The delicate, often illusive, balance between subtlety and swinging that stood as a hallmark of the late Jimmy Cobb’s long career as an acclaimed first call drummer stemmed from his ability to meld understatement with impeccable technique.
Cobb passed away on May 24 in New York City at the age of 91. He was active until nearly the end of a career that spanned seven decades. During that time, he left an indelible impression through performances and on recordings with small groups, large ensembles, and some of the premiere vocalists of his time.
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Cobb began playing the drums in his mid-teens and his skills behind the kit developed quickly. He absorbed enough of the bebop canon while working with local luminaries like the saxophonist Charlie Rouse to enable him to accompany high profile artists such as Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker who occasionally came to town.
Cobb’s friend, the bassist Keter Betts, helped him secure employment with Earl Bostic’s big band and it was during this period that the drummer met vocalist Dinah Washington. Her pianist, Wynton Kelly, linked up with Betts and Cobb to become the singer’s backing trio.
While on the road with Washington, Cobb met saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley during a stop in Florida. Adderley was then a middle school music teacher but he and Cobb vowed to link up when the horn player came to New York City.
Jimmy Cobb joined Adderley’s group, which also include pianist Junior Mance, Cannonball’s brother, Nat, on cornet, and Sam Jones on bass. The quintet did well, performing and recording frequently, but the unit dissolved in 1957 when Cannonball opted to join trumpeter Miles Davis’ band.
Drummer Philly Joe Jones’ ever increasing penchant for unreliability forced Davis to realize that a change in his quintet’s personnel was inevitable. Adderley’s recommendation sealed the deal and in May, 1958, Cobb secured a spot in Davis’ group.
Jimmy Cobb was the embodiment of the “less is more” approach as an instrumentalist, standing in marked contrast to his post-bop percussion contemporaries Philly Joe Jones, Art Blakey, and Elvin Jones, for whom dramatic swoops and thunderous rolls were hallmarks.
Cobb’s playing was more about the steadiness of the pulse and the nuances found therein than it was about the “boom-crash-bang”. That steadiness formed the underpinnings upon which Davis created a string of stellar “concept albums” on the Columbia Records label, utilizing the 12-inch long playing format which had until this time been used to record mainly western classical music.
Jimmy Cobb performed on the Miles Davis quintet’s “Someday My Prince Will Come (recorded 1961), and on three seminal orchestral projects arranged and conducted by Gil Evans, “Porgy and Bess” (1958), “Sketches of Spain” (1959-60) and “Quiet Nights” (1962).
Cobb had the distinction of being the last living musician to have participated in the recording of “Kind of Blue” (1959), Miles Davis’ modal masterpiece of mood and tone. The project was primarily an extemporaneous expression of the players’ unique and individual musical identities, and the drummer’s confident, relaxed timekeeping was at its center.
The two albums the band recorded live at The Blackhawk in San Francisco (1961) provide insight into the group’s cohesion and fire, with Cobb’s elegant, spiraling brushwork providing both the pillow beneath Davis’ muted trumpet and just the right amount of punch behind Paul Chamber’s bowed bass solos.
Jimmy Cobb would continue to perform and record with his former bandmates from the Miles Davis group, Wynton Kelly and Paul Chambers, as a trio and as a rhythm section behind other artists once their tenure with Davis ended. Notable albums with Kenny Burrell, Joe Henderson, and Wes Montgomery showcased the passion and precision the piano-bass-drums unit had perfected by this point.
Paul Chambers’ untimely death in early 1969 necessitated a shift for Cobb, and he wound up taking a gig with the acclaimed vocalist Sarah Vaughn that lasted for nearly eight years.
Later periods in his life found Jimmy Cobb teaching at several colleges and serving as the leader of his own groups. The role of front man was a belated but much enjoyed one for him, with his former students sometimes becoming band members. The 2009 Jazz Master’s Fellowship he received from The National Endowment of the Arts was yet another late career highlight.
Ricardo Burke is a Brooklyn, NY based writer and lover of jazz, cinema and art.