for larger places."

Brushes, mallets: "I've just been buying something that looks and feels good. Who knows? I don't really play mallets around the drums too much, but I might get into that more. Chico Hamilton used to have some things that he played mallets on. I don't do that too much."

Originally published in November 2003

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