Drummer Jimmy Cobb Brings the Landmark Miles Davis Album 'Kind of Blue' to Life

Touring with his So What Band, the sole surviving member of the 'Kind of Blue' lineup celebrates the album's 50th anniversary

Kind of Blue also came out of the modal thing I started on Milestones. This time I added some other kind of sound I remembered from being back in Arkansas, when we were walking home from church and they were playing these bad gospels. So that kind of feeling came back to me and I started remembering what that music sounded like and felt like. That feeling is what I was trying to get close to. That feeling had got in my creative blood, my imagination, and I had forgotten it was there. I wrote this blues that tried to get back to that feeling I had when I was six years old, walking with my cousin along that dark Arkansas road.

—Miles Davis, from Miles: The Autobiography

When Miles Davis assembled six other musicians in New York City in 1959 to record Kind of Blue, he was hundreds of miles and a couple of decades removed from his grandfather's farm in Arkansas. And he didn't end up satisfied that the mystery of his childhood nights survived the translation of the two recording sessions in March and April of that year. As he wrote in his autobiography, "[Y]ou write something and then guys play off it and take it someplace else through their creativity and imagination, and you just miss where you thought you wanted to go. I was trying to do one thing and ended up doing something else."

Of course, what he ended up doing was making a jazz album that over the past five decades has sort of somehow cemented itself as the jazz album, instantly familiar from the bass-and-piano overture of "So What" onward, beloved alike by dilettantes and jazzbos (even if the latter these days will aver that they prefer In a Silent Way or On the Corner or, if they're feeling really contrarian, Dark Magus). The greatness and significance of the record has been parsed over and over, most extensively in Ashley Kahn's 2000 book Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece. But articulating the essence of the album, why it resonated then and now, is a difficult thing. As Kahn himself once acknowledged, "[T]here is something about Kind of Blue that defies explanation. A large part of the album's magic and mystery will forever be approachable only through listening and feeling."

At least some of that magic is coming to the Bijou Theatre on Saturday as the centerpiece of the Knoxville Jazz Festival. Drummer Jimmy Cobb, the sole surviving member of the lineup that played on Kind of Blue, is bringing his So What Band to town, continuing a tour that kicked off last year to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the album. Cobb is not a household name at the level of other members of Davis' band from that period: John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Julian "Cannonball" Adderley. (The rest of the combo: pianist Wynton Kelly, who played only on "Freddie Freeloader," and bassist Paul Chambers.) But he played with Davis on and off from 1957 to 1963, when Davis was at his commercial peak. Besides Kind of Blue, those years also produced Sketches of Spain and Someday My Prince Will Come.

"He was like just one of the guys," Cobb says of the famously strong-willed Davis, in a phone interview. "We were pretty good friends, you know. We used to hang out and do things from time to time. It was like we was just friends, more so than bandleader and band-guy."

But that was a status conferred only after gaining his respect. "He picked people he figured he could get something from," Cobb says. "He used to say things like, ‘I like a guy where I can bounce something off of him and get something back.' Whenever he wanted to hire somebody, he used to ask consensus of opinion from people around him."

Cobb came to the band by way of Adderley, whom he had met while playing drums for Dinah Washington in the mid-1950s. Davis' regular drummer at the time was Philly Joe Jones, who by 1958 was looking to start his own band. "For some reason or another, he would miss some gigs," Cobb says of Jones, "he would show up late or something." Adderley recommended Cobb as a backup, and eventually Cobb landed the full-time gig. (Cobb is probably being polite about the reasons for Jones' unreliability. Davis is more blunt in his autobiography: "Everyone was tired of Philly's junkie shit by now and we just couldn't handle it any longer.")

Cobb, who is now 81 and still recording, grew up in Washington, D.C., in the era of swing drummers like Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa. But his most direct influence was someone a lot more local. "There was a guy in the neighborhood who used to hang out with me," Cobb says. "He wasn't a professional drummer, he was just a hobby player. In fact, he didn't even own a set of drums. I don't know how he got interested, but he got me interested. So we'd be at my house listening to records and stuff, and playing along with the records with our knuckles on the table."

When bop hit, Cobb picked up on Kenny Clarke and especially Max Roach, whose subtlety and command of the entire drumkit transfixed him. Cobb's own playing, like most of the playing on Kind of Blue, is marked by a sort of insistent restraint. Even at his quietest, his pulses maintain a nervous tension, both pushing and pulling the music forward.

"I just try to think of it as trying to help with whatever I'm doing, help whoever I'm playing with without overshadowing everybody," he says. "It's not a thing where I'm trying to be a drum star or something like that. I'm just trying to be a part of the band."

Todd Steed, local-music eminence and one of the hosts of the jazz program Improvisations on WUOT, says that's kind of the key to the magic of Kind of Blue (which he also says is the album that turned him on to jazz).

"They had all gotten to this point in the late '50s where they could do anything," Steed says of Davis' band, "but they chose not to. They knew how to stay out of each other's way."

Cobb has been asked many times over the years what accounts for the album's reach and stature, but he doesn't have any clearer answer than anybody else. "It's just a thing whose time had come," he says. "I'm not really sure what happened with that."

He notes that it was part of a shift in jazz away from the standards and song structures that had dominated it for decades—Kind of Blue is all original material, improvised in the studio from modal scales Davis provided. It sounded new, at a time when America was exploding with newness in art and literature and pop music.

"It went over," Cobb says, putting it plainly. "It got to a lot of people. It still gets to a lot of people. Every generation, everybody gets attached to it. It's like, probably, symphony music. You know, Beethoven and all that stuff is still good. I don't know how that happened, either. But those guys were great writers and great composers, and they put something up on the wall, and it stuck. So that's probably what happened here. Something went on the wall, and it stuck."