Jimmy Cobb: Mob Connections
Everybody knows Jimmy Cobb from “the” rhythm section, the one that included Wynton Kelly and Paul Chambers and swung so hard it could rouse the dead. But until Cobb’s Mobb, Jimmy has never stepped out as a leader. His new group, which coalesced out of a class at the New School Jazz program, makes its Fable Records debut on “Only For The Pure at Heart.” Cobb’s credentials and easy going demeanor find him well suited for the task.
Cobb has played with Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, and Sarah Vaughan, as well as Cannonball Adderley, and Wes Montgomery. And just for starters, his discography includes “Kind of Blue,” “Porgy and Bess,” “Friday and Saturday Night at the Blackhawk,” with Miles, as well as “Boss Guitar” and “Full House,” with Wes Montgomery.
Fact: Jimmy Cobb, the only survivor of the “Kind of Blue” sessions, one of the best selling jazz recordings of all time, was paid union scale for the date and has never received a royalty check for his participation.
Fact: Jimmy Cobb is a superb, largely self-taught drummer who approaches the drum kit both in a melodic and percussive manner, never playing over-long or rambling solos. He is both a masterful accompanist and outstanding soloist.
Yet throughout his career, until “Cobb’s Mobb,” this soft spoken, affable gentlemen has chosen not lead his own group because “I had no real feeling for being a bandleader. When we had the trio with Wynton and Paul, I used to be like the road manager, taking care of the money, buying the planet tickets, hiring the cars, things like that. I just figured, that wasn’t really wasn’t what I wanted to do.”
Cobb met Kelly when he joined Dinah Washington after leaving his native Washington, D.C. for a year with Earl Bostic. The drummer and pianist immediately locked up. “Wynton was seventeen when I first met him with Dinah,” Cobb remembers, “and he already played with great confidence. I knew from the first time we played together, that was it. I never felt more comfortable with anyone in my life.”
At the end of the fifties, Kelly and Cobb joined Paul Chambers in the Miles Davis group and after they left Miles, the trio became a working unit, also accompanying Wes Montgomery. His current “Cobb’s Mobb,” with Peter Bernstein in the guitar chair, John Webber on bass and veteran Richard Wylands on piano, “has the same feeling as that rhythm section. Sometimes we even sound like the Wes Montgomery Quartet.”
Reflecting on his remarkable career, Cobb remembers moving to the city in the mid-50s, when he was living with Dinah Washington in a Harlem building whose tenants also included Dizzy Gillespie and Errol Garner.
And he recalls first meeting Cannonball in the mid-50s, down in Ft. Lauderdale: “He was teaching school at the time and when I arrived in town with Dinah, we were unpacking in front of the hotel and Cannon was the first person I saw. He was curious about what was happening in New York. This was right after Charlie Parker had died and I told him he should come to New York and see what he could do.”
Three years later, after Cannonball’s triumphant debut at the CafE9 Bohemia with Oscar Pettiford launched his career, Cobb returned to Florida one night as part of Adderley’s group. They played a Ft. Lauderdale club that Cannonball had once worked with brother Nat, who at the time, was singing as well as playing trumpeter and cornet. Cobbs laughs as he remembers how “we went back to this place called Porgy’s, got up on the bandstand and started playing some bebop. After one set, the owner comes up and says, when is that little guy going to sing? Cannonball said, we don’t do that no more, so the guy said, pack your stuff up and get out of here. The guy ran us off the gig because Nat wasn’t singing any more.”
It was Cobb’s friendship with Adderley that led to the gig with Miles. The saxophonist informed Cobb that Philly Joe Jones, the group’s drummer, was about the leave the band. “Cannon used to tell me, look man, if you keep hanging and go to some of these gigs with me, you’ll get to play because Joe hasn’t been showing up for a lot of them. So I did that a couple of times. I even finished out the ‘Porgy and Bess’ date.”
He remembers the night he joined Miles. “I was home one day and Miles called up and said, I want you in the band. I said, ok, when? Miles was calling from Boston and it was about six. He told me, well, we open at nine. I started scrambling to get my clothes packed, my drums and all that stuff to try and catch the shuttle and be there by 9 o’clock. When I got up there, they were already playing, without the drums, so I went up on the bandstand and started to set up the drums while they were playing. Just as I got the drums in working order, and sat down to play, they were playing ‘Round Midnight and right at the break. That’s the exact moment I started with Miles.”
It proved to be a close relationship. “Miles would depend on me to do things for him,” Cobb recalls. “Out of all the guys in the band, I was probably the most stable. If we went someplace, he’d say, let Jimmy drive. He had a lot of confidence in me.”
A key member of the 1958 Davis group that Cobb first joined was John Coltrane, who played in a protracted fashion, both on and off the bandstand.
Cobb recalls that “Trane said he had all these devices that he was trying to work through. Miles wouldn’t directly ask him to stop playing so long, he would tell him stuff like, look man, why don’t you play 27 choruses instead of 28. He would try and be diplomatic about it. Trane would say, I have all these things running through my head and I don’t know how to end them. Miles said, look, just take the horn out your mouth.”
Coltrane’s last tour with the group, a European sojourn in 1960 found him “practicing over in a corner even if he played an hour solo on the bandstand. I remember being on a bus we had in London, for the tour, and he would sit behind me practicing Ornette Coleman licks and figures on the soprano, He had just started to bring the soprano out and it was funny to hear Ornette’s stuff that way.”
For Cobb, it almost seems like yesterday but he’s hardly lost in the past. He’s most enthusiastic about Cobb’s Mob, his first working group. And not surprisingly, his collaborators are also excited. Guitarist Peter Bernstein, who was a New School student when he first played with Cobb, notes the drummer’s “consistency and drive. The way he feels the beat, with the ride cymbal, it’s a very wide beat so you can play practically anything on top of that. Jimmy is really forceful but it comes from the bottom, never from the top, which is unique. There’s all this power from underneath propelling the beat so it’s an exhilarating ride. And the feeling of his ride cymbal is just incredible, it’s never heavy or overbearing. The challenge is to come up to his level of intensity. You just don’t find that many drummers who play that way these days. He’s an inspiring guy, gentle but really powerful as well..”
Slingerland Drums, Zildjian Cymbals, Vic Firth Drum Sticks
I like to go back to listen to things I’ve done. Sometimes I want to hear how Dinah sounded in the 50s, or Charlie Parker, or how we sounded on certain things with Miles, so I’ll go back and get some of that old stuff and see how if it’s holding up. It’s holding up pretty good. The other day, I was listening to session Dinah did with Hal Moody, with some really great players. It sounded great. As far as new music, I listen to the radio, and whatever grabs me at the moment, I’ll listen. And if something pops in my head and I’ll check that out too.
Originally published in November 1998