He didn’t start out living in the U.S. either; William Emanuel Cobham Jr. was born in Colón, Panama, on May 16, 1944. His family moved to Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant section when Billy was a small child, and as he grew up, two things grabbed hold of him: baseball and the drums. Cobham caught Dodgers games at Ebbets Field—Roy Campanella, the team’s catcher, was his idol—and the boy wanted to play the game too. But his other love, which he’d first nurtured through a cousin in Panama who made congas, steel drums, and timbales, stuck. “It was a foregone conclusion,” he says of his future vocation.
In middle school, Cobham—who’d already been doing drum corps and gigging with his piano-playing father—befriended a kid named Keith Copeland, whose dad, Ray, had played trumpet with Thelonious Monk and others. Keith was a baseball fan and drummer too, and they bonded quickly. “He didn’t know that I liked to play drums,” Cobham says. “One day he said, ‘My dad just bought me a set of drums.’ I said, ‘Wow, man, can I see them?’ This was just around the time that [Dave Brubeck’s] ‘Take Five’ had become a big hit. He said, ‘My teacher showed me this thing. It’s in 5/4.’ I said, ‘What’s 5/4? I’m just trying to do my best to play in 3/4. How do you do that?’”
Cobham continued to play drums while attending New York’s prestigious Music and Art High School and in the Army. While serving, he moonlighted with pianist Billy Taylor and others; after his discharge, he turned pro, working with another great pianist, Horace Silver, and playing sessions for artists signed to Atlantic Records, CTI, and other labels.
His first semi-high-profile gig came with Dreams, a band he formed in 1969 with bassist Doug Lubahn and keyboardist Jeff Kent. Although short-lived, the group—one of the first slotted into the burgeoning jazz-rock category—featured, at various times, future stars Michael and Randy Brecker on horns, guitarist John Abercrombie, and bassist Will Lee. Cobham played on both their self-titled 1970 debut album and the ’71 followup, Imagine My Surprise, the latter produced by Steve Cropper of Booker T. and the MG’s. “The real leader in the band, even though he chose not to be called that, was Barry Rogers,” says Cobham of Dreams’ trombonist. “He had a way of manipulating the horn section.”
By the time Dreams folded, Cobham was ready to move on anyway. “I’d had enough of the lack of commitment,” he says. “The band looked like an amoeba; it had no direction per se, yet it had all of this richness inside of it. They just didn’t want anybody to tell them what to do.”
Cobham had been in demand well before Dreams formed, and he didn’t have to scrounge afterward: Even while that band was enjoying its brief run, he received a visit in 1969 from fellow drummer Jack DeJohnette, wondering if Cobham might be available for some session work with Miles Davis. It was, he realized immediately, a golden opportunity.
“I wasn’t even thinking about whether I’d get the gig or not,” Cobham says. “Jack wouldn’t have come up to me unless he’d heard me and felt that he was making a smart move. In New York, one of the cardinal rules is that you don’t offer a recommendation of anybody else unless you know they can play. Because if they can’t play, that means you don’t have a very good assessment of what the music is all about, so people are not going to call you either.”
Cobham showed up just in time to contribute to the sessions that would become Bitches Brew (the track he worked on, “Feio,” wouldn’t surface until the 1998 box set The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions) and A Tribute to Jack Johnson. “I didn’t even know where it was going,” says Cobham of the music he cut with Miles and company for the latter album. But he relished the experience of playing with such top-caliber musicians, among them Herbie Hancock, bassist Michael Henderson, and a guitarist who would soon become very important to him, John McLaughlin.