Q&A: JAZZ LEGEND JIMMY COBB KEEPS THE MUSIC ALIVE

Cobb
Jonathan Sindelman

Pictured from left to right: Joey DeFrancesco, Jimmy Cobb, and Larry Coryell (Photo by Bill Bungard)

Jazz is a broad musical term. Most of us have intersected with this word, and often ended up questioning exactly how it should be defined in today’s musical climate. Trends and styles aside, one plausible explanation would draw a parallel between the roots of jazz music, how it was invented and subsequently developed, and then identifying what qualities remain consistently visible and engaging. In other words, there exists a contingent of artists who serve jazz as a form of storytelling, illuminating a living history that like any other, must endure and be watched over – regardless of the product… or even the artist.

Perhaps the most direct answer might be represented by a group made up of four ambassadors – Joey DeFrancesco, Larry Coryell, Roberta Gambarini, and drumming legend Jimmy Cobb, all of whom will briefly unite thanks to a rare alignment of schedules. The trio’s Seattle stop on August 30th overlaps with Roberta Gambarini’s tour, and makes for a very special engagement that extends over four evenings at Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley.

Jimmy Cobb’s legacy can be heard and felt on countless albums, including the best selling jazz recording of all time – Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue (Sony/Columbia Legacy). The impact from this essential work cannot be overstated, as its ripple effect continues to draw the highest acclaim from virtually every corner of the music world. A 50th Anniversary Edition box set was issued in 2009, and several books have surfaced to document the event, one of which features a foreword by Cobb – Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece. At 83 years old, he remains the last surviving member of this trailblazing ensemble, an association that began in 1957 after he was introduced to Miles through alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley – and the result of such important albums, Porgy and Bess, Sketches of Spain, Live at Carnegie Hall, and Someday My Prince Will Come (all available on Sony/Columbia Legacy). From Miles and beyond, the list would appear endless, playing and recording with Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Wes Montgomery, Clark Terry, and Dizzie Gillespie, just to name a few.

Special guest Roberta Gambarini of Turin, Italy, may be new to some, though perhaps only in the geographical sense, as she has already enchanted audiences alongside performers like Herbie Hancock, Roy Hargrove, Paquito de Rivera, and Jimmy Cobb. Her unique ability to vocalize the essence of master improvisers like Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Rollins catapulted her into the spotlight with numerous awards, including Winner of “Female Jazz Vocalist of the Year” by Jazz Journalists Awards 2010, as well as being nominated for a Grammy in the “Best Jazz Vocal Album” category following the release of So In Love (Emarcy/Pgd). The late, great pianist Hank Jones publicly recognized her in 2006 as the best jazz vocalist to come along in fifty years after hearing her sing three distinct solos in succession taken from Dizzy Gillespie’s Sonny Side Up album (Verve). He would go on to collaborate with her two years later on You Are There (Emarcy/Pgd).

Joey DeFrancesco may be universally recognized as a master of the Hammond B3 organ. However, the spirit behind his great achievement embodies that of lifelong student, whose devotion and comprehensive vocabulary rekindled interest for the instrument on a global scale. He was practically raised in the jazz club, as his father, “Papa” John DeFrancesco, was also a steward of the B3, taking him to gigs from the age of seven and bringing him to the attention of organ legends Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff and Richard “Groove” Holmes. By the time he was seventeen, Joey was asked by Miles Davis to join his band for a European tour, which then went on to record what became Amandla (Warner Bros/Wea). He is supported by Jimmy Cobb on the 2012 release, Wonderful Wonderful (High Note), along with guitar legend Larry Coryell.

Coryell, a pioneer best known for modifying the sphere of jazz guitar in the 60’s with a sensibility more akin to rock, blues, and country, delightfully leads the listener in a direction that imbues his signature tone with an approach perhaps more characteristic of Wes Montgomery and Pat Martino. Equally at home on acoustic and electric, the eclecticism evidenced by his technique suggests that while having lived and played in the tradition, what actually passes through his instrument can actually be better explained by a natural tendency to express ideas originating from outside the guitar. Larry’s presence consistently breaths insight and bravado into whatever musical endeavor he sets his sights on, and even just being a stone’s throw from Joey’s behemoth organ will complete the group’s sonic spectrum brilliantly.

