Jimmy Cobb 1929-2020
Jimmy Cobb swung. That’s what he did, with a poise and a grace inherited from Kenny Clarke. He died from lung cancer in New York City on Sunday, aged 91, the last survivor of the seven musicians who played on Kind of Blue. The cymbal splash — however inadvertently and uncharacteristically heavy — that launched Miles Davis into his solo on “So What” seemed to open not only the album but a whole new world of feeling.
Drummers are praised for having “good time”, meaning they keep the beat steady. Of course Cobb had good time. Like his unshowy finesse, it was a quality that served him well throughout a long career. Great singers (including Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan) and soloists loved him for it. But Cobb was also a drummer who knew that time wasn’t a static thing, tied to a metronome.
I first noticed that when listening to the old bootlegs of the Davis quintet’s tour of Europe in the spring of 1960, and particularly on various renderings of “So What”, which habitually stretched from the 9min 25sec of the previous year’s studio version to around a quarter of an hour. You couldn’t miss how the tune had been speeded up. In the studio, on March 2, 1959, it had been taken at a relaxed 35 bars per minute. By the time they played it for a TV show that April, with Wynton Kelly at the piano in place of Bill Evans, it had accelerated slightly to 38.
A year later, on concert stages across Europe, they were kicking off the tune around 20 bars per minute faster than the original. More important than that, however, it was ending up even faster. At the first show in Paris on March 21, over the course of 13 minutes, it went from a brisk 56 to 65 bars per minute. At both concerts in Stockholm the following night it went from 60 to 68.
Does this mean that Cobb wasn’t doing his job? Of course it doesn’t. He and the other four — Davis, John Coltrane, Wynton Kelly and Paul Chambers — were doing what they needed to do. Doing what the music required. Doing what it took, in that moment, to swing. RIP, Mr Cobb.
* The photograph of Jimmy Cobb was taken by Ted Williams, whose work was collected in Jazz: The Iconic Images of Ted Williams, published by ACC Editions in 2016. The European concerts are on Miles Davis & John Coltrane: The Final Tour, released in 2018. Kind of Blue is in your collection.
Jimmy Cobb, as you quite rightly point out, recognised that ‘time’ was not strictly metronomic: it needed to push or pull and live with the music. He was particularly pleased, I remember read at the time, with the issue of the complete At The Blackhawk recordings as the original release, spliced together from different takes, reflected badly on his musicality.
Of course the later, live, post-Cobb iterations of So What – the ones with Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock, et al – began to run the velocities past the red lights. For some fast Cobb, listen to his fours on the storied Limehouse Blues track with Cannonball and Coltrane.
Extraordinarily, I had spent the week listening to the 1960 5tet tour recordings over and over in the days that preceded Jimmy’s death. As if some part of me knew. Those concert recordings are amazing, as everyone is playing so damn well, and Coltrane is out there every night, leading the others on, I am guessing. There are even tims when Wynton Kelly does some werid shit, as you know..And Jimmy, as you say, so unshowy and yet so absolutely right. There goes a whole era that we came to age with…
Cobb wasn’t the first to as we on the performer / composer side of things call it … bend time … but he certainly was one of the best .. as well as the one who truly brought the technique into the public eye popularizing it in the process .
R.I.P Jimmy … a great musician and a gentleman to boot
Sorry to hear about Jimmy Cobb passing away. I was just about to include his famous cymbal crash heralding Miles’ solo on ‘So What’ in my Top 20 great drum breaks and fills, destined for my website. Quite dismaying to realise he was 91 – I still vaguely thought of him as one of the ‘new guys’. Thanks for a fine tribute.
I guess this is the ultimate kinda Blue Moment….
Very apposite Mr Welch Best comment of the year to date ?