Jimmy Cobb, who died on May 24 at the age of 91, was a giant of jazz music and a giant of a human being. He was all heart and all love. I loved him so much, as did probably every musician he ever played with. He represented the essence of jazz music through his sensibility, but he represented something much larger, and this is what speaks to us all: Be yourself but be there for the others around you. He played to make everyone feel good — the audience and his fellow musicians.
To have the good fortune to be able to play with him over the course of 30 years is something I’ll never stop being grateful for. To me, he was Father Time. The way he expressed the rhythm, the pulse of the music, was like an element of nature, at once immovable and yielding. He embodied what swinging is all about with the perfect balance of intensity and relaxation in his beat. He was in sync with this duality and did it in a personal way.
There are no words to describe the feeling of playing with him. It was a smooth yet thrilling ride — such presence. He did his thing, always, but he did it for you. His touch and sound on the drums actually made the other instruments sound better; his sound carried you, and his momentum was so beautiful. He was a genius of forward motion, a kind of Zen master — all the more so because he never really talked about what he did, except in the most basic terms. He just did it, he embodied it, he personified it. He could only be this kind of musician because of his generosity, empathy and humility as a person.
Jimmy was so cool. He was already our hero from so many records, but he had no attitude about playing with us fledglings; he just sat down at the drums and did his thing. Pianist Brad Mehldau was in the class too, and Jimmy said if we could get some gigs he would play. I got the great bassist John Webber, whom I had just met, and he and Jimmy hit it off beautifully.
The first record I heard him on was Smokin’ at the Half Note with Wes Montgomery. Wes’ playing, as well as the sound of the Wynton Kelly Trio, completely changed my life. My introduction to so many players arrived through the records Jimmy played on. The Cats, a Tommy Flanagan session with Kenny Burrell and John Coltrane, was one of these, as were Kenny Dorham’s Blue Spring and Bobby Timmons’ The Soul Man! So many magical and historic sessions.
He was always a musician’s musician and had to be coerced into being a leader. Over the years we got to play on a bunch of records and a lot of gigs. I always had a lot of questions about sessions he was on and groups he’d been a part of, and while he would be forthcoming sometimes, I got the feeling that he did what he always did on any given day — which was to set up the drums and swing and make everyone feel excited to play.