On a quiet evening last week, in anticipation of this musical summit, I was thrilled to have a moment to catch up with none other than Jimmy Cobb. Our discussion escalated into a series of animated shorts from selected memoirs, including highlights of what it was like to come up in Washington D.C., how music changed and determined the course, his tenure with masters like Wes Montgomery and Miles Davis, the “dreamy” approach to composing, advice for young and aspiring musicians, and the message he carries while still finding time to tour the world in 2012.

SMI: I’d like to start by asking you about your beginnings. What was your first memory in realizing that your life had been changed by music, and how did it lead to you taking up the drums?

Well, it started when I was very young, probably in my teenage years, and right in the neighborhood I was living in, which was in Washington. I could hear all kinds of music from just walking down the street. I could walk by a church and hear everyone singing and clapping in there. I was at a Catholic school and hearing the music that was being made within the religion, and then also just people and the music they liked to hear. Friends and other acquaintances I knew would come over to the house on weekends and bring things to entertain with – bringing drinks, food and stuff, and we’d have a party for the weekend. So that’s basically where I got it. One particular individual that I knew back then used to come by the house, and my mother would be going out in the daytime working, and he used to come and hang out with me while I was out of school. We would play some jazz records I’d get, including Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie, and all that kind of stuff that was popular then. At that time the band I was really listening to the most was Billy Eckstine and his band. Billy Eckstine had a band with all the musicians that later became in the crux of the jazz business – The real be-boppers. The time I’m talking about is around the era when be-bop had just come in, and I was hearing all these guys play for the first time.

Getting back to this one guy who used to come to my house – he had a hobby playing the drums, not as a professional, but he would come out and play to records, banging on one side of the table to the rhythm of the records, you know. I soon found out that I liked that and wanted to do it, so eventually I went out and bought a set of drums. It was a place downtown in Washington D.C. that I used to pass occasionally, a drum shop called Herman Ratners. When I went in there they had a big advertisement of Gene Krupa sitting on some Slingerland drums. So I asked the manager and proprietor how much those drums cost. He told me and then asked if I wanted to buy them. I said yes, and then he asked me if I had the money, and I said no. He asked me if I had a job, I said yes. So he said it seems that you want to do this, and I’m going to help you do it if you want to bring some money, whatever money you can bring down here every week, and I’ll put it in this drawer. When you get enough money to buy the drums, then you can get the drums. I bought the drums and started listening to people, seeing people that came through town, and it got me really interested. When I got to a point where I felt I could play a little bit, I worked around town with different musicians.

SMI: Being a fan of the music it’s always tempting to look back into the past with someone such as yourself and then just dive into history, so many experiences rich with all that was happening and developing. In the present moment, when playing music in today’s climate – whether through recording, performing, or hosting clinics, what would you say is the message you’re carrying in music?

Cobb: Well I don’t know, it would probably be something like a phrase that Jesse Jackson used to say: “Keep hope alive!” Keep the music alive, you know, because jazz makes up only about five or ten percent of the music business. It might be a little more than that now, but back then it was just a few people that were interested in jazz. There were more people interested in what was going on with rhythm and blues, or other blues, hillbilly music, or even Dixieland. Dixeland was jazz too, but it was just a small percentage that were interested in jazz overall. I’m just hoping to make that number bigger, trying to educate people so they can pass it on to others and see the music prevail, you know. In this kind of economy that we now have, the first thing that goes is people being able to buy or go see entertainment. This puts a little heat on musicians, because if people can’t go out and have fun, they can’t spend money, and jazz musicians can’t make money so well. When I do clinics I try to tell them if they want to be in this business, try to learn as much as you can while you’re in school, because when you hit the street you’re gonna need it. You’re going to need all different kinds of styles and ways to play in order to make a living – if that’s really what you’re interested in doing.

