Jimmy Cobb has always been in the right place at the right time. As a drummer in the 1950s who could drive big bands, invigorate quintets and sextets, and stir up trios, Jimmy's reputation for being a consummate jazz musician was established early. His concentration and easy-going nature won the respect of leading artists of the period.
Making luck came easily to Jimmy. His work with Earl Bostic in 1951 led to years with Dinah Washington, which in turn led to a close working relationship with Cannonball Adderley. Then in 1958, good fortune struck again as Cannonball joined Miles Davis and recommended Jimmy as a backup for an increasingly absent Philly Joe Jones. [Photo of Miles Davis by Robert W. Kelley for Life]
In Part 2 of my four-part interview with the legendary drummer, Jimmy talks about Miles Davis—the musician and the man—Bill Evans, and the recording of Kind of Blue:
JazzWax: How did you join Miles Davis in 1958?
Jimmy Cobb: I came to Miles through Cannonball [pictured]. Philly Joe [Jones] had first played drums with Miles in 1953 and was a member of his groups since 1955. But by 1958 Philly was recording on many different musicians' records. He was so established that he was getting ready to leave Miles and start his own thing.
JW: How did Jones' career plans affect his role as Miles Davis' drummer?
JC: He was starting to come late to Miles' jobs. Cannon was especially worried because he needed the job. He was living in Nat’s apartment in New York and couldn’t stand not to have a gig, you know? When Cannon saw that Philly [pictured] wasn’t showing up, he wasn't sure if Miles was going to keep the thing going.
JW: What did Adderley do?
J C: He told Miles, “I know this guy who can swing and read, and he can come and sit on the side, and if [Philly] Joe don’t show, he can play.” That was me. Miles agreed, and when Joe didn’t show one night, I played. Soon after the same thing happened at a record date, I think it was the On Green Dolphin Street session, and Miles dug what I did on there.
JW: Why wasn’t Jones showing up?
JC: I don’t know. He had some problems that he had to take care of, and sometimes those problems took longer than others.
JW: How did you know Davis dug what you were doing?
JC: If Miles didn’t like what he heard he’d let you know quick. One time when I was hanging around, before I joined the group, [Philly] Joe didn’t show up at a club matinee down in Philadelphia. Miles announced, “Anybody got some drums?” Some kid standing against the wall jumped forward and said, “Yeah Miles, I got some drums out in the car.” Miles said, “Great, go get them.” The kid went and got his drums and set them up and sat down and played.
JW: How did the gig turn out?
JC: He played as good as he could. When he got off, he went up to Miles and asked, “How'd I do?” Miles looked at him and said, “Go tell Paul [Chambers] you’re sorry.” [laughs] Now that was cold. Miles would let you know how you did in his way.
JW: Did Davis ever do stuff like that to you?
JC: No. One time he said something to me, and I said, “Man, let me play the drums.” He said, “Alright.” After that, me and him were like tight. I used to drive him to the gym and take pictures of him shadow boxing and all that stuff. If you see pictures of him at the gym, I probably took them. Another time, he said, “I sure wish I could swing like Wynton [Kelly].” I looked at him and said, “I sure wish you could, too, Miles.” [laughing]
JW: How did Davis react?
JC: He gave me a look, but we were pretty good friends. He knew I was always there when we played. That was Miles' thing. He was always watching to see what you were going to bring.
JW: Your first recordings with Davis were in late May 1958, the On Green Dolphin Street session.
JC: Yeah, man, I liked that song. I like the way it starts. I like the way Bill set that up. Miles decided to do it that way, to build up the anticipation, the tension.
JW: Then Porgy & Bess was recorded that summer.
JC: That session scared me, man. I was looking at 25 musicians when I walked in, and I said to myself, “What am I going to do now?” Fortunately Gil Evans had music there and the charts weren't that tough.
JW: Kind of Blue was recorded over two dates in the spring of 1959. In retrospect, was it as great a recording as many people think?
JC: I think so. It is what it is. People still love it because it is great. The hype is there because it’s real.
JW: Was the So What riff lifted from Oscar Pettiford’s Bohemia After Dark?
JC: I don’t know anything about that. But who knows? Funny things used to happen in the studio. We’d be in a recording session, and the engineer would say, “What song was that, Miles?” Miles would tell him, and the guy would write it down and credit Miles. A bunch of songs were attributed to Miles that way—like Four and Tune Up. Both were really by Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson [pictured]. I heard Cleanhead one time asked Miles for some money for those records. Cleanhead really deserves more credit. He was a good blues singer and a good player.
