In conversation with jimmy cobb (part two)
by Ralph A. Miriello
Your celebrated time with Miles Davis reportedly came as a result of his dissatisfaction with the antics of his former drummer Philly Joe Jones as well as his piano player Red Garland. How difficult was it for you to fill the formidable shoes of such a drumming icon?
Well basically it was kind of terrifying, but [Philly] and I …and Art Taylor were all good friends. Drummers are usually pretty good friends. We don’t have any animosities, so it seems, or at least we didn’t. . . . When Arthur Taylor had the gig I used to go hear him play with Miles, that was in between [stints with Philly] Joe. Then when Joe was there, I used to hear Joe play; and then when Julian Cannonball got in the band, I had been in a band with him before. He knew I played, in fact we had a band -- it was him and his brother [Nat Adderley] and Junior Mance, Sam Jones and myself. We made a CD a few years back called Sharp Shooters. It turned out to be a pretty good record. So he knew about me, and when he went with Miles, and Joe wasn’t showing up a lot, he told me to come and hang out with them. “If Joe don’t show up you’ll be there and play.” So that is what happened.
Why do you think that heroin played such a prominent role in the lives of so many jazz musicians and how did you manage to stay unscathed?
Jimmy Cobb and Dinah Washington
Well, I’ll tell you, the reason. . . . Charlie Parker had an ailment actually that he needed treated by some kind of medication, so I think the medication he was taking morphine or something, cost a lot of money which he didn’t have. If he had a thing where he needed to treat this thing once or twice a day he couldn’t afford it, so like he found that heroin would do the same thing cheaper, so that is probably what got him hooked. The guys looking at him doing that figured that was what made him play as good as he did.
You know it is just simple-minded stuff, but they just started doing it just to be hip or whatever. They don’t know that that stuff hooks you … where you can’t get away from it. So I think that is basically what that happened to a lot of guys, you know they did it because it was like a fad.
Going back to Charlie Rouse, he had a band in Washington, where he had a friend that he went to school with [who] had a bar on the main street in the ghetto in Washington. So when Rouse came back to town, his [friend] said “why don’t you come, I have got this place and it has a place upstairs and there isn’t anybody in it, there is nothing going on. Why don’t you get a band together and play up there.” So that is what happened. We had a quintet that we could play anything we wanted to play six nights a week and stay there as long as we wanted to stay there as long as we were making money. We did that and from there I learned all the be-bop tunes from Rouse that he [had] learned from Charlie Parker…Bud Powell and all them guys. That was a real fruitful time. This was 1948, 1949. On the weekend we use to have entertainment. And the entertainment would be like Redd Foxx. So we were having fun.
But getting back to why I never did that [heroin], our piano player was a young guy from Kansas City, you know all them guys honored…they loved Bird. They probably fell into the same trap. This guy was my age and he was into that. So one day he says “hey Jimmy will you do something for me.” So he went into a room and he started to go through his procedure, and when I saw it, I made up my mind that would never, never be me. So that is what stopped me cold. Over the years guys would try to trap or talk you into it because they needed some help to get their habit going.
In a recent interview that I did with saxophonist Javon Jackson, with whom you did the recording entitled New York Time, we were discussing musicians having fun making music. I wondered whether it was fun to make such a serious record as Kind of Blue and he questioned what made Kind of Blue or for that matter any great record ‘serious’? He suggested that for you, the musicians, it probably wasn’t necessarily serious at all and perhaps even fun. He suggested I ask this question. Was this session a serious matter and was it fun to record?
It was always fun to record with them guys because, you know, look who you got man. Look who you got -- how are you going to make a bad record with them guys? I’m just worried about how I am going hold up with them. I wasn’t worried about them because all of them I knew they were killers, all of them. Then another thing, getting back to Joe [Philly Joe Jones] the music had changed, so I didn’t really have to do what Joe was doing so I could do what I was doing and it fit with what was going on. That is another thing about being at the right place at the right time. I was there when the music made a little curve.
