On Sticking a Powerful Jazz Ride Cymbal Pulse

When I was a youngster I came up in an environment where the drummers were playing the big 4 on the bass drum. I never could do that strong enough for what the big bands wanted, because they had sixteen or eighteen guys on the bandstand. I remember working with Dizzy Gillespie’s small band once, and he put his ear down to the bass drum. He wanted to hear a lot of that 4/4 bass drum that I didn’t have. I was playing more coordination. I said, “I don’t really have a lot of 4/4, Dizzy.” So then I started playing the beat heavier on the cymbal. I saw a guy who came through my hometown of Washington, D.C., once, and I liked the way he played the cymbal. So I started to play like that, to put the beat on top. So that’s how that happened.

On What Miles Wanted

Miles Davis never verbalized what he wanted to hear on any of those albums we did together [Porgy and Bess, Jazz at the Plaza, Kind of Blue, Sketches of Spain, Someday My Prince Will Come, In Person Friday and Saturday Nights at the Blackhawk, Miles & Monk at Newport, Miles Davis at Newport 1955-1975: The Bootleg Series Vol. 4]. Occasionally, Miles wanted 2 and 4 on the rim, maybe during a piano solo. He never talked about beat placement or being behind the beat. I played above the beat most of the time anyway. [laughs] Now, the bass player in that band, Paul Chambers, he could play with anybody. If I played faster, he would play so it worked okay. If I played slower too—he could adjust to anything. A really great bass player. But back then everyone used to accuse the drummers of playing ahead of the beat. The time going bad was only the drummer’s fault. But that was not going to be me.

On John Coltrane

Coltrane didn’t give directions either. He might say, “This is straight-ahead,” or a waltz, but nothing about time. I did a handful of great records with him: Standard Coltrane, Stardust, Kenny Burrell and John Coltrane, Bahia, Coltrane Jazz, and “Naima” on Giant Steps.

On Miles and Ahmad and Vernel

Miles may have gotten his time conception from Ahmad Jamal, the great piano player from Chicago, with Vernel Fournier on drums. Miles used to go and hear them play every night when they played a hotel there. That’s also where he got a lot of those tunes for the quartet. The way Vernel played in that trio was wonderful.

On Heroic Drummers

When I started playing I was into Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa—a bunch of big bands and a lot of good drummers in those big bands, you know. In my town they weren’t playing a lot of bebop on the radio. I would have to listen to the standard bands—Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Charlie Barnet, all that.

On Playing at Eighty-Eight

Anything that can happen to old people might happen to me. Sometimes I switch from traditional to matched grip. I can get more strength if I need it with that grip. I will get on the pad and play single- and double-stroke rolls until I feel that I can play the things that I know I can play. I don’t use a metronome.

On Playing the Cymbal Beat “Too Wide” or “Too Closed”

I like a few younger drummers, some I don’t know their names. They call me for lessons at the New School. But there’s Lewis Nash, Kenny Washington—he’s great. He knows the history of everybody. If a drummer has trouble swinging at the school, I tell him he has to work on his cymbal beat, whether it’s too wide or too open. If the cymbal rhythm is too wide or too open I play it with them, explain what I mean to get the right phrasing on the ride cymbal. They might be using their whole arm instead of using their wrists. Sometimes they’re working too hard. If they want to play fast I have them play the hi-hat on 1 and 3, and they can play as fast as they want. Then they can hear what they’re doing wrong.

On Swing as a Direction

I don’t know if you can teach someone to swing. You can point them in that direction. You have to have some feeling for it. And you have to know it when you hear it so you can get with it. At least know where you want to go.

On Being One of the Last Great Drummers of the Bop Era

I don’t know, we still got Roy Haynes! I knew [the great, recently deceased Dizzy Gillespie drummer] Mickey Roker when he first started playing jazz. He said, “Man, I have to do all of that stuff?” “Yeah, man,” I said, “if you want to do it!” He started late. But Mickey could hear it and he could produce it, and that’s it, man.

Jimmy Cobb plays Drum Workshop drums and a mix of Sabian and Zildjian cymbals. He uses Vater sticks and Remo heads.