By Don Heckman
The Playboy Jazz Festival this weekend at the Hollywood Bowl offers its familiar cornucopia of musical delights. But there’s another, more unusual slant to this year’s festivities – two of them actually. And both center around the number 50. The first is the fact that it was 50 years ago, in 1959, that the first Playboy Jazz Festival, in Chicago, clearly established the relationship between Playboy and jazz that would continue over the next half century. The second unusual number 50-related slant is the anniversary of the release of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, the best selling jazz recording of all time. To underscore that golden memory, drummer Jimmy Cobb will perform a tribute to Kind of Blue with his So What Band. As the only surviving member of the Davis ensemble of 1959 – which also included John Coltrane, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly and Paul Chambers – Cobb is a direct link to the original recording. We had a conversation on the phone yesterday just before he was scheduled to take the band on stage at Yoshi’s in Oakland. In it, Cobb provided a fascinating overview of how a date that initially seemed to be just another recording session became an iconic jazz event.
DH: Jimmy, let’s begin with the So What Band and the plan to celebrate the golden anniversary of Kind of Blue. How did it all come about?
JC: I think it was a brainchild of my wife, Elena, thinking about how we could do something to honor Miles’ memory and the memory of the best selling jazz record in history. We started out in a place in New York called Smoke — just a kind of dress rehearsal. Then we went to Jacksonville, New Orleans and then Sao Paulo, Brazil and got a good reception everywhere. After Playboy, we’ve got about six gigs in Canada, and then we’re going to take it to Europe. Probably 30 or 40 gigs all together.
DH: That’s quite a revival tour. But even with the affectionate memories that the music from “Kind of Blue” has for so many jazz fans, you still had to have the right band to make it all happen. How did you put the So What band together?
JC: Well, my wife Elena and I thought about some people who would be able to play this music the right way, and these were the guys we came up with. The trumpet player – Wallace Roney — would have been Miles’ choice, anyway. And the piano player, Larry Willis, he loves Wynton Kelly, so that’s why he was our choice. Vincent Herring loves Cannonball, and Javan Jackson loves Coltrane. And we’ve got a great bass player named John Weber replacing Buster Williams, who’s having some health problems.
DH: Terrific players, every one of them. But let’s go back now and talk about the original Kind of Blue. Can you recall how you felt before you went into that studio back in March of 1959. Was there any special anticipation in your mind?
JC: Oh, no. I didn’t have any inkling about what was happening before the date.. When I got there, I was probably the first one there, cause that’s what a drummer has to do. So I was setting up my drums when they came in with whatever music they had relative to what we were going to do. Didn’t seem like anything special.
DH: What happened after you were all set up and ready to go?
JC: They discussed it and then we proceeded to do it. There wasn’t a whole lot of preparation from me. And I don’t think there was that much from them, either. They had an idea that Miles and Bill Evans put together and that’s what they did.
DH: No more complicated than that. Wow. Did they give you a sense of what was expected from you?
JC:: No. They just expected regular stuff. Like time signatures. If was in three, that was what they expected; if it was four, that was what they expected. And if it was soft they expected you to be soft.
DH: And I would guess, given the music, that they expected you to lay back on a lot of the stuff.
JC: Yeah, sure. That’s it. For the places where it was supposed to be laid back on. But there was one tune – the one that Wynton Kelly played on, “Freddie Freeloader” — where they expected you to be the way you are.
DH: You mean more like the straight ahead playing of that time.
JC: Right. That’s why Wynton was there because that’s the kind of playing Miles wanted to hear on that tune.
DH: So there wasn’t anything unusual about the way Miles approached the date. Because you guys had actually been working together for a while when you did the Kind of Blue session.
JC: Yeah, we were working together all the time.
DH: With Cannonball, Coltrane, Bill Evans and Paul Chambers?
JC: Yes, Except Bill had come in after Red Garland. And I was there for the last part of the time Red was in the band.
DH: That must have been a big change. They were very different players.
JC: Right. And that’s probably how Miles came up with what that album is all about – in collaboration with Bill’s feelings and stuff, and the way he played.
DH: Once you were in the studio, actually the date, did you have any feeling that something unusual was taking place?
JC: Well, I was aware that it wasn’t the usual structured kind of thing – structured tunes, show tunes, stuff like that. It was just like a few chords and a few scales.
DH: No standards, no hard bop lines. More like what Miles had started doing on the Milestones album?
JC: That’s right. It was an entirely different way.
DH: Did that mean that you had to do a lot of takes?.
JC: No, almost everything was straight down,. Except for one tune – “Freddie Freeloader,” the one Wynton was on – where Miles didn’t want him to play a certain chord at the second ending of something. So he stopped us and told him not to play that chord, and that was it.
DH: Jimmy, you played on some of the Gil Evans things with Miles, as well, didn’t you?
JC: Yeah. I was there when Philly Jo didn’t show up for the second part of the Porgy and Bess album, and I finished that. Then I did the whole Sketches of Spain album and the In A Silent Way album.
DH: Do you think that Gil Evans had an impact on Kind of Blue, as well?
JC: Oh yeah. Bill, Gil and Miles. The three of them. That Spanish thing we did came about because of Miles’ wife – Frances. She was a dancer and she had danced in one of the Spanish dances. And she got him interested. She told him he had to listen to that music. So she went and bought an album, Miles listened to it, and he got Gil to write an arrangement.
DH: The sound of Kind of Blue has always seemed incredibly alive to me. Were you in a booth or behind a baffle for the recording?
JC: I was behind a baffle. That’s why when you see pictures of that session you kind of don’t hardly see me at all. Because I was away from the main group, with a baffle around me. Paul had a baffle around him, too, but he was closer to the rest of the guys.
DH: But that didn’t affect the interplay of the music or the quality of the sound, did it?
JC: See, they had an exceptional engineer there, and he knew where everything sounded the best, at each spot in the room. He had recorded everybody in that room – Mitch Miller, Duke Ellington, all different kinds of music. So he knew where the best sounds for each instruments were. And he had me sitting in the exact spot where the toms – all the drums — sounded best.
DH: Are you surprised that what you and Miles and the other musicians played in that studio on those two days in 1959 has produced the best selling jazz record of all time?
JC: Yes I am. ‘Cause in my mind, there’s Louis Armstrong, there’s all those bands that I used to hear when I was coming up — Count Basie, Duke Ellington. If Duke Ellington didn’t sell more records, with all that music he wrote — him and Billy Strayhorn – man! So I’ve always been amazed that I could even be involved in a situation like that – to be in a group of people that sold the most jazz records of all time. That’s a historical thing to me.
DH: And to millions of listeners, as well. Quite a few of whom are looking forward to hearing you bring it alive again on Saturday at the Hollywood Bowl. Thanks for taking the time to give us some first person perspective on how it all began.