JW: What was it like to play behind Bill Evans on Kind of Blue?
JC: Sweet. Bill was a good piano player. On All Blues, he kept that tremolo going through the whole thing, and it made the record. I said to myself, “Wow, that guy is holding that tremolo in his left hand the whole time.” We didn’t talk much. Bill was a quiet kind of guy. [Photo of Miles Davis and Bill Evans: Don Hunstein]
JW: How did Davis treat Evans?
JC: They were cool. But Miles had his way of dealing with everyone in a funny way. I remember the group was riding in a car to a gig someplace in Ohio. Miles was talking, and Bill went to say something. Miles said, “Hold it, hold it man. We don’t want no white opinions.” Everyone kind of got quiet. Bill didn’t say anything, but his expression said “Whoa.”
JW: Where was Davis coming from?
JC: No place. He respected everyone who played with him. But he also was fast to get in close and say something like that. Most people didn’t get that difference with Miles. It wasn't a racial thing. But Bill didn’t know Miles was fooling with him at the time. It was like Dinah Washington's thing about getting her a bucket of steam. Miles was a funny little guy. He was always busting in your face to see what your reaction would be. [Photo: Don Hunstein]
JW: And Davis was fast with those lines.
JC: That's right. On one of the Kind of Blue recording sessions I was playing circles with brushes on the snare drum during a sound check. I had a brand new head on the snare, so the wire brushes sounded louder, hissier than if the head were older and more broken in. The engineer on the date came in over the monitor speaker and said, “Hey I’m getting white noise on the drums.” Miles said without missing a beat, “No, don’t worry about it, that’s part of it.” [laughing] Miles loved to throw people off. He thrived on the stuff he stirred up.
JW: Davis had his own way of saying things, didn’t he? You either got the subtext or you didn't.
JC: Oh yes. One time Miles was stranded in Detroit. This is before I even got to know him. Someone interviewing him asked him, “Miles I heard one time in Detroit you was pimping.” Miles said, “Pimping? No, no I wasn’t pimping. Some girls who liked me wanted to take me out. The girls used to come by and see me and give me money, like $100, every day.” [laughing] He had the whole definition of pimping down except for the term itself. And he twisted it all around so the girls were somehow doing him a favor.
JW: What do most people not know about Kind of Blue?
JC: Probably the power of it. It was a strong thing. Also, that Bill Evans had a bigger hand in writing many of those songs than most people realize. The feeling was very close to the way Bill played piano. Bill kind of got Miles into that groove. Years later, when Miles got Wayne Shorter, he got into Wayne’s groove, too. Miles would develop whatever he heard that felt good to him. [Photo: Robert Pelillo]
Tomorrow, Jimmy talks about what he said to Wynton Kelly when the pianist turned up at the Kind of Blue session only to find Bill Evans there, what Miles Davis said to keep Sonny Stitt from playing tenor on tour in 1960, why Jimmy didn't travel to Chicago with John Coltrane in 1961, what made pianist Bobby Timmons special, and why Coltrane and Hank Mobley are both on Davis' Someday My Prince Will Come.
JazzWax tracks: On Green Dolphin Street, Fran-Dance and Stella by Starlight (1958) originally were released on Jazz Track. But because the LP also featured Davis' original music for the movie Elevator to the Gallows, most fans passed on Jazz Track since they already had the Gallows soundtrack or had heard it. For years, the three gems languished, turning up from time to time on a French label. Then in 1974, Columbia released them on Basic Miles. Love for Sale was finally released in 1979 on Circle in the Round, a compilation.
In the CD age, the tracks first appeared in 1991 on the poorly mastered Miles Davis '58 Sessions. In 2000 they were remastered and released on The Complete Columbia Recordings: Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Most recently, they were issued as part of the elaborate 50th Anniversary: Kind of Blue box set. You can download the remastered versions at iTunes or Amazon.
On Green Dolphin Street, to me, is one of the sextet's finest and most graceful recordings. In this clip, Jimmy Cobb joins John Coltrane, Paul Chambers and Wynton Kelly on a 1960 John Coltrane Quartet performance of the song from Dusseldorf, German. The audio and video are a little out of sync, but dig the sound and ideas...