In conversation with jimmy cobb (part one)
by Ralph A. Miriello
Jimmy Cobb is the last surviving participant on the most celebrated jazz recording of the last half century, Kind of Blue. But a single CD, no matter how illustrious, can barely hint at the legacy of this great artist, who resume includes collaborations with Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Stan Getz, Wes Montgomery, Sarah Vaughan, Clark Terry, Kenny Burrell and many other jazz legends. Cobb’s work with Miles also found him on Sketches of Spain, Porgy and Bess, Someday My Prince Will Come and Live at Carnegie Hall, among others classic dates. Below the drummer, joined by his wife Eleana Tee, sits down with jazz.com’s Ralph Miriello, in the first installment of a comprehensive interview.
You started playing professionally in your hometown of Washington D.C. You played with Earl Bostic, Billie Holiday and others. How did you get your start?
Earl Bostic was after I left D.C. That was the band that I went on the road with, but the rest of those people that you mentioned are true. When I first started to play I played with a few guys that lived there, like Leo Parker, Frank Wess. There was a saxophonist that was around, he was about my age, a little older, his name was Rick Henderson and he was quite a musician. He use to have little bands in the time and I had occasion to work with a pianist…who was with Billie Holiday, his name was Carl Drinkard. I had the opportunity to work with Charlie Rouse who taught me all my bebop.
In D.C. I played in most of the little clubs that were there. I played in a place called the Caverns, later it was called the Bohemian Cavern. It was a place that was downstairs in the basement but on the inside it looked like a cave…. That was the place that they used to bring small shows into town. The lady that was running the club was Cab Calloway’s sister, Blanche Calloway, she wound up being manager for Ruth Brown, so she brought her in to sing and I had the opportunity to play with Ruth Brown when she first came from Virginia.
There was a great piano player, he used to play with Billy Eckstine his name was Johnny Malachi. There was another great saxophone player named Buck Hill who …actually [he] was the guy that I played my first gig that we actually got paid for. I got five dollars! The gig was…in my grandfather’s tobacco barn, which was 38 miles south of Washington, D.C… He had a little spread down there and during the season he would raise tobacco, then cut it and hang it in the barn to dry. On Saturdays they would [get together] and play baseball and then at night they would all bring some food and go in the barn and have a little hoedown, I guess you would call it. That was the first time I played with Buck Hill and a friend I went to school with down there. His name was Ellsworth Gibson, he was a piano player…
Why did you choose to play the drums and who were your major influences?
In the ghetto, you know you walk through the streets, you know you hear all kinds of music. I was fortunate to have had most of the jazz records. I accumulated them because I had a paper route … two or three blocks from my house. There was one woman in particular that knew I liked music and so she used to buy me the latest albums…like Artie Shaw and the Grammercy Five, Harry James, Tommy Dorsey, you know all the big time records…big band records. It was all the big bands at the time. This was in the nineteen forties. She used to lay all the big band things on me.
When I first got interested [in the drums] ….it was Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, Art Blakey. Art Blakey first because I used to sit and listen to Billy Eckstine big band records and Art Blakey was the drummer, so that is why I say… that was a good time for the music. Everyone who got popular in jazz music after that was probably in that band or in Earl Hines’ band. Earl Hines had Billy Eckstine and Sarah Vaughn in his band [at the time] so when Billy started his band he took Sarah, who was a piano player, when Johnny [Malachi] wasn’t doing it.
But the drummers who most influenced you at the time?
It was Max, Buddy Rich there was a lot of guys playing back then Sid Catlett, Cozy Cole, Shadow Wilson. I was listening to everybody. There use to be a lot of music would come through our town. They had variety shows that had different acts and I had an opportunity to see a lot of people. You watch them and you pick up things by seeing how they do things.
You weren’t formally trained musically were you?
I had one teacher who was the youngest percussionist of the National Symphony Orchestra at the time, his name was Jack Dennett we met at the time and I asked him if he would give me snare drum lessons and he said he would so we did that for a while. He lasted for a short while …and the rest I picked up from watching and playing.
What was it like to play behind “Lady Day” and was she in her prime when you played with her?
Yes she was in her prime. She had been through a few things, …In New York at the time you couldn’t get a cabaret card if you had anything with the law so she had been through that cycle, but she was on the other side of that when I played with her. The reason I played with her, speaking of Carl Drinkard, he was her pianist, and he was going to college then and he had this band and we used to do all the gigs we could do so he could subsidize his college [expenses]. So when she came to town he had [our] trio work for her. We worked two weeks in a pretty nice club, it was called Blue Mirror, it was downtown on 14th street in Washington. They used to hire all the big time acts.
How was it working behind somebody as like [as famous as] Billie?