Music education today is better than what it used to be. In colleges back then, even the Julliard School of Music didn’t have a jazz course. The big time music schools in New York taught only classical music. It’s a whole lot better today in terms of how to acquire knowledge of the music – through technology, the internet and being able to download stuff, which makes it much easier. Back then I just had to hear, you know, go see people, talk with them and like that, you know? But today you can see videos of most of the stuff, even from back then you have some things and video that you can go watch. You can walk into a club and record someone playing with just a little thing that you have in your pocket, and capture all of it. So they didn’t have any of that stuff when I was coming up. I would say that these days it’s easy to get into it, because there are schools you can attend for jazz. But even if you can go to these schools, there aren’t a lot of places to work because of the economy.

I always try to tell everybody that’s interested to stay with it if that’s what you want to do. You have to work hard, you have to persevere, and at the same time try to make the best of it, you know. I always tell them at the same time it’s best to have something else that you can do too (laughs), just to be clear about how there’s going to be some hard times.

SMI: I think that’s a valuable message to carry over to young musicians who are coming up today. So you’ll be coming to Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley here in Seattle at the end of the month, and currently on tour with a stellar band. When looking at the current trio release, Wonderful Wonderful, with Joey DeFrancesco and Larry Coryell, how would you describe the genesis of that group, and how did this lead to augmenting the lineup with vocalist Roberta Gamberini?

Cobb: I think that’s just something that happened where people decided to put us all together, probably after finding out we’d be in the area at the same time. Roberta I’ve known from when she probably just came around, because her manager’s a good friend of mine. I’ve done some things with her before, and I guess when he found out I was going to be there in Seattle he was still figuring out exactly what she was going to do. Joey and Larry could do the gig too, so he wanted to see if it was possible to do this together.

SMI: I can imagine with this lineup you would be able to consider taking many different directions with the music given the range of material, between the recent release and also music which nods in the direction of greats like Wes Montgomery and Jimmy Smith.

Cobb: I think that was just the approach to advertising, something for the benefit of promoters, though we’re actually strong enough to draw on our own without that, because anything we can play – if you’re the guitar player, it’s going to require some connection with Wes Montgomery. And if you’re the organ player, you’re going to have to a connection with all the guys that came before you. Joey learned from a lot of those guys, and since he was eight years old. He knew Jack MacDuff, and he was probably like a sponge when he was a little boy, and so everyone he’s ran across that played organ he probably learned something from. And the same thing with Larry – He hung out with Wes Montgomery, and after awhile of being on the scene you could tell he had learned some of the techniques. So anything we play is going to have to be relative to those guys anyway.

SMI: I’m guessing that with Roberta joining you for these shows it could inspire the band to change it up a little each night, taking into consideration the songs that both of you play.

Cobb: Well, I don’t really know, because she does what she does – and I kind of know what that is, and then we do what we do. So I don’t even know how long it’s going to go, or how long she’s going to be on stage with us, or even if it’s going to be every show. I honestly don’t know how it’s going to go because I have yet to talk to anybody about it.

SMI: It will be exciting to see a combination of some great instrumental work and vocals, and how the result might speak to the overall process with the company you’re keeping on tour. Since you mentioned Wes Montgomery, I’d like to touch a bit on the period when you were working together. Not long before this time you had established the trio with Wynton Kelly, which then overlapped with a string of recordings that were made with Wes Montgomery. It was such a prolific period, and albums like Smokin’ at the Half Note continue to be among my personal favorites of all time.

Cobb: Yes, mine too. And that one happened because I had been in contact with Wynton Kelly since he was 19, and I was 21 years old. When I first went on the road, it was a friend of mine, his name was Keter Betts – he got me on the road in Earl Bostic’s band. When we traveled, the attraction was Dinah Washington and the Earl Bostic Band. When Dinah sang, she only traveled with her pianist, and his name was Wynton Kelly. So when she sang, Wynton Kelly, Keter Betts, and myself played for her. So that’s how I met Wynton, and over the years we played a lot together, knew each other on and off, and after awhile we got in with Miles Davis. When Bill Evans left we would go on to work together in that band for four or five years, or something like that. After that dissolved we decided we wanted a trio, so it became Paul Chambers, Wynton Kelly, and myself. On a lot of occasions people would hire us because they knew we were a tight trio and had made a lot of records with different people. That’s how we met Wes, and some other people in that way, you know.

