Jimmy Cobb, a legendary jazz drummer best known for his work on Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue—performed by a fabled sextet of which Cobb was the last surviving member—died May 24 at his home in Manhattan. He was 91.
His death was confirmed by his wife, Eleana Steinberg Cobb, who told WBGO radio that he had succumbed to lung cancer.
Sure but subtle, Cobb came to Davis in 1958 having proven himself over several years in vocalist Dinah Washington’s band (which was occasionally even billed as the Jimmy Cobb Orchestra). He brought the same understated sensibility he’d used to support her vocals into a small instrumental ensemble. In this context he became a star, celebrated for his delicate ride cymbal sound but also for his unrelenting swing, not only with Davis but in the trio he subsequently formed with pianist Wynton Kelly and Paul Chambers and behind Sarah Vaughan, another vocalist with whom he spent a long accompanying stint.
Over the years he played with seemingly every musician he could—though musicians more frequently were the ones seeking him out—and in every context.
“Learn everything you can learn,” he encouraged young drummers in an interview last fall. “You have to love it and stay with it.”
Wilbur James Cobb was born January 20, 1929 in Washington, D.C. When he was 13, he had a friend in his neighborhood who “used to just go around and bang on tables with his fingers, and he got me interested in [playing drums].” He saved up the money he earned busing tables at a Washington diner, used it to buy a drum kit, took some lessons from a snare drummer in the National Symphony Orchestra, and soon began playing in burlesque and rhythm & blues shows around the city.
Dropping out of Armstrong Manual Training High School—the same school from which Duke Ellington had dropped out—Cobb became a full-time musician, working behind traveling musicians such as Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker when they came through the city. He also formed a jazz quintet with tenor saxophonist and fellow Washingtonian Charlie Rouse, from whom he learned the bebop repertoire.
When Cobb was 21, his friend, bassist Keter Betts, recommended the drummer to his boss, jazz and rhythm & blues saxophonist Earl Bostic. Ten days before his 22nd birthday, Cobb played on his first recording session—yielding Bostic’s “Flamingo,” a massive hit that reached No. 1 on the R&B charts and sent the saxophonist and his band on a whirlwind 1951 tour of one-nighters around the United States.
Joining them on the tour was Dinah Washington; when she sang, Betts and Cobb would join her onstage—along with her own pianist, a young New York native named Wynton Kelly. Cobb became romantically involved with Washington, and soon transitioned into her own touring band and continued crisscrossing the country until 1955.
After Cobb and Washington broke up, the drummer joined the band led by saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, whom Cobb had met while traveling through Florida with Washington. The band dissolved in late 1957 when Adderley joined Miles Davis’ band; however, the saxophonist soon afterward recommended Cobb to Davis as a replacement for the unreliable Philly Joe Jones. Cobb joined the group in May 1958, working with Davis on his Porgy & Bess project and on Kind of Blue, now arguably the most iconic jazz album ever produced.
Cobb seemed unsurprised by the endurance and continued popularity of the record. “People still love it because it is great,” he told interviewer Marc Myers in 2009. “The hype is there because it’s real.”
The drummer remained with Davis’ band for the next four years, performing on his album Someday My Prince Will Come and his 1961 live sets at the Blackhawk in San Francisco, as well as his orchestral projects with Gil Evans, Sketches of Spain and Quiet Nights.
When Davis once again formed a new band, putting teenage phenom Tony Williams in the drum chair, the previous band’s rhythm section—Cobb, Wynton Kelly, and bassist Paul Chambers—stayed together as the Wynton Kelly Trio. It was a long-lived unit, remaining together and active until 1968, and placing Cobb on yet another iconic jazz recording with 1965’s Smokin’ at the Half Note, featuring guitarist Wes Montgomery. (He also played during this period on several important albums by Montgomery, John Coltrane, Bobby Timmons, and many other freelance engagements.)
Cobb joined Sarah Vaughan’s band in 1971 and remained with her throughout the decade, working almost exclusively with the singer through her nonstop touring schedule and again gaining plaudits for his sensitivity as a vocal accompanist. It was in 1983, finally, that Cobb made his own debut recording as a bandleader with So Nobody Else Can Hear, heading up a 12-piece ensemble that also included Dave Liebman, Freddie Hubbard, Larry Willis, and Walter Booker (Cobb’s longtime rhythm section partner in the Vaughan band). Beginning in the 1990s, Cobb led a band called Cobb’s Mob with pianist Brad Mehldau, guitarist Peter Bernstein, and bassist John Webber, all then his students at the New School. (Mehldau was soon replaced by Richard Wyands, though Cobb continued to work consistently with Bernstein and especially Webber until his death.)
Even so, Cobb mostly preferred to work as a sideman for the rest of his life. He was a member of Nat Adderley’s band from 1980 through the end of the cornetist’s active career in the mid-1990s; performed with Mike Stern’s 4 Generations of Miles ensemble; and toured frequently with tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson, along with hundreds of freelance sessions and gigs. He received an NEA Jazz Masters fellowship in 2009.
Cobb had no interest in slowing down as he aged. In 2019 he released two albums—This I Dig of You (with Bernstein, Webber, and pianist Harold Mabern) and Cobb’s Pocket with harmonica player Hendrik Muerkens—before he was forced by his lung cancer (with which he was diagnosed in 2018) to move to the sidelines. During the coronavirus pandemic, financial considerations compelled his daughter, Serena, to initiate a GoFundMe account to help pay for his round-the-clock home care.
In addition to his wife Eleana and daughter Serena, Cobb is survived by a second daughter, Jaime Cobb.