[The session] wasn’t as serious to me as Porgy and Bess … with all them pieces. You know with Gil [Evans] with that twenty-piece band …. That’s serious! This was a like a sextet...in the genre where we usually played [in]. I just think we went in there and made a good record. Guys always ask me, man: “Did you know when you were making that record it was going to be that big?”… I said no. No, none of us knew. If Miles knew, he would have asked for twelve Ferraris.
How long did you stay with Miles and what was the most lasting impression you have taken away from your experience with him?
I had a lot of fun with Miles. We used to hang out for one period. I used to take him to the gym or take him around when he needed some transportation. I went with him [to the gym] because he wanted to be a boxer. I used to take him up to 138th street and Broadway, Wiley’s Gym, and he would go through his little thing and I would take pictures of him doing it. A little after that he hired a trainer and use to take him on the road with him so I think he got to know about the fundamentals.
I’ve seen a lot of things with that boxing thing. When I lived down in Washington we lived on 122nd Street and 7th avenue, and I just walked myself there to the Theresa Hotel which is about three blocks [away] and checked in there. At that time [Sugar] Ray Robinson had the whole block between 133rd and 134th street … He had the whole block. I used to see him and his entourage every day. I was there when [Fidel] Castro moved into the Theresa Hotel, because they wouldn’t let him in any of the downtown hotels. [He and his group were] cooking chickens in the room, walking around in fatigues with one hundred dollar bills hanging out of their pockets, smoking those Cuban cigars.
What is the most lasting thing you took away from playing with Miles?
I just liked being in the best jazz band in the world at the time. He was a funny little guy to be around. Yeah Miles was a funny little guy.
In that famous quintet you also had the dual saxophones of Julian “Cannonball” Adderley and the exploring John Coltrane. Did you find the dynamic between the two a competition spurred on by Miles as has been reported?
Yeah he used to do that with everybody. He had Coltrane and Sonny Rollins once in the band. So he used to love to do that. He would just like to play the [opening] and then sit down and watch them play. See what was going to go on, he enjoyed that.
We all know now where Coltrane took his music after Miles. What did you think about his direction at the time?
I didn’t know what it was like. Most people didn’t. But I knew he was after something, and he was going to get it. … He would play a full twenty-minute solo on the stand and then come down and go and stand in the corner and practice during the intermission. So he was after something and he wasn’t going to stop till he got it. Then the last trip he made with us overseas on the bus he used to sit behind me and practice Ornette Coleman figures with the soprano. So he was practicing all the time. He was working on it, he was [wood-]shedding; he had an idea and he was trying to bring it through.
In an interview I did with the pianist Steve Kuhn, who had played with Coltrane for a short while, he said that he came to realize that Coltrane just wanted a carpet laid behind him. He eventually found that in McCoy Tyner. What do you expect he was looking for in a drummer and why?
Elvin [Jones]. I don’t think nobody else could have done it but Elvin. . . . [Coltrane] called me one time when Elvin couldn’t make it, and asked me to go to Chicago with him. He had like two or three weeks in Chicago, but it was dead winter time and I had to refuse him. When I sit down to play after the first tune I’m whipped cause that’s the intensity that I put [in], the energy that I put [into the music]. I told him, you know how I am, I get whipped from the start and we are going to play all night and I’m going to be in Chicago where people would have to hold onto to ropes to cross the [snow-filled] streets. I don’t want to be out there and get pneumonia, ‘cause I know that is what’s going to happen to me so that is the only reason I am not going to do it.
He said, “Oh, man Okay.” He said “… well who do you recommend?” I said well what about Joe [Philly Joe Jones], but he had enough with Joe, so he wound up getting Roy Haynes.
There are three guys you, Roy Haynes and Elvin that are muscular drummers with a lot of stamina.
Some guys use more finesse …but you see you have to [be strong]. You can’t be timid with John. You would have to be strong enough to do that [play behind John’s extended twenty or thirty minute solos].
I have read two accounts of the making of the album Kind of Blue and you were quoted in both of them. Do you think this album is as important to the music as all the accolades would indicate, and if so why?
