Jimmy Cobb: Seasoned Sideman
Story and photos by Rick Mattingly
RM: Where are you originally from?JC: Washington, D.C.
RM: How did you first get involved with drums?
JC: When I was about 13 years old, I used to hang out with an older guy that lived in the neighborhood. He liked music and would play along with it by beating his knuckles on the table. Occasionally, he would go someplace where they had a band and try to play drums. From him I got the fever. To buy my drums, I worked as a bus boy in a drugstore where my mother was a short-order cook. I saved about $20 a week. I was making $28. The money was saved for me in a drawer until I got about $315. The first set of drums I bought were Slingerland. In fact, I used to pass this man’s shop and he had a set of Slingerland drums with a picture of Gene Krupa playing them. So I bought the drums. I was still in high school and. started to play drums in the school band. It was during the war and many guys had been drafted. It was easy for someone just getting started to get a job because the men had gone to war.
RM: Who were some of the people you worked with in those days?
JC: Before I left Washington I played a couple of weeks with “Lady Day” (Billie Holiday) and that’s a long time ago. Actually, the first jazz gig I had that lasted was with Charlie Rouse. He was from Washington and had been to New York. Rouse had worked with Dizzy Gillespie and all the be-bop musicians. He came back home and knew all the tunes. I had a job with him at the Republic Gardens, on U Street in Washington. I guess I was about 18. That’s how I started playing jazz. I wanted to play jazz because I always heard it in the neighborhood. My friends would play Billy Eckstine records.
They would play the hard swing, be-bop thing. Eckstine’s band had stars like Dexter
Gordon, Charlie Parker and Gene Ammons. The lady I’m working for now was in that band. That’s the kind of music I’ve been listening to all my life.
RM: Which drummers did you listen to then?
JC: Mostly Max Roach because at the time, his was the hippest music going. I also listened to Kenny Clark, Shadow Wilson and Big Sid Catlett. Those were some of the ones I remember. Then a little later there was Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones.
RM: Did you take lessons?
JC: I started with a teacher who was a percussionist in the National Symphon Orchestra. He was using me to let others know he was teaching. He probably wanted to try supplementing his income on the side. You know how that goes when you’re working in a symphony. I didn’t stay with him very long. Everything I’ve done has been on my own, listening to things and trying to figure out what was happening. I always wanted to go to a conservatory. But I never could. I never had the money. When I had the money, I was working, so I didn’t have the time. It was like Catch-22.
RM: So you taught yourself to read?
RM: On the job or did you learn from method books’?
JC: I’ve had a lot of method books. I’ve still got a lot of them. I’m reading and trying to learn rock. It’s really not that hard, just a bunch of patterns.
RM: Some people contend that reading can inhibit a person’s ability to play.
JC: If you start to read when you first get your drum set, it would probably hang you up. You try to spell out the notes, and that’s as far as you get. When I first got my set of drums, I just set them up and played them, without looking at any music. I was trying to get some technique and find out if I liked the drums. When I could play a little bit, then I learned to read.
RM: That’s the way we learn the language. We know how to talk before they send us to school to learn how to read and write. JC: Yes. Otherwise, everything you do you have to read. That might even deter you from wanting to play. That’s what they used to say about Erroll Garner. They would say, ‘I don’t know if it would do any good to teach him to read now or not, because it might really mess up what he’s doing.’ He did so much without reading. He could hear everything. His brother was a pianist, and he used to go to the piano and practice Debussy or Beethoven. When he’d finish, Erroll was able to play just from listening to his brother. So why would you need some music if you could do that? It’s important to read if it’s not going to mess up what you’ve already accomplished.
RM: Many musicians feel that if you can’t improvise, you don’t really know how to play your instrument.
JC: That’s right. That’s what reading can get you locked into. You can’t play unless you see it. That’s not good.
RM: Did you have any big-band experience?
JC: No, I never made too much big band. Occasionally, I worked for a guy named Rick Henderson. He would write music for maybe 10 pieces. That was very seldom though. When I was about 21, I went to New York, and landed a job with Earl Bostic. During those times the band used to travel to different places. In each city there was a variety theater and the band would have to play the show. We had a sextet and they would add other musicians to make a 13- piece band. I only stayed with Bostic a year. After that I went with Dinah Washington and the same thing prevailed. You’d have an augmented band and play for other acts. It was good experience. They don’t do that anymore. Most of the young guys get a set of drums and go right to rock and roll without any other kind of bottom. After a while, they get to where they want to do something else. They want to extend their own horizons.