SMI: Were you immediately affected after first playing with Wes Montgomery? Was there a particular moment that defined what it was like to play with him, to get to know him through music and as a person?

Cobb: Well you know, he’s a great guitar player. It’s not hard to find something to like about him, because he was great and we were a great trio, and he just wanted to play with us. So that’s what happened, and of course we wanted to play with him. So we made two or three records together and decided to go out on tour together, of course in the United States. By that time he was getting large and the record companies were becoming more interested in him. He eventually gave up the trio and went over to CTI Records, which was run by Creed Taylor. He started making more of the popular kind of music. They wanted him to have a bigger audience. He had two brothers that played music too, you know, and when he got big he went back to them so he could share some of his wealth and popularity. And he went on from there - just did his thing.

SMI: So now going back to you – when you decide to compose a piece of music, are you typically inspired by events happening around you personally, or does it happen spontaneously just from inside the music itself?

Cobb: Sometimes it happens like that. Sometimes you could be sleeping and something comes to you. I remember two guys talking one time, Horace Silver and Benny Golson, and they were talking about that same thing you just mentioned – about how they write tunes, you know? I think Horace was telling Benny, he said, “Well, when I’d go to sleep I used to dream of tunes, and I’d have them in my head, but by the time I woke up in the morning they’d be gone. So I decided that the next time it would happen I’d just get up and write it down.” So this time he got up and wrote it down, and came to find out that what he ended up writing was somebody else’s tune. He probably heard in his sleep or something. I’m trying to think about what tune it was – I used to have it in my head but right now I can’t bring it up. But it was a tune like… (starts scatting a melody)… something like that. It might have been Stardust, or one of the really popular tunes. He thought he’d dreamt that (laughs). So that’s the way it happened with some people. That can happen with me, but other times I’ll just be walking around with something in my head. There were tunes in my head but I never wrote them down. The piano player I was working with when I was playing with Sarah Vaughan helped put them down on paper for me. I’m not a composer, but I whistled to him, sang these for him. I had a couple of tunes that were written with him, one for my sister called Eleanor, which was a ballad, and another tune I wrote called Composition 101. I gave it that name because it was the first time I ever tried to put a composition down. Then I have a friend where we used to do the same thing occasionally. I used to go over to his house and he had a piece of equipment with a keyboard where he could play something and it would write out the charts for you.

SMI: It’s great when you can find a way to get ideas out before they evaporate into thin air! I wanted to talk about Cannonball Adderley, which of course will inevitably lead to some discussion about Miles Davis. How did your association begin?

Cobb: Well, I met Cannonball when I was with that band I just mentioned – he was still in living in his hometown. We began to be friends, and I got to talking with him about having a band with a trumpet player I knew that sounded like Miles Davis. It was the rhythm section we had at that particular time, which was Wynton, Keter Betts, and myself. And at that time, I didn’t know he had a brother, so I mentioned the other trumpet player to him. I didn’t know anything about Nat. To make a long story short, after a while we talked about him coming to New York, and he was coming back and forth to New York from time to time, sitting in at the little places I’d be working. Then one time he came back with a band of his homeboys, which was Junior Mance, who he was in the army with, Sam Jones, who was living down there at the time, his brother Nat, and then himself along with a drummer friend of his. He came to New York and he wanted to find a manager, and he found John Levy. John Levy at that time was one of the top managers, and he auditioned for John. He said that everything sounded good, but the drummer sounded kind of weak. So he said, “I’m thinking everything would be great if you got another drummer.” So he knew me from my playing and hanging out, so he hired me. So that’s how I got into Cannonball’s band. We had the band for maybe about a year and then broke up.

SMI: Knowing how you came to Miles with Cannonball at a certain point when Philly Joe Jones had been turning up late to gigs and sessions, did the opportunity to record with Miles happen on the spot, or had you been out playing with him before?

