Jazz and jazz fusion musician, composer, and bandleader Billy Cobham has for decades been respected as one of the greatest drummer’s on the planet.
Born in Panama and brought up in Brooklyn, New York, Cobham got his first paying gig at the age of eight as a member of St. Catherine’s Queensmen, a drum and bugle corps in St. Albans, Queens. Billy attended New York’s renowned High School of Music and Art, where he studied music theory and drum technique.
While in the military (1965-1968), Cobham played with the U.S Army Band as percussionist. After the military, Cobham began working in Horace Silver’s Band. He also performed with Stanley Turrentine and Shirley Scott, and recorded with George Benson.
In 1969, Billy Cobham co-founded the jazz-rock combo Dreams. The band featured Randy Brecker, Michael Brecker, John Abercrombie, Don Grolnick, Barry Rodgers, and Will Lee. The following year he was invited to join Miles Davis’ new fusion ensemble. Cobham contributed on … Live-Evil, A Tribute to Jack Johnson and the Bitches Brew sessions where he collaborated with guitarist John Mclaughlin.
In 1971, John Mclaughlin formed the jazz-fusion Mahavishnu Orchestra with Billy Cobham, Jan Hammer, Jerry Goodman, and Rick Laird. The original lineup released three critically-acclaimed albums … The Inner Mounting Flame (1971), Birds of Fire (1973), and Between Nothingness and Eternity (live album released in 1973).
In 1973, Billy Cobham released his debut solo album entitled Spectrum. The album was recorded at Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studios in New York City. Cobham’s core lineup for the album featured guitar virtuoso Tommy Bolin, Jan Hammer on electric piano, moog synthesizer & piano and Lee Sklar on bass. The album featured an incredible mix of jazz, funk, and rock. The recording was hailed as one of the most important albums in the development of the jazz fusion genre and jazz rock era.
Also in 1973, Cobham toured with John Mclaughlin and Carlos Santana performing material from the Love Devotion Surrender album.
The original lineup of the Mahavishnu Orchestra disbanded in 1974.
Billy Cobham continued to record innovative fusion albums with the release of … Crosswinds (1974), Shabazz (1974) Total Eclipse (1974) A Funky Thide of Sings (1975), and Life and Times (1976).
During the 70’s and 80’s … Cobham recorded for Atlantic, CBS, Elektra, and GRP. He collaborated with George Duke, John Scofield, Tony Williams, Jack Bruce, and The Grateful Dead spinoff band Bobby & the Midnites.
In 1992, Cobham was appointed to work with UNISEF to work with autistic outpatients and street children in Santos, Brazil in a musical project.
Rudiments: The Billy Cobham Anthology, 2- CD retrospective was released in 2001.
In 2002, Billy Cobham began releasing a series of CD’s with special guest artists entitled … Drum n Voice.
By 2005, Cobham had recorded and released over 30 recordings under his name.
Over the past several years, Cobham developed a very special musical collaboration with the Cuban group Asere.
In 2011, Cobham began teaching drums online at The Jazz & Fusion Drum School with Billy Cobham.
Most recently … Purple Pyramid Records released the Billy Cobham Compass Point 2-CD set, recorded live at Compass Point Hotel in the Bahamas in 1997…never released before until now.
Billy Cobham will also be performing the 40th anniversary of his classic Spectrum album on Friday, September 20th at the Palladium Theatre in St. Petersburg, for tickets and information visit www.mypalladium.org or call 727-822-3590 for more information.
I found it very difficult to summarize Billy Cobham’s illustrious musical career in a single article. His alliances with the greatest musicians in the world are almost endless. The one thing about his career I can easily summarize is that …Billy Cobham will forever be known as one of the greatest drummer’s on the planet.
I had a rare opportunity recently to chat with Billy about his phenomenal career.
Here’s my interview with virtuoso drummer, percussionist, songwriter, bandleader and instructor
… BILLY COBHAM.
I chatted with Billy by Skype from Panama and during the interview a nasty storm hit his home.
Ray Shasho: Thank you for being on the Skype call this afternoon Billy, how are things in Panama?
