Billy Cobham interview

Billy Cobham: Keeping The Jazz Flame Burning

By Mike Hennessey

Billy Cobham has no time for the prophets of doom who say that Jazz is dead or, at best, in terminal decline. "Of course Jazz isn't dead," he insists, adding emphatically, "Hey! It's how I make my living!"

So it is somewhat ironic that Cobham has been involved in a group called Jazz Is Dead, although the project is simply a play on words relating to a band which plays Jazz-tinged arrangements of tunes recorded by the Grateful Dead group, a flower power unit from San Francisco founded in the mid-1960s.

Cobham agrees that Jazz has not produced many genuine giants in recent years but he argues that there are a number of potential giants around who have yet to be recognised as the highly accomplished and enterprising musicians they are.

A master drummer and percussionist with tremendous technical command and great sensitivity, Billy Cobham is currently pursuing an immensely energetic campaign to keep Jazz alive and kicking, not only as an accomplished performer but also as a an industrious creator of diverse innovative groups which bring new approaches to Jazz improvisation.

He has a wide-open mind when it comes to introducing new elements to Jazz and he is also dedicated to the cause of helping develop the potential of musicians from all parts of the world.

He believes, in particular, that the talents and abilities of the current generation of European Jazz musicians are very much underrated. "But," he says, "I am not going out of my way to make the world aware of a Stefan Rademacher (bass) from Germany or a Dado Moroni (piano) from Italy. I don't believe in positive discrimination, but I do believe that Jazz is not the exclusive preserve of American musicians. All I am doing is working with musicians who can play. They have something to say. OK, so Jazz originated in America. No argument about that, but I am not sure that, today, the U.S. slant on the music is necessarily better than that of musicians of other nationalities."

In a career which spans 35 years, Cobham has performed in more than 40 countries and the range of the music he has played in that time

vividly reflects his eclectic approach to his art.

He was born in Panama on May 16, 1944 into a musical family and his interest in percussion was sparked very early on by his cousins, who played and constructed steel drums and congas.

Cobham was just three-years-old when the family moved to New York in search of a better life style. Says Cobham, "Panama being very much a banana republic, my dad decided that the best thing would be to move to the USA where he could get a reasonable job which would put food on the table for the family."

The Cobhams settled in Brooklyn and one of Billy's earliest memories was beating out rhythms with drumsticks on the fender of his father's 1951 Chrysler while his school friends looked on in admiration.

Says Billy, "I was able to keep time and, all of a sudden, I became really special in the eyes of my friends. There was an urge to play drums which was burning inside me. My father was a piano player and I grew up listening to the great artists of the day on the radio ñ like Sinatra, Ellington, Basie, Nat Cole, Vic Damone, Tony Bennett and Ella. We had a lot of Latin records around the house, so I would also be listening to Tito Puente, Johnny Rodriguez, Machito and Xavier Cugat. That's what I grew up with."

Ask Cobham to name the drummers who inspired him while he was developing his craft and he reels off an impressive list: Max Roach, Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Stan Levey, Kenny Clarke, Louie Bellson, Gus Johnson, Don Lamond, Grady Tate, Connie Kay and Ed Thigpen.

Cobham made his stage début, performing with his father, at the age of eight, displaying a natural, instinctive talent as a drummer. After attending the High School of Music and Arts in New York and working with a band called the Jazz Samaritans, which included school friends George Cables and Clint Houston, (no relations to our publisher,) he joined the United States Army Band as a percussionist at the age of 21, serving until 1968.

After leaving the Army, Billy Cobham began freelancing as a Jazz drummer, working with Billy Taylor, Horace Silver, Stanley Turrentine, Shirley Scott and George Benson, among others. It was with George Benson that Cobham made his recording début in February 1967 on the album Giblet Gravy, together with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and conga drummer Johnny Pacheco.

At this time, the unofficial "employment exchange" for musicians in New York was Jim & Andy's Bar, open day and night, where some of the biggest names in the business would meet to drink, chat and play poker.

Recalls Billy: "I was a young guy just out of the military and I was hungry! I would go to Jim and Andy's in the hope of being able to sub when one of the regular studio drummers couldn't make a record date. You would see a lot of top musicians in that bar, and drummers like Grady Tate, Bobby Thomas, Osie Johnson and Mel Lewis. In fact, the whole Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra came out of that bar!

"My original ambition was to be a studio musician, the kind of percussionist who would take on anything from small group Jazz to symphonic music. But later I decided to focus on Jazz drumming and become a specialist in that department. It was through Jim & Andy's that I found my way into the studios and I remember one of the first breaks I had was when Mel Lewis called me to play the first set on a Monday night at the Village Vanguard because he had a studio commitment.

