Legendary drummer Jimmy Cobb, the last surviving member of Miles Davis’ First Great Sextet, died at the age of 91 in his Manhattan home on Sunday. His wife, Eleana Tee Cobb confirmed to NPR that Cobb died from lung cancer. His fantastic drumming skills became known as the “pulse” of Davis’ iconic album, Kind of Blue.
Born James Wilbur Cobb on Jan. 20, 1929 in Washington, D.C., Cobb modeled his style after Max Roach and Kenny Clarke, the first drummers to play in the bebop style. Before turning 20 years old, he had already scored high-profile gigs with the likes of Billie Holiday and Charles Parker. On Kind of Blue, Cobb cemented his place in an elite band of members which included Cannonball Adderly, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly and Paul Chambers.
Of Cobb, NPR’s Natalie Weiner wrote:
It’s impossible to overstate how much his playing, which propelled that all-star group forward with delicate washes of cymbals and brush-stroked snare, contributed to Kind of Blue’s undeniable bounce and feel. “Jimmy, you know what to do,” Davis told Cobb before the session. “Just make it sound like it’s floating.” And it does: The perfect tension between Cobb’s signature driving cymbal beat and Paul Chambers’ relaxed walking bassline makes most people’s first jazz album one that you can — or can’t help but — move to.
Cobb’s strength was always understatement, which meant that he didn’t necessarily get the same accolades and attention as some of his peers behind the kit. But his simplicity and intuitive feel made Cobb’s grooves a seamless part of any band’s living organism, its backbone or heartbeat.
“Miles would tell us all little things to do and then have us work off his idea,” Cobb told Billboard in an August 2019 interview celebrating the 60th anniversary of Kind of Blue. “He trusted all of us because he knew we were all good musicians. He didn’t really have to do anything else but say what he wanted done. One time he tried to tell me something about playing the drums with both hands, and I turned to him [and] said, ‘Um, let me play the drums!’ But we were good friends, so I could say things like that to him without worrying about getting fired.”
Cobb, who remained immersed in music through performing and teaching, is survived by his wife Eleana and his two daughters, Serena and Jaime. Rest in power, Mr. Cobb. Let’s honor the drummer by sitting back and relaxing to Kind of Blue this week: