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in blue time—JIMMY COBBby Peter Aaron

It’s hard to believe, but at the time he was making what would be known as the all-time definitive jazz record, for Jimmy Cobb the sessions were no more special than any other date. “Well, any record made with Miles was special,” recalls the drummer about recording Kind of Blue with Miles Davis’s legendary late 1950s/early 1960s band. “I didn’t really think about it any more than that. By that time I’d been playing for a while already, so it was just another great session with Miles.”

Today Cobb, 81, is Kind of Blue’s last surviving player. He grew up in Washington, D.C., a long-time hotbed of jazz and other African-American-derived music. “There was a lot of different music in the neighborhood. Bebop was starting, gospel was on the radio,” he says. “I used to go see all of the big bands—Count Basie, Earl Hines, Artie Shaw, Woody Herman, Tommy Dorsey’s band with Frank Sinatra and Buddy Rich.” Cobb’s musical interest was nurtured by a neighbor who bought him records, and he was turned onto drums by a friend who played as a hobby. Further lured by Gene Krupa’s image on a music-store display, he worked out an installment plan for a drum set with the shop’s owner, paying off the kit with money from his paper route. Although he did take some lessons from symphonic percussionist Jack Dennett, amazingly, Cobb, one of jazz’s finest drummers, is mostly self-taught. “I spent a lot of time listening and practicing before I felt like I was ready [to play out],” he explains.

When he was ready, however, it wasn’t long before Cobb was picking up some plum gigs. He worked with leading local saxophonists Charlie Rouse and Leo Parker, singer/entertainer Pearl Bailey, and eventually the great Lady Day herself, Billie Holiday. “I was 18 then,” remembers Cobb. “[Holiday] was wonderful, just like one of the guys.” In 1950 he left D.C. to play with R&B king Earl Bostic, and his very first studio date was for the alto saxophonist’s smash single “Flamingo.”

But after only a year Cobb, along with Bostic bassist Keter Betts, decamped to Harlem, and with pianist Wynton Kelly, backed up another legendary vocalist, Dinah Washington. “All of us lived in the same building, along with folks like Dizzy Gillespie and Errol Garner,” says Cobb. After three years with Washington, the drummer worked with Cannonball Adderley, Stan Getz, and Gillespie before Davis tapped him in 1958.

“I’d met Miles before, when we played together with Charlie Parker and Dinah on a [New York DJ] Symphony Sid’s All-Stars gig. I’d loved his music when I was younger,” Cobb says. “I’d listen to him all night on the radio and end up being late for school the next day.” With the trumpeter, Cobb went on to record such landmark LPs as Sketches of Spain, Someday My Prince Will Come, Porgy and Bess, and Kind of Blue. “Miles was very unobtrusive,” recalls Cobb about the latter’s sessions. “He knew whatever we did would be good.” It’s no surprise the trumpeter was so confident when one considers his sextet: Cobb, bassist Paul Chambers, pianist Bill Evans, and another ex-Bostic player—a young saxophonist named John Coltrane. “Playing with Trane was great,” Cobb says. “Miles used to say it was the most fun he ever had with his clothes on!”

In 1963, Cobb and Chambers left to form a trio with Wynton Kelly, which backed Kenny Burrell and J.J. Johnson but found its greatest success with pivotal guitarist Wes Montgomery. After Kelly’s trio split in the late ’60s, Cobb completed his jazz-diva trifecta by signing on with the immortal Sarah Vaughn for nine years. From the late ’70s to the mid ’90s he played with Sonny Stitt, Nat Adderley, Nancy Wilson, Dave Holland, and other greats before moving into teaching and putting together his own groups: Cobb’s Mob, his trio and quartet, and the “So What” Band, a unit celebrating Kind of Blue’s 50th anniversary. Cobb’s latest release is Jazz in the Key of Blue (Chesky Records), an exquisite quartet set featuring trumpeter Roy Hargrove, guitarist Russell Malone, and bassist John Webber.

So after all his time in the business, what, exactly, keeps him going? “Well, these young guys wanna play with guys from my era, and they’re not gonna get that anywhere else,” says the percussionist, a part-time Hudson Valley resident.

“Jimmy is really wonderful, very supportive of younger musicians,” says “So What” Band saxophonist Javon Jackson, 44. “He has this way of putting a lot of effort into the music while at the same time making it seem effortless.”

Any jazz fan will tell you, that’s what Jimmy Cobb has been doing for over 60 years: making the music swing with joyous, effortless beauty.

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