Cobb: Yes, I had one opportunity while I was still playing with Dinah Washington. We were working in Philadelphia, and during that era there was a disc jockey I knew in New York. His name was Symphony Sid, and he used to play all the be-bop music – all the fellas, like all the jazz greats. Occasionally he would gather three or four of them together, go out and put a rhythm section with them and call it the Symphony Sid All Stars. So at this particular time he put together Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Milt Jackson, and Toots Thielemans. I was working in Philadelphia with Dinah. Our piano player’s name was Beryl Booker, and our bass player was still Keter Betts. So they went on with Bird, Miles, Milt Jackson, and Toots. We had to play with them, so that was our band. They would show a short movie, and then they’d bring on the jazz. So that happened for a week. In Philadelphia they don’t work on Sunday, so they moved the whole operation to Camden. I did a whole week with Bird and all of these other people who I had just mentioned, and that was way before I got to Miles’ band – maybe five, six years.

SMI: That’s a long time when considering those first recordings you made with Miles, from the beginnings of On Green Dolphin Street and all those many early sessions you played on with his band.

Cobb: I didn’t get with Miles till the end of ’57, and so I’m really talking about the period between 1950 and 1957.

SMI: When looking at that early period of recording with Miles, did you have much experience playing in larger ensembles or big bands before you walked into the Porgy and Bess sessions?

Cobb: No, not that much, not in a big band. A friend of mine when I was still in Washington, his name was Rick Henderson, he was a little older than me and used to play alto, and would write arrangements for sextets, and maybe octets. We would play that, but that’s probably as large as I had been doing.

SMI: Would you say that Sketches of Spain was any more relaxed, after having been through the process once, or were they both equally challenging to deal with on their own?

Cobb: Well, it was all challenging, especially if you’re sitting in the studio with 25 musicians. You have to be on your Q’s and P’s. It was okay though, because Gil really had the music together, you know, it almost played itself.

SMI: You’ve worked with so many great and influential piano players over the years, perhaps most with Wynton Kelly, and then Bill Evans, Red Garland, Kenny Drew, and Bobby Timmons. Which pianist do you feel impacted you, or even surprised you in a way that maybe changed how you approached rhythm and accompaniment?

Cobb: Well, it would be Wynton. I mean, Wynton was already playing the way he played when he was 19 years old. He had already made it on the scene. He had already worked with Billie Holiday and made a record with her. So he was already pretty much out there – a guy that anybody could play with. He could play and sound good all the time. So I knew when we first met that he was probably going to be one of the better piano players I was ever going to run into.

SMI: And with the piano being a more percussive instrument, has it caused you to react differently with him versus with other pianists?

Cobb: Yes, well I was more concerned with the way he played, because there was this energy and feeling inside the swing that he had. That was there all the time. He could even be sick and still sound good.

SMI: I’m curious to know if there’s anyone from your past, whether someone you’ve had an opportunity to play with briefly or just someone that you became acquainted with, where they impacted you and made you wish that you could have worked together more – either in making a record or going out to play gigs?

Cobb: Yes, it was the first friend of mine in Washington D.C., a tenor player, and his name is Buck Hill. He’s been down there for years. In fact, I made one of my first jazz gigs with him, but he never left town. He was a mailman, and his wife didn’t want him on the road, so he stayed there and did the mailman thing until he retired. Now he’s still down there playing, but he’s the one I would probably have liked to play with more, especially because he was like one of my first virtual affairs. He’s still there, so it may happen, I don’t know. I was just down there in Washington and I didn’t see him.

SMI: And how far back do you go with him?

Cobb: Oh yeah, I met him when I was kid, when I first started to play. After I learned to play a little bit, he was like the first jazz gig I went on.

SMI: Speaking of musicians today, is there anyone in particular you’ve heard recently who inspires you and contributes to the music in a way that could be seen as a propelling force?

Cobb: Yeah, Joey is like that. Joey is a monster organ player, and then he can play the trumpet and sound like Miles Davis. And he has some other talents. He could probably sing if he wanted to. He’s a hell of a talent, Joey is. He hung out with Miles when he was a little boy. Miles saw him, heard him play and liked him, so they hung out a little bit together. He’s so full of Miles Davis. A lot of the guys like Jimmy Smith, and all the organ players – he knew them, he studied them, and well Joey just likes music. You know, he knows about all kinds of music. Since he was a little boy he’s been listening, and he knows everybody, you know… where the music comes from.

