Jimmy Cobb (born January 20, 1929 in Washington D.C.) is one of the most highly regarded jazz drummers in the world today. A superb, mostly self-taught musician, Jimmy is the elder statesman of all the incredible Miles Davis bands. Jimmy’s inspirational work with Miles, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly and Co. spanned 1957 until 1963, and included the masterpiece “Kind of Blue”, the most popular jazz recording in history.
In this interview Jimmy tells us how he got started with the drums, where he got his big break and shares some great advice on the mental side of drumming:
What inspired you to start playing the drums?
There was a friend of mine in the neighborhood that I lived who played as a hobby. I had some jazz records and he used to come by my house – we’d hang out, listen to records and play with knives and forks on the furniture to the rhythm of the music. His name was Walter Watkins and he got me interested in the drums. Also, being around a neighborhood that had a lot of different music that you could hear just walking down the streets.
What were your goals as a kid learning his craft?
I just wanted to be able to play as good as I heard some other people play. I used to listen to records and try to play along with the drummers that I liked at the time – Art Blakey, Max Roach, Kenny Clarke and big band drummers like Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. When I was growing up there was a lot of big bands – occasionally you could see those bands because they came through town on tour so I had the opportunity to watch a lot of great people play and listen to a lot of great people play.
What was the turning point in your career?
I guess the turning point was when I left my hometown to go out into the world. I left town with Earl Bostic and Dinah Washington – a friend of mine got me that job, his name was Keter Betts. We were traveling with Wynton Kelly and played for Earl Bostic and Dinah Washington. That was the turning point because from there I got to where I am now. I left Washington in 1950 and figured my best chances would be out of there so I’ve stayed in New York ever since. I’ve had a good run and you could say I’ve been lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. I was able to take care of my little chance when it came up.
What has been the toughest point in your career?
The hardest part was trying to come to New York and live on your own, you know, without any kind of help and just depending on your abilities. There were times when you weren’t able to do anything and you had to depend on money you had saved or a good friend or something. I had a good friend here in New York when I came – he was a drummer too. When I came here I checked into the Sloan House – it was kind of a YMCA type of thing with rooms that were cheap. I stayed about a week but some things occurred in there so I had to leave. I was telling him about it and he said why don’t you come and stay with me. He had an extra room so I went and stayed there for five years. If it hadn’t been for him I probably might have had to go back to Washington.
Have you ever suffered from fear and insecurity?
Oh yeah, a lot of times. When I got with Miles Davis I used to go and sit around with the band. Julian “Cannonball” Adderley was the saxophonist at the time and he told me to come along because the drummer they had, Philly Jo Jones wasn’t sure for a lot of the dates – Julian asked me to come by in case Jo didn’t turn up. He knew that I could handle it because I had been in a band with him and his brother before that. One day I went to a record date that they were doing and Philly Jo didn’t show up for it – they said, “OK, you go it” and I had to finish the record. Jo had already finished half of it and I had to finish the rest – it was Porgy And Bess.
That was a very nerve wracking thing to do – to play a record date behind Philly Jo Jones with about 25 musicians. That made me nervous but I was able to get through it and like I always say, when the opportunity comes you just got to get through it – that always helps.
How do you handle nerves?
Everybody has nerves, you know. In fact, I got one job with Sarah Vaughan because the drummer they had got nervous in front of people. He was a good drummer, I can’t remember his name now, but he got nervous in front of people and couldn’t play so they had to get somebody else. It’s something that happens to everybody. I guess in most cases over time and with experience you probably get out of it. But, even now I still get nervous when I approach a situation that I think I’m not totally sure of.
How do you prepare for a big performance?
Just try to know what you are doing and always have your dexterity and your game together. If you know you’re gonna do something just try to practice and try to get ready for it technically. You know, mostly it’s mental anyway – the nerves and all that stuff. You probably get nervous because you think you won’t be able to play what you need to play. If you can get all that fixed up in front it kind of breaks down the nerves. You won’t be nervous because you’ve taken precautions and prepared for what you needed to do.
Have you picked up any tools over the years that have really helped you perform better?
Just believe that you can do it and have your technique up enough to make your belief work – that’s a mental tool for me! Confidence is a mental tool – if you keep your playing up that gives you confidence and if your confident that’ll keep your playing up. Your confidence is what keeps people calling you to work.
What do you think makes a great musician?
To be able to handle whatever situation you have to handle. You know, go and do a good job – that’s what makes a great musician. And to be able to play with almost anybody – that also makes a great musician.
Do you have any good advice for young musicians who are trying to make it?
When I’m giving clinics and I’m asked something like “Should I move to New York?” I say if you are in school try to learn everything you can learn before you strike out on your own. Then you’ll have a better opportunity to grasp what’s going on out here – if someone wants you to play dixieland you can do it, if someone wants you to play funk, rock n’ roll or any of that kind of stuff you can do it. That’s what I always say, learn everything you can learn because you never know what’s going to pay your rent down the road – especially if you expect this to be your life’s work.
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