RM: Who were some of the other people you worked with in New York?
JC: After working with Bostic and Washington, I went with Cannonball for a while, and then Dizzy Gillespie. I also worked with Stan Getz a little bit. In New York you work with all kinds of people like that, because that’s who’s in town. Those are the local people. After Stan, I went with Miles for about 5 years. After that, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and I had a trio for about 5 or 6 years. And since 1970, I’ve been working with Sarah.
RM: When you recorded the Kind of Blue album with Miles, did you realize that it would someday be considered a classic?
JC: No — it just sounded good. It was beautiful to me. And it just seemed to get better as it got older.
RM: Some musicians who have worked with Miles tell stories about how he changed their playing. Did he affect your style in any way?
JC: Miles could tell me the things he wanted from the drums but I didn’t let him tell me how to play them.
RM: Did Paul Chambers, Kelly and yourself quit Miles together to start the Wynton Kelly Trio?
JC: No, they left first and I went on. They stopped in the middle of a tour because of a misunderstanding they had. They just quit. I finished the tour, worked a couple of months longer than they did before we got into the trio thing. Ron Carter was the bass player when I finished playing with Miles.
RM: How did Wes Montgomery come to play with the Wyn Kelly Trio?
JC: We ran into Wes. At the time, he was doing some single stuff, and wanted to work with our rhythm section. He used to listen to us play all the time before he left Indianapolis. He was hesitant about leaving Indianapolis because I think he was afraid to come on the road, or he just didn’t want to come. But, he liked our thing and used us on some tours and records. It was enjoyable.
RM: How do you like working with Sarah Vaughan?
JC: Since joining Sarah, I’ve been around the world. I remember one year we went to four continents. It’s an education just to be on this job, because we do a lot of things. We do trio, and big-band. We do symphony jobs. It’s educational.
RM: I was going to ask you how you could do the same job for 9 years without it getting stale, but I think you’ve already answered my question.
JC: It keeps changing. If it were to get stale, I could do something in between. We’re not on the road that much where I couldn’t go home and take a little gig for a few days in between. But I don’t do that because I’m married. My wife works in the day time and if I took a gig at night, we’d never see each other.
RM: I came across a record you played on called Son of a Drum Suite.
JC: They used to do that for different drummers. The one I did was with Don Lamond, Mel Lewis, Charlie Persip and Louis Hayes. It was an experience.
RM: Do you like working with other drummers?
JC: I haven’t really done it that much. I did a couple of clinics for the Gretsch Drum Company. The first one was with Elvin Jones and the drummer from Boston, Alan Dawson. The next one was Art Blakey, Dawson and myself. I don’t do much of that. I’ve been asked to teach but I don’t really have the patience. I don’t think I’ve got the academic background. I’ve shied away from teaching, although there’s probably something I could teach somebody.
RM: Do you think that time can be taught?
JC: No. It’s like being able to swing. You can either do it or you can’t.
RM: Is there any way a person can improve his sense of time at all?
JC: I t h i n k the best way to improve your time, is to play with musicians that have good time. Getting the feeling for how its supposed to be and working on it will improve time. But things will distract you from playing time. If you don’t have your mind on it, or just a natural feeling for it, certain things will distract you. You have to find out what those things are and work on them. By making a tape with somebody you can find out, ‘Well, I played something here and I can feel myself getting faster,’ and work on it like that. But it’s hard to explain. You’ve got to listen to guys that play good time and get a feeling for how it’s done. Then you can hear it and go home and practice it. You can hear that feeling.
RM: You use a basic Gretsch 4-piece drum set. Have you ever used a larger set?
JC: You mean a lot of drums? No. I wouldn’t know what to do with them.
RM: I believe Buddy Rich once said that the time to add more drums was when he had accomplished everything possible with his basic set.
JC: That’s right. That’s when you add them.
RM: Do you use K. Zildjian cymbals?
JC: Yes. I’ve got a 16″, 18″ and 22″. I don’t ever ride on the 22″. I just play colors and things with it. It’s got a good sound. It sounds like the one Art Blakey has. It’s got a good, full sound to it. That’s why I use it. I don’t really need big cymbals unless we play with big bands. When I play Butch’s drums or Buddy’s drums, I can see why they need cymbals like that because they shout over the whole band. What I’ve got is proper for trio or little be-bop gigs.
