There's a moment on Miles Davis' Stella by Starlight in 1958 that crystallizes drummer Jimmy Cobb's brilliance. It happens in a flash as Davis holds the final note of his trumpet solo and John Coltrane comes in on tenor saxophone. Typically, drummers don't get a chance to make that much of a difference on jazz recordings, save for keeping time and egging on soloists. But in this case, Jimmy's seamless change from wispy brushes behind Miles to solid wood rim shots to support Coltrane completely changes the mood and energy level of the standard. What had been up until that moment a sound akin to tiptoeing on hot gravel instantly felt like a breakaway gallop. Once Coltrane wrapped, Jimmy once again swapped sticks for brushes behind Bill Evans' solo.
These tasteful shifts perfectly define Jimmy Cobb's combination of sensitivity and power. No matter the recording, Jimmy's drumming always expresses a restrained tension that never fails to move the needle on the listener's anxiety level. Jimmy's ability to accompany artists by building a smoldering intensity with brushes and sticks—without stealing their thunder—is one of the many reasons why he has always been in demand as a session player with the greatest names in jazz.
In Part 1 of my four-part interview with the legendary drummer and remaining member of the Kind of Blue recording session, Jimmy talks about his early years, his personal and professional relationship with Dinah Washington, and meeting and playing with Cannonball Adderley:
JazzWax: Your first recording was in 1951, on Earl Bostic's Flamingo, a massive hit.
Jimmy Cobb: Yeah, it sold a lot of records. A lot of those Earl Bostic [pictured] songs had the same general beat because Bostic had a thing he had to do to make money. He was a great saxophone player. He could play some notes on the horn that weren’t there. A whole octave above what the instrument was supposed to do. When [John] Coltrane came into his band, he learned a lot from Bostic. Like playing three notes at once and notes above what the horn could do. Bostic could make his alto sound like a tenor.
JW: Flamingo is a pretty famous recording.
JC: I went to Russia once with trumpeter Valery Ponomarev. The man who ran the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory was an alto player and wasn't fully aware of my background. He said to me, “I just found a recording of Earl Bostic’s. It’s called Flamingo. Do you know it?" [laughing] "Flamingo?" I said. “Hmmm, I'm not sure. Take a look at the clientele on there and tell me who's playing.” When the guy saw I was the drummer, he was floored.
JW: Was playing behind Bostic hard? There's a lot of beat there.
JC: The drummer who was with Bostic before me [Shep Shepherd] was from the old school. He had a big foot, like Buddy Rich. He was a good drummer. When I got there, I was leaning over into bebop, but Bostic wouldn't let me play those figures. Because that wasn’t what he wanted.
JW: Nearly everything Bostic recorded had that stripper beat. Had you played burlesque?
JC: That’s funny you should ask. Yes, I played burlesque shows around Washington, D.C., when I was a kid. You had to be able to play everything back then. Everybody who played drums had to play all those different kind of ways. For Bostic, it was mostly backbeats and shuffles. But you had to get power in there and sustain it for 10 to 20 minutes, which wasn't easy.
JW: So are you sick of hearing Flamingo?
JC: [laughing] No, not really. I haven't heard it in some time.
JW: After Bostic, you were with Dinah Washington starting in late 1951. How was she able to memorize so many offbeat blues songs?
JC: That’s what people did back then. They memorized everything. You had to. Dinah was raised in the Baptist church and could play the piano. So the blues was second nature to her. She could read lyrics and music. She was a good musician.
JW: Was she tough in the recording studio?
JC: Not too bad. She was pretty regular and decent. I don’t remember her going crazy.
JW: You were with Washington from 1951 to 1955. Did she like you?
JC: Actually we were going together, which made our musical relationship a little tighter. Sometimes she was tough. She liked to start things. We had a girl working for the band named Rose. One day we were in the [orchestra] pit of the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Dinah asked Rose to go downstairs to find a bucket of steam. Well Rose didn’t know what that meant and was too afraid to ask. So she went downstairs and tried to find a bucket of steam. [Pictured: Dinah Washington and Jimmy Cobb]
JW: What is a bucket of steam?
JC: It ain't nothing. [laughing] Poor Rose would go around telling people, "Dinah's looking for a bucket of steam," and they’d laugh at her.
JW: Did Washington go through a lot of people?