She was great. She sang all the tunes that I knew already, so it wasn’t hard. It was nice. Then I had an opportunity to play with Pearl Bailey who was living in the area at the time. I think I played one gig with her.
You seem to have been in the right place at the right time throughout your prodigious career. Did you consciously position yourself to be around the action in the jazz circle or was it pure fortune?
Fortunately yeah. I used to go where things were happening, you know, I used to like the music so anytime somebody came in town I would go check ‘em out. I met Roy Haynes like that. I used to come and watch him play with Lester Young and then he came with another band that was from Boston, the first time I saw him… Buddy Rich ,Gene Krupa, Louie Bellson I saw them all.
You worked several years with Dinah Washington and one report I read said you were married to the mercurial singer for a time. Is this true? When was this and what is it like to play behind such a popular female jazz vocalists?
Yeah it was an experience. I met Dinah… the first band that I went on the road with was Earl Bostic. He was a very great saxophone player, under rated, the musicians knew about it but you know the general public didn’t know he was as good as he was. He made a few records and he got kind of popular. .. I met him [through] a friend of mine-- Keeter Betts, a bass player from Port Chester, New York. [Keeter] used to come to our city and used to work at a place two or three weeks at a time. So we got to be friends. He went out of town and came back and told me that Earl needed a drummer… so he asked me if I wanted to go on the road with the band. I said of course. We met up right here [in New York] at 125th street and St. Nicholas Avenue -- the first gig I met with them. Getting back to Dinah…they were traveling like [a double bill] Dinah Washington and the Earl Bostic Band that was the package. When Dinah sang she only carried a piano player and the piano player was Wynton Kelly so when she sang Wynton Kelly, Keeter Betts and myself played behind her as her trio.
We [Dinah and I] got to be sociable... I think she just put out in the paper that we were married, it really wasn’t legal, we never went to the legal thing. But that was what it had to be because her mother wasn’t going to let me stay in the house.
So it was like a marriage of convenience?
That’s right. [Jimmy laughs heartily.] Her mother was a strict woman.
Did her commercial success dampen her creative potential?
No, I think what happened to Dinah is that Dinah strained her voice like Frank Sinatra did once. When she went to see the doctor about it he told her to take off like maybe a couple of months… to give her vocal chords a chance to rest and heal. She couldn’t do that because she was in such a monetary crush at the time that she couldn’t stop. So singing through that thing kind of damaged her voice. At the end of her life she wasn’t sounding as good…like when we first met she had a really strong voice. She was piano player….and she came up in the Baptist Church. Her mother kept her in the church a lot so she used to sing and play piano for the church.
[She turned commercial] to make money that’s the same [way] that Earl Bostic had to play the things that he played to make money. He just couldn’t show his dexterity on the horn because people weren’t buying that. They were buying people walking on the bar playing one B flat note honking …
I read somewhere that even John[Coltrane] did that once and someone came in and saw up on the bar and he ran out.
Yeah and he said don’t tell nobody you saw me. But that was the atmosphere at the time. If you didn’t do that the guys wouldn’t hire you.
Can you clear up the controversy about how Ruth Jones got her stage name of Dinah Washington?
I think Lionel Hampton told her she had to change it, either Lionel or Gladys, Lionel’s wife.
You are certainly known as a great accompanist. How did this style of drumming develop especially in light of some of the more flashy drummers of your era?
Well I don’t know. The first job I got was with Earl Bostic and he played, what they called back then, rhythm and blues. I played with Dinah, when she played [and] I had to play a certain way with her, which was mostly with brushes, a little softer thing. I got used to having to do that so it got to be part of my shtick, I guess.
You have performed with some of the most talented jazz vocalists in your era, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Pearl Bailey and Sarah Vaughan to name a few. What do you enjoy most about playing with great vocalists?
It is just a good felling playing with a great vocalist. It helps your playing too because if you know a song and you know the lyrics, you know all of that is a plus instead of just sitting there and not knowing what is going on. If you know the lyrics there might be certain hits you can put in with the words that are coming up. That is always a plus. I like singers anyway. I love the way Dinah sings, I loved the way Sass [Sarah Vaughan] sings. That was goose bumps every night. You know Dinah could shout. She could get into the Baptist thing and make you want to move. I don’t think her mother wanted her to do that [except in church]. Her mother was a strict lady.
Who is your favorite vocalist and did you play behind any famous male singers?
No, it has mostly been with the ladies. In recent years I made a record with Grady Tate. I had a chance to play behind Joe Williams once at a golf tournament once. Lady Day, Dinah, Sarah all of them later I had some gigs with Nancy Wilson. I love them all. I can’t leave Ella out of those, I never played with her but Keeter [Betts] did.
End of part one. Click here for part two
Jimmy Cobb’s web site is www.jimmycobb.com and is part of the JazzCorner community of hundreds of official jazz web sites and more.