Billy Cobham: “Well, it’s the rainy season right now. It’s all doing good generally speaking, very humid and you get a lot of electrical storms and right now we’re up against it. The weather is kind of weird in this part of the world, from the north to the south anyway. I guess we’re getting more than we normally would, so we deal with it that’s all. I was on a flight coming in from Costa Rica and got hit by lightning and that was not very funny. Thank God things got sorted out so most planes are able to deal with that, we were lucky, obviously we didn’t get as bad of a hit as it could’ve been, but I don’t need the aggravation (All laughing).”
Ray Shasho: Billy, you’ll be at The Palladium Theatre at St. Petersburg College on September 20th and performing the 40th anniversary of the classic ‘Spectrum’ album?
Billy Cobham: “It will be music from the Spectrum album and new arrangements from my side, but what I wanted to do was to bring in people whom I’ve worked with for the last forty years whom I’ve felt very comfortable with, not just as colleagues but as very good friends. Needless to say, Dean Brown headed the list; he’s been with me off and on since 1984. Gary Husband started working with me since about 1990; the youngest one in the bunch is Ric Fierabracci who started working with me since the late 90’s or so. It’s kind of nice to have people around me at this time in my life that I feel I can trust and feel comfortable with. So they bring not just their performance but I’ve invited them to write some additional material that they feel best suits the four of us.”
Ray Shasho: Billy, you look like you’re in your 40’s man, I can’t believe that your 69 years old. How do you do it?
Billy Cobham: “By hanging out in a place like Panama, staying quiet …it’s called stress management. If you can do that and do everything in moderation and keep a smile on your face most of the time, even when things go really south, you’ll be alright (all laughing).”
Ray Shasho: You’ve worked with a Cuban group called ‘Asere’ over the past few years or so?
Billy Cobham: “I haven’t work with them for more than two or three years now, it’s really difficult to get them out of there for any length of time, there are just a lot of restrictions. The band hasn’t had enough going on financially to justify them leaving the country and their family behind. End result is they just can’t go anywhere. It would be nice for the rest of the world to hear that band. They are just so dedicated, it’s not just a hobby, it’s their life. There’s a whole lot of musicians in Cuba that do what they do and they fall somewhere around the middle to the lower end, you can only imagine what’s going on at the top of the heap. It’s just rockin’!”
“The band keeps changing because these guys have to work, but with me they were the same guys for about two or three years and they were like family when we were on the road. Always together, lot’s of Arroz con Pollo, and the whole objective was to go out and work and bring money back to their families. Everybody did their bid to try to help and cover all the bases that they could. I’m really respectful of those people and people like them, whether it is Cuba, Haiti or whatever; their dedication was over the top.”
“I got the introduction through Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD and it was a real shot in the arm for me. I went to a WOMAD Festival in Cáceres, Spain and the Director of WOMAD figured out a way to hook me up with the band. The whole objective was to play together and see how it would work. Everybody just started to connect with us from that point forward. So we started to work together for quite awhile. We covered just about every WOMAD Festival and there were a lot back in the late 90’s and at the being of the millennium. There were as many as 10 or 12 that were being managed by WOMAD at the time … and that’s amazing! Those days are gone unfortunately, but still, that’s another organization that I only have the highest regard and respect for.”
Ray Shasho: Billy, who were some of your earlier musical influences?
Billy Cobham: “I grew up with Herbie Hancock …Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Miles Davis of course and “Trane” who I never got a chance to meet. I met his son Ravi Coltrane, who really never got the chance to know his dad. What I gathered is …the only thing who knew of his dad was pictures and a saxophone. Ravi has done an unbelievable job as a saxophonist, but to have his dad’s saxophone, and then everybody’s going …what are you doing with that saxophone? It’s a double-edged sword. But if that’s the only saxophone in the house, that’s the only one you have to play …but it’s a special saxophone (Laughing).”
“I worked with McCoy Tyner twice. Once in 1976 on a record called Fly with the Wind and then working with McCoy in a trio with Stanley Clark about ten years ago now in two different locations … at Yoshi’s Jazz Club in Oakland, California and we also played the Blue Note in New York City. To be associated with that kind of personnel onstage, especially McCoy, not to take away from Stanley, but to play with McCoy…Wow!”