JC: Oh yes. She had a cruel streak like that. Probably because she was brought up around Gladys Hampton [pictured], Lionel’s wife and the person who ran Hamp's business side. Gladys used to buy Dinah nice things to wear on stage but at the end of the week she’d take it out of her pay. Most of the time it was stuff Dinah couldn’t afford. So Dinah would do the same thing to the girls who worked for her. They couldn’t afford what she was buying for them and they never would have bought those things for themselves.
JW: Did you love Dinah?
JC: Yes I did. I had feelings for her.
JW: How did it end?
JC: It ended kind of funny. Dinah was doing different things, and she thought that it was OK. One time I did the same thing and told her, and she went off. Today they call it seeing other people. Well, I got my things and moved up the street. We were living at 2040 7th Ave. in New York, which was an apartment house where many celebrities lived. Erroll Garner lived there. Dizzy and Lorraine [Gillespie] lived there, too.
JW: What did you learn from Dinah?
JC: Feelings. I was brought up in a Catholic church. I was used to hearing carols and music like that. Dinah was a Baptist. When I heard that Baptist sound, it took me over. I wasn’t used to hearing that. It would make the hairs stand up on my arms and neck, where people are singing and shouting in church. That struck me right away. She taught me to put the passion into what I was doing. [Photo: Grey Villet for Life]
JW: Where did you meet Cannonball Adderley?
JC: I met Cannon when I was with Dinah. I met him when we were on tour in Florida. He was standing outside of the hotel when we were checking in. He was standing there and wanted to talk to me about New York. He was interested in coming up to the city and wanted to hear all the news about what guys like Jackie McLean were doing. Soon after he got a band together of his homeboys from the Ft. Lauderdale area. He also got a manager, John Levy, and brought him to hear his band.
JW: Who was in the group?
JC: Cannon’s brother, Nat, was in the group. So was Junior Mance [pictured] and Sam Jones. John Levy heard the band and said, “The band sounds great but you need a stronger drummer.” I can’t remember who Cannon had at the time, but he asked me to replace him. We had a good little band there. I just listened to some of those records and was very impressed.
JW: Did Adderley take the band on the road?
JC: Oh yes. One time we went back to the town in Florida where Cannon started out. Back then, Nat used to sing a lot. They gigged in Ft. Lauderdale, at a place called Porky's. Nat used to get tips for his singing and split them with Cannon. Well, we went back there, and after we played a couple of tunes in the first set, the club’s owner came up to us and said, “When’s the little guy going to sing?” Cannon looked at him and said, “Oh, we don’t do that anymore.” The guy said, “Really? Well, get your shit packed up and get out of here.” [laughing] The guy put it down. He liked Nat’s singing and didn’t know about the bebop stuff.
JW: Did Cannon have his nickname by them?
JC: Yes. His original nickname was Cannibal, because he ate so much. But Cannibal became Cannonball. He was a sweetheart. A smart, intelligent guy who could play.
JW: How did Junior Mance sound?
JC: Junior was a child prodigy. Dinah used to use him sometimes but he was so young that she had to go to his mother and ask permission and promise to take care of him. Junior has always been a good player. He had a thing about the rhythm sometimes back then, but he was a great player.
Tomorrow, Jimmy Cobb talks about replacing Philly Joe Jones in the Miles Davis Sextet, why Miles taunted other musicians, how Jimmy calmed down Wynton Kelly at the Kind of Blue session, and the musician who had the most influence on that towering recording.
JazzWax tracks: Jimmy's work with Dinah Washington can be found on the Mercury and EmArcy labels, from the single Wheel of Fortune (1952) to Accent on Youth (1955). While The Complete Dinah Washington on Mercury series is long out of print on CD, the albums are available as downloads.
Jimmy's sessions with Cannonball Adderley includes Sophisticated Swing, Cannonball Enroute and At Newport (all 1957) and Cannonball's Sharpshooters (1958). In the spring of 1958, Cannonball and Jimmy joined Miles Davis and recorded what I believe are the group's most sensitive tracks: On Green Dolphin Street, Fran-Dance, Stella by Starlight and Love for Sale.
Many of Jimmy's 12 sides with Earl Bostic can be found on an iTunes download called Plays Flamingo. On this clip of Flamingo, dig Jimmy's burlesque beat behind Bostic's roaring alto...