SMI: And was the music you played together with Joey and Larry on the release Wonderful, Wonderful your first as a trio?

Cobb: Yes. We made that last March. He called me once before a long time ago to make a record but it never came up – some kind of weird logistics, so it never happened. Recently I had the chance to work with him in Italy. There’s a friend of mine in Italy that has concerts every year, and also a jazz school in Italy where he brings prominent guys from the States over to do clinics and teach school for two weeks. Through that we do some gigs. His name is Massimo Faraò, and I call him my Italian son. He’s a piano player. He likes Wynton Kelly. So we had an occasion to play, the three of us together, and that was a good journey. Joey said he kind of found his brother, because they like the same things and the same people, you know. And they’re both Italian.

SMI: It’s always interesting to learn about musicians based upon where they come from – how they speak and play in the most natural sense, whether from different parts of the country, or just as you were explaining about the Italian connection and how this all becomes possible from the music.

Cobb: Yes, well jazz is a universal music. You will always be surprised when you find somebody that might know you, or know what you were doing. It’s really the way things are now anyway with the internet and all that. You can get a lot of stuff over the internet, and now you can even reach the farthest places.

SMI: Very true. And delving into the fabric of the songbook, seeing how many of these songs reveal about how jazz is a universal language – it makes me think of your album Only For The Pure of Heart. I was surprised and delighted to hear the opening track, ‘Delilah’, which fragrantly brings back the days of Clifford Brown.

Cobb: Yes!

SMI: That’s one of my favorite ever pieces, a beautiful composition. Just to go through the process of playing a composition like that, it would seem like this transports us back to a whole era of music within the space of just a few notes. Does a piece like that invoke for you a kind of nostalgia?

Cobb: Oh yeah, when we play that I can hear Clifford playing it. And it takes me back to the Max Roach/Clifford Brown Quintet. I like the song, you know. It’s beautiful, and it makes me think of a lot of different things. There are songs we play that make me think of movies I saw as a kid, you know. It stays with you, and you never can tell what memories will come around when playing certain songs.

SMI: It’s just such a beautiful rendition of that piece.

Cobb: Yes, and we play that one a lot in my little band Cobb’s Mob. We like it.

SMI: When you appeared on Coltrane’s Giant Steps and played ‘Naima,’ was the experience particularly memorable for you, or did it go by kind of quickly given the number of musicians coming in and out of the studio? Weren’t these sessions pieced together out of multiple takes from multiple bands?

Cobb: It was a memorable moment, because that was the only track that we played on. The rest of the record was other people. That’s the track that most people like on that album.

SMI: It’s certainly timeless. Were you recording ‘Naima’ on a day that also revolved around other musicians coming in to play on a session?

Cobb: No, during this period Coltrane would do a lot of the same songs with different rhythm sections. So he may have done that tune one day, and by the time they put the record together this was just something he ended up picking out of several takes. They were all done on different days.

SMI: That song is a treasure.

Cobb: Yeah, I still like it too.

SMI: To wrap up, I wanted to touch on Miles one last time. In getting to know him through all of your associations, and having made history together, you were also good friends with him later in his life.

Cobb: Yes, we were.

SMI: You were photographing him at one point, right?

Cobb: Yeah, I used to take pictures of him. I used to take him to the gym and take pictures of him doing his little training thing, and just hang out. Arthur Taylor wrote a book called Notes and Tones (Da Capo Press), and I gave him a few pictures that ended up being in the book. I don’t know if he gave me credit for it or not, but he probably did.

SMI: Yes, I actually have that book, Notes and Tones. It’s a unique and wonderful collection of conversations.

Cobb: Well, those pictures are probably mine.

SMI: Have you yourself written any memoirs?

Cobb: No, the only thing I’ve written is a foreword to a book about the Kind of Blue album, the book, Kind of Blue: The Making Of The Miles Davis Masterpiece. I’ve been thinking about writing though, because people all over the place have been asking me to write a book or something, so I might do it before the time gets to be too late.

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Jonathan Sindelman