I am sure that it is. Because it came at a time where the music took a turn where the guys kind of stop playing [the old format] and started to play in a new way.
How long were you with Miles?
From the end of 1957 till 1963 I think.
This album would never have been quite so impressive if your playing hadn’t been so perfectly filled with nuance and understatement. Was this your improvisational approach to the session or were you directed like this by Miles?
Nah. It is just the way I play. It’s the way we played together…there wasn’t a whole lot of direction given. I got into the band…he called me one night and said Joe’s not going to be here anymore I want you to come in the band. I said …”okay where are we working ?” He said “…actually we’re working tonight.” I said “Where?” He said “Boston.”
Now I’m in New York, he was probably already in Boston. I said “… What time?” He said “Nine. o’clock.” It was already six o’clock. So I said, “how am I going to get to Boston and be there by nine o’clock?”. He said, “you want the gig don’t you?” I said, “Yeah, okay man.” So I got to hustling, at that time they had the shuttle to Boston and Washington from New York, it took about fifty-five minutes. You could just get on the plane and give them twelve dollars, that was the fare, you would pay them like on a bus. So I got the drums together and went to LaGuardia airport. By the time I got there [to Boston] they were playing. They were playing like “‘Round Midnight” without the drums. So I started to set up the drums and [by the time] they were in the interlude (Jimmy hums a few notes of that famous part for emphasis)… I hit that with them and I was in the band. No rehearsal, no nothing.
No trepidation on your part either?
No. This was just from me sitting around waiting for Joe not to show up.
Besides you, the other unsung hero of this date was your rhythmic partner Paul Chambers. In some of the notes to the recording session, as documented in Ashley Kahn’s book Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece, it seems that Miles was sometimes chiding the young bass player to get the beat right, and Chambers seems to be somewhat apologetic. Was Chambers challenged by this modal work?
No. Paul was a great bass player. He could play any kind of way and sound good. So I don’t think he was challenged by it. He probably would want to play . . . like they had played before, because it was more challenging, more notes. Instead of three chords and some scales and stuff like that. He would probably want… to play fast. But he didn’t have a problem with [what Miles was doing.]
According to a quote in the Eric Nisenson book, The Making of Kind of Blue, attributed to Teo Macero, the producer of the session, he recalls that Gil Evans was actually in the studio during the recording of Kind of Blue, and believes he was the author of the haunting introduction by Bill Evans and Paul Chambers to “So What.” Can you lend some light on this subject?
He wrote that. He was there. They did that [intro] on an album we did with [Gil previously].
Despite the racism throughout the country during much of your time, I was always of the impression that jazz was the one safe haven where color didn’t matter so much as talent. It was reported that Miles, despite his appreciation for Evan’s abilities, used to keep Bill Evans on his guard all the time with taunts about his being too white. Was this the way Miles got the most out of his players, black or white?
That was the way he used to fool with people. He just used to like to do that. I’ve said this many times before. When we would be riding somewhere to a gig in a car and the guys would all be talking, and Bill would try to interject something, Miles would stop and turn to him and say, wait a minute we don’t want no white opinions on this. [Jimmy laughs.] Bill didn’t know how to take that. So then after a while he would catch on that he was bullshitting him. Then he told him some other stuff…he [once] said to Bill when a new guy comes into the band he has to make love to everybody [laughs]. Bill said, “I don’t think so.”
With the times being what they were, was it really that difficult for a white player like Evans, despite his talent, to play in black clubs and conversely did you find it difficult to get work in the predominantly white bands or the so called white clubs?
Bill could play. That is what interested Miles. Yeah it was [difficult]…I remember in Philadelphia, when Bill first got in the band. Philadelphia is where Red Garland was from, so they look on the bandstand and see [Evans]. . . . Wait a minute, something’s wrong with this picture. I am sure he felt something, and it happened at a few places we went to. [It happened] to me some, cause I think people would think they could do it as good as anyone else, and they wondered how I got there. But I never heard that. It never bothered me.
Do you feel that we as a people have finally become color blind now for the most part?
Maybe a little better. But it still happens.
For part three of this interview, click here.
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.