In the late 1950s, a time when jazz drumming was dominated by a powerhouse groove style, Jimmy Cobb was the sticksman to whom you turned for an influx of urbanity. He was to drummers what Joe DiMaggio had been to centerfielders—all élan and grace, but no-nonsense when it came to the business at hand.
Polyrhythms ruled the age, as hard bop exploded out of the proto-soul/early rock & roll era, whose commercialism caused jazz to sit up and notice. Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones brought inevitable thunder to their ensembles, their fills massive in their sheer quantity of notes, executed with the rapidity of a Dizzy Gillespie trumpet fill at the apex of bop.
But the Washington, D.C.-born Cobb, who recently left us at age 91, was a man after different results. I imagine musicians like Miles Davis and John Coltrane putting in a call, like a Hollywood casting director: “This is a classy record we’re making, elements of symphonic style, get me Cobb, stat.”
Davis may have understood the importance of a drummer better than any non-drummer, fully accepting who the driver of his various bands would be, even if he served as a kind of conductor via how he played his horn. When he wanted to dig in and find one earthen groove after another with Trane, Philly Joe was the go-to guy. When the occasion arrived to blend late-period hard bop with chamber music, the services of the young Tony Williams did nicely.
But Davis made a lot of his reputation on what were tantamount to concept albums in the ’50s, pretty big risk-takers considering that the Dark Magus wasn’t yet viewed as automatic money in the bank. Porgy and Bess, recorded in 1958, was ambition compounded by ambition. String-based albums have always been a proving ground for top-level horn players, but it’s really the drummer who has the hardest task at hand, for he is the volume merchant, who must impose his rhythms on material that can quickly be overwhelmed by snares and tom-toms. Cobb’s approach was dialogic—he was a threader, not an imposer—and no drummer provided crisper accentuation. I always think of it as golden-hued, like that of a Shakespearean actor who sticks every last line.
Kind of Blue would follow the next year, and Kind of Blue is not the kind of venture one would wish to undertake with a drummer less oriented around that impeccable elocution than Cobb. He’s the least talked-about musician on jazz’s most famous record, but he makes the thing go; he’s responsible, in large part, for keeping the proceedings organic. There’s nothing clinical about Kind of Blue, even though it arose from a clinical contention, a theory of modes and patterns. Listen to Cobb’s cymbal work—it’s downright swoon-inducing, akin to that person one desires to approach, usually lacks the courage to do so, but here, in this setting, finds the means for the greeting, and is glad ever after.
“Tasteful” can feel like a lesser compliment with drummers, and Cobb has been called tasteful often. Such props frequently seem to be of the left-handed variety, suggesting that there’s only so much that individual can do, although he works outstandingly within his limitations—like a player not quite good enough to start but capable of securing a few victories.
Cobb had the technique. In fact, he had the technique of a classical percussionist, someone who could have dashed across town from an engagement at the Village Vanguard to Lincoln Center for two gigs in an evening. If we put him in rock terms, he served the song like Ringo Starr did for the compositions of Lennon and McCartney, but with something of Charlie Watts’ chops. He could bring the power, only his was a power of finesse, a ballet of angles and geometry rather than a scrum of players barreling downfield.
He remarked that he never believed any session on which he performed had resulted in a masterpiece, but never did he not believe it either. Still, I think he likely knew that with Wes Montgomery, on 1962’s rippin’ live album Full House, he had proven he could drop bombs with any jazz drummer who had ever lived, and yet those bombs remained felicitous and nuanced, portions of a vital conversation one was fortunate to hear. Virtually no one else’s fills operated like they were speaking to you.
Wynton Kelly was his spiritual cousin as a player, the Cobb of the piano, we could say, so it makes a certain amount of sense that they’d work together so memorably on most of Kelly’s best recordings (Kelly Blue, Someday My Prince Will Come) from the late ’50s and early ’60s. What perhaps speaks most to Cobb’s singularity, though, is that you never associate him with a band—at least not one band, primarily.
He was the guy you had to have when you hit upon an idea possessing a richness that would require, in one regard, more, but also, in another, less—that flash of inspiration that you didn’t get every time a record was going to be cut, but which enough people got over the years, at the top level of their talent, to know they needed Jimmy Cobb. From such flashes came a bejeweled discography, and an elegant legacy.