By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
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By Katherine Turman
Jimmy Cobb is early. The sole surviving performer on Miles Davis's 1959 album Kind of Blue is waiting in a sixth-floor conference room just blocks from Columbia's old 30th Street Studios, the converted (Greek, Russian, or Armenian, depending on whom you ask) Orthodox church where the best-selling, most widely praised jazz album in history was recorded. The drummer and Harlem resident passes the time with his new iPhone—right now, unfortunately, it appears that if Cobb so much as stares at the gadget, it automatically calls his daughter. Thus far, hers is the only number programmed.
Sony Legacy is also early. In late September, the current keeper of the Columbia Records vaults unveiled its "super-deluxe" 50th-anniversary edition of Kind of Blue. But we're nearly as close to the album's 49th birthday, if we're going by release date. Yes, less than half a century ago (March 2, 1959, to be exact), Davis, Cobb, pianists Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly, saxophonists John Coltrane and Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, and bassist Paul Chambers—truly one of the most stellar lineups in jazz history—gathered for Blue's first sessions. "There wasn't a whole lot of preparation for me," says Cobb. "He [Davis] would just say, 'I want this one to sound like it's floating,' or something like that, you know. I didn't have any music for none of that stuff."
The group's second session, also on 30th Street, took place seven weeks later, and on August 17 of that year (Robert De Niro's 16th birthday), the album emerged. More than three million copies later, Kind of Blue stands not only as a landmark of accomplishment, but also of accessibility. Riding the coming crest of modal (you don't want to go there) musings over warm chordal arrangements, six (seven, technically) established yet efficient experts performed five superficially simple yet luxurious tunes. "It grabs all kinds of people," says Cobb. "To see how good those guys are, what they could do with just a little, that they could make it sound like that—you know, that's the thing. That's what it is. Just bring it down and it reaches everybody. There's something to that. It was just something that came along and clicked with everybody. It's just probably a once-in-a-lifetime thing."
Despite its obvious legs, Kind of Blue exists in many ways as a mysterious, transitory moment in time. By its official release in August of 1959, Coltrane had recorded his own groundbreaking Giant Steps (another album with a Jimmy Cobb credit); Chambers and Adderley had quit the band over monetary disputes (a recurring theme with Davis); and Bill Evans, already on the outs, would soon be completely gone as well, upset (with good reason, it appears) over not receiving songwriting credit on "Blue in Green" and "Flamenco Sketches." Though Cobb remained in Davis's employ until just prior to 1963's Seven Steps to Heaven, the constant personnel changes may very well have contributed to Kind of Blue's seemingly atemporal state, transcending a mere two days spent within an Eastern European cathedral turned recording studio. "I don't know if he ever played all of those tunes off of that record live like that," Cobb says.
Yet despite having played on the most popular jazz album of all time, Cobb offers little further insight into the secret of Blue's success.
"Man, I don't think Miles even thought that it would have that longevity," he says. "If he even thought that that day, he would've asked for a pile of money. You know, if he thought that he had something that was going to really be selling for 50 years, he would've asked for real money."
As for the drummer, "I was probably the soberest one in the band," says Cobb, the only member of the Blue sextet other than Adderley to fully escape a heroin addiction. "And he knew I was going to be on time. And he knew when I got there, I would give 150 percent. So like that, you know. That's the pluses I had."
Asked what it felt like to join the group, he adds: "I was kind of leery. It's hard to get in a band behind [former Davis drummer] Philly Joe Jones, you know, because they're looking for Philly. It's almost like when we went to Philadelphia, and the people in Philly that were used to seeing [former Davis pianist] Red Garland looked up and saw Bill Evans, and they were wondering who he was. So I'm sure that when we went some places and Joe wasn't there and they saw me, they kind of felt the same way about it. So I was kind of nervous. I figured I was probably the weakest link there, because that's probably just the way I am, you know."
Raised in Washington, D.C., Cobb first hit the road at 21 with Earl Bostic and Dinah Washington, alongside future fellow Davis cohort Wynton Kelly. He soon found himself in New York City, living with Washington at 2040 Seventh Avenue. "It worked out pretty good," he recalls. "We did that for about five years. And during that time I meet everybody in show business, you know, because she was a big-time lady and I get introduced to everybody: Duke Ellington, Count Basie. Everybody you're supposed to know, I got to know them. In fact, 2040 was where Dizzy [Gillespie] lived."