RM: Do you add any equipment for different gigs?
JC: The only thing I do is set up and augment my kit with equipment from whoever we’re going to play with. If I’m allowed. Usually Buddy doesn’t want anyone to move any of his equipment. In fact, he’s got the snare drum taped to the side of the little tom-tom. It’s at an angle and no one should touch it.
RM: Do you still practice?
JC: Yes. I’ve got some drums set up at home that I practice on. I’ve been interested in trying to practice some double bass drum things. I don’t intend to play double bass drum, but I would like to practice them to build my technique. It’s just something I’ve always wanted to do. I want to get it out of my system.
RM: Who do you like to listen to now?
JC: I like Tony Williams and Lenny White. I like the way Butch plays. I like the way Dawson teaches. There are many drummers I admire.
RM: Do you hear young players doing things you don’t like?
JC: With the evolution of anything, the older guys have a tendency to stay with whatever was popular when they came up. Unless he has a young mind, and can go with whatever comes up. That’s what I like about Miles. He can go with the times. But
I’ve heard things that I wouldn’t want to play. I wouldn’t enjoy playing four on the hi-hat all of the time. I think I would like to do it sometimes, not as a basic.
RM: Sarah Vaughan does a lot of concerts with symphony orchestras. With all of those musicians, is there ever a problem holding it together?
JC: Yes. When that happens, our rhythm section has to tighten up. They just have to go with us.
RM: Symphony players sometimes play with their eyes rather than with their ears. In other words, they watch their music and they watch the conductor, but they forget to listen. Have you ever encountered that situation?
JC: Yes, that’s what happens with most of them. That’s when we really have to tighten up. The conductors have to take downbeats from Carl because if they don’t they’re going to run off with it. Sarah sings very slow, and at a certain point, she might get slower. If a conductor is not hip to that, he’ll just conduct it faster each time. The conductor has to watch Carl because he is on top of it. Some guys can’t really get that. If they’re used to conducting fast, they really can’t slow the pace down that much. We’d have to work with the same symphony all the time for them to know the tempos of all the songs we do. So we have to keep it where we know it should be. There’s also a thing about hearing. If the drum set is in the front of the stage and the orchestra is behind the drum set, the sound is gone. By the time they get it, it’s late. So I can understand what they’re talking about. I don’t play a heavy bass drum, like Buddy does. I’m used to small band playing. Nobody wants to hear a lot of bass drum in that. Many times they can’t hear the beat, or they get it late. So if there’s not a monitor on stage, they have trouble. Sometimes they want to stomp the bass drum.
RM: What is it like for someone who wants to go to New York to play jazz?
JC: It depends on the talent of the individual. In the first place, you have to be there 6 months before you can get your union card. The first 3 months, you can’t work at all. The delegate comes by your house and checks it out to make sure you’re still in town. Then the next 3 months, unless they’ve changed it since I joined, you could work 2 nights a week, but you couldn’t take a whole week. In the interim, you need a lot of money, or somebody to take care of you. If you have a relative there who can wait it out with you, it isn’t bad. After receiving your card, you might get some gigs. It’s not as easy as some people think. One of the hardest places in the world to try to play is New York.
RM: Even those who get gigs experience a lot of frustration, don’t they?
JC: Yes. That’s always been. Many drummers play good but they tire of a gig. It’s just not challenging. Once they learn the music, that’s it. They get tired and say, ‘There must be something better.’ Some musicians don’t get what they want and so they teach, if they’re qualified.
RM: What are the jazz clubs like?
JC: Even the best places are not that glamorous. They sound like it, but they’re not. For instance, the (Village) Vanguard is a little joint downstairs. It’s been there a long time. It’s not that large. It holds about 275 people. Birdland wasn’t that glamorous. It was just another walk-down spot. In fact, most of the jazz joints are bars where they added music. They weren’t set up for music in the first place. There used to be a place in New York called Slugs. It was just a neighborhood bar that they made into a place where some cats could come and play. Most of the places are like that.
RM: What advice would you give an aspiring jazz drummer?
JC: The only thing I can tell them to do is learn all they can. To make it in this business they have to get it down as good as possible. I f it’s possible, have something else on the side you can do. Something that would take care of you if music doesn’t work.