"That was a dream come true! What a band that was, Ernie Royal, Jimmy Nottingham "Snooky" Young and Richard Williams on trumpets, Pepper Adams, Jerry Dodgion, Jerome Richardson, Joe Farrell and Eddie Daniels on saxophones, Bob Brookmeyer, Jimmy Cleveland and Jimmy Knepper on trombones, Roland Hanna on piano and Richard Davis on bass. Wow! It was a fantastic experience for me to play with those guys."

From 1969 to 1971, Billy Cobham played in a Jazz-rock band called Dreams, whose line-up included Randy and Michael Brecker and John Abercrombie, and it was during this period that he came to the attention of Miles Davis and was invited to be on the April 7, 1970 recording session which produced the Jack Johnson album.

Talking about the Jack Johnson session to British writer Brian Priestley in a March 1974 interview, Billy Cobham recalled that, although Miles had a high regard for his playing, he felt the need to point him in the right direction:

"He would tell me what he wanted. He would even sit down and try to play the drums. And it was not in an obnoxious way. It was not meant to degrade. I always felt that he got the most out of the cats he worked with because everybody loved him, if only for the musician that he is and what he stands for."

"He said to me, 'I want this and I want that.' And I said, "Oh yeah? OK." But I didn't do it the way he wanted me to do it, and then he just left me alone!. It was really a relaxed session."

Also on the Jack Johnson date were Steve Grossman (ss), Herbie Hancock (org), Mike Henderson (b) and on guitar, John McLaughlin.

It was as a member of John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra, with which he worked from 1970 to 1973, that Billy Cobham added further lustre to his reputation as an original, powerful and outstandingly inventive drummer. Writing on Cobham in The New Grove Dictionary Of Jazz, J. Bradford Robinson noted, "The power and precision of his playing with McLaughlin had an enormous impact on later Jazz-rock drumming and placed him with Tony Williams and Alphonse Mouzon among the leading drummers in this new style."

After leaving the Mahavishnu Orchestra, with which he made six albums, Billy Cobham led his own fusion groups, which included musicians such as Randy and Michael Brecker, Jan Hammer, Cornell Dupree, John Abercrombie, George Duke and John Scofield, and played in a variety of studio bands. In 1978 he was a member of the all-star group which recorded the album, Montreux Summit, at the Montreux Jazz Festival, together with Dexter Gordon, Benny Golson, Stan Getz, Eric Gale, Maynard Ferguson, George Duke, Bob James and Bobbi Humphrey.

The following year, at the same festival, he joined Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen in providing the rhythmic backing for Oscar Peterson and Count Basie.

It was in 1980 that Billy Cobham made the decision to move to Europe, he has been resident in Zurich for the past 21 years.

Why the move?

Billy explains: "I was curious as to why musicians like Kenny Clarke, Sahib Shihab and Ernie Wilkins had decided to settle in Europe and I could see that there were things about the American scene which could become frustrating. With quite a lot of major musicians choosing to move to Europe, it seemed to me that there must be some good reasons for re-locating there, but I was afraid to ask them why. I decided to try to figure it out for myself."

"I asked myself what would happen if I spent six months in Europe to clear my head and then returned to the States with a different perspective. And here I am, some 20 years later because I have to say I have found fulfilment here and lots of new avenues to explore."

Over the past 20 years Cobham has been involved in an enormous variety of musical projects, working with Jack Bruce, Tito Puente, Gil Evans and Miles Davis, Grover Washington Jr., Larry Coryell, Peter Gabriel, Ernie Watts and Donald Harrison, among many others.

He has recorded with the London Jazz Orchestra and has founded a variety of small groups including the Nordic Group, featuring Norwegian musicians Terje Gewett (bass), Tore Brunberg (saxophone) and Bugge Wesseltoft (piano), North By North West, with some top Swedish musicians, Higher Ground with Derrick James (saxophone), Jean-Yves Jung (keyboards) Stefan Rademacher (bass), the experimental fusion-Jazz-rock group Paradox, with bassist Wolfgang Schmid and guitarist Bill Bickford, the Quartet Europa, with Ernie Watts (saxophone), Christof Snger (piano), Rudi Engel (bass) and Heinrich Kbberling (drums), the Art Of Three, with Kenny Barron and Ron Carter and the Art Of Four with Carter, Donald Harrison (saxophone) and James Williams (piano).

And he has no shortage of other projects in mind. "I am working on putting together a pianoless quintet which includes the fine Russian-born tenor saxophonist Igor Butman, Italian trumpet player Enrico Rava, and, from Denmark, guitarist Per Gaade and bassist Chris Minh Doky. I have always been a fan of the Chet Baker/Gerry Mulligan concept of working with no piano player.

"I also want to do the Art Of Five, with Christian McBride, Terence Blanchard, Kenny Barron and Branford Marsalis. Doing so many different things like this really keeps me moving!" It also testifies to Cobham's recognition of the fact that fine musicians are to be found all over the world and deserve encouragement.

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