Beautiful Momentum: Remembering Jimmy Cobb

Guitar champion Peter Bernstein remembers a mentor, friend, colleague and icon.

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Jimmy Cobb performs in 2005. Credit: Jack Vartoogian/Getty.

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.

I was lucky to meet him as a student at the New School in New York in 1989. The school’s jazz program, only three years old at the time, was the brainchild of Arnie Lawrence, the most un-academic of teachers. He was able to get Jimmy to teach a class called “Rhythmic Development,” and the class was basically just playing with Jimmy Cobb. I know Arnie was thinking that if the students couldn’t develop rhythmically by playing with Jimmy, it was their own fault.

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.

We knew how lucky we were. Jimmy encouraged us to play whatever we wanted; he wasn’t looking to play the same tunes from the records we grew up on. He was always in the moment, just pushing us and supporting us. To all of us, he was such a big part of how we came to love this music and why we decided to try and be a part of it. The records he played on were like books of truth and secrets. Besides Kind of Blue, the seminal classic, his incredible playing with Miles can be found on At Newport 1958Porgy and Bess, Sketches of SpainAt Carnegie HallSomeday My Prince Will Come, the Blackhawk recordings and the sessions that make up 1958 Miles.

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.

His drumming defined a deep and essential aesthetic of jazz. He lived through a very important time in the history of jazz music, and provided a bridge from Kenny Clarke and Max Roach to Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette. He was out there in 1951, playing with Earl Bostic on his hit record “Flamingo.” Then came important records with Dinah Washington in the early ’50s, and with Cannonball Adderley in the mid to late ’50s. Later, he toured and recorded with Sarah Vaughan and so many others.

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.

Jimmy had a great sense of humor. He once told me a story about how, when he was playing a gig with Miles, during Wynton Kelly’s solo, Miles stood by Jimmy and said, “Man, I wish I could swing like Wynton!” to which Jimmy replied, “I wish you could too!” He said Miles gave him a look and laughed. That story demonstrates how real Jimmy was, and how he had a strength and a confidence that came from deep within. He was all about music and all about the feeling of sharing good feelings through music. He had an incredible gift that he gave to us all for more than 70 years. He made such a profound contribution to the world he lived in, and showed us how to live with grace and selflessness. Thank you Jimmy Cobb.

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