“The first time …I did it on a recording session, with a rhythm session that was with me, Ron Carter, McCoy, and there were strings and Hubert Laws and a cast of stars that you would not believe. And because it was McCoy, I thought, this was the closest at the time that I would ever get to playing with “Trane.” So I just let it all hang out. Looking back at that recording, I apologize for it. It was like substituting in a pit band on Broadway for a big show and you’re coming in clearly to take the other guy’s gig, so you’re going to let it all hang out because you need the money. And the end result of working on that record was I felt I wasn’t playing for the band, or playing music as a whole, I was playing for me. Somehow I was reaching out to “Trane” and in the process when the end product came out, I felt like I was out of place. So I think it’s really important to be able to be honest with yourself and to know philosophically speaking what you’ve done wrong and when you’ve made a mistake, and acknowledge that, because you only learn from it.”
“The next time around …was in 2004, so we’re talking 28 years later and the next thing I know, I’m onstage with McCoy again. And I made sure that I tried to keep everything in place. For me I just wanted to play as musically as possible and to treat the occasion as a very hallowed experience, a very holy experience for me personally by being a contributor and by doing what I felt the music demanded as opposed to what I wanted to put on the music based on the fact of who I was playing with …and I had a ball!” It’s called knowing your place and sometimes it takes a long time for people to understand what that really means …you just have to experience it.”
Ray Shasho: How did you first hook-up with Miles Davis?
Billy Cobham: “Funny story because I think it happened in 1969, I was playing in a club called the Village Gig. What you could do at the Gig was to see Miles for three weeks, every night and with a matinee on Sunday. It was Miles Davies, Jackie DeJohnette, Dave Holland, Chick Corea Wayne Shorter. I was working upstairs as a trio opposite with the Junior Mance Trio and we were playing opposite the Phil Woods Quartet. So there was a lot of music going on. It’s the “Gig” so you had musicians coming out the woodwork. It was that time in the world when you had geniuses standing at corners with cups, anything to play and just to get a gig. There were too many people who could play. Not just playing from the institution of school but from the institution of hard knocks, the real university … and it was a trip!”
“So, I’m sitting there in between sets and Jackie DeJohnette comes up to me and says, “Hey man what are you doing tomorrow night?” I said I’m here! He says, “I’m leaving Miles, do you mind if I ask him to come up and listen to you?” So the next thing I know, I see this glimmer of dark glasses, and it looked like bug glasses, way in the back and it’s him. And he’s just listening. So he asked me … “Do you want to do this?” I said yea, what am I supposed to say, no? So that was it. The next thing you know, I’m recording with him and he says, “How about going on the road?” I said, I don’t know man, because his reputation precedes him. I’ve always heard the stories and I believed the stories. I’m not one who takes confrontation so easily. If I get backed into a corner I have a real problem because there’s nowhere else for me to go but forward. Either I’m going to go forward or die trying. So why do I need to go through that. If I can see it coming, probably it’s better for me to just cool it. So I said, no man, I think I’m going to pass on that one, and that’s how I ended up with Mahavishnu.”
(Billy had to run and shut all his windows in his home because of an intensifying storm.)
Ray Shasho: Your first solo album Spectrum was certainly a masterpiece. I’ve talked with so many artists who respected Tommy Bolin as a musician and as a human being. What was it like working with Tommy?
Billy Cobham: “It was beyond fun! It’s like being in a room with your best friends. You have Jan Hammer, Tommy and Lee Sklar …it was more like, okay, what do we do now? We did that, okay, do you have anything else? Plus we were in Hendrix’s place (Electric Lady Studios), so it was like being in somebody’s house. We finished recording those tracks with Tommy, Jan and Sklar in two days. That was including getting levels. It was just one of those things because everything just felt good. This is one thing that I learned from Miles … match the people with the music. I had in mind that I was going to use Larry Young on it and I rehearsed with Stanley Clark … but Jan, Tommy and Sklar gave me so much more than I needed. At one point I was thinking about getting Oliver Nelson to produce it and that would have taken it into a completely different direction. But that helped me figure out who really fit this particular situation and the rest is history.”
“I knew the jig was up with me and Mahavishnu Orchestra; I needed something to try and get me back into the studio scene. I never considered myself to be any kind of leader, so if I could just get a record out or some kind of calling card to slip to Max Gordon or somebody like that, see if I could get two or three nights at the Vanguard. When Atlantic Records told me six months later that I had a hit record, I’m thinking … oh, you mean that thing I did with Jackie & Roy? I wasn’t thinking about me. I’m thinking …Esther Phillips, Jackie & Roy, Mose Allison … anybody but me. And all of a sudden, no, it’s your record. I thought they were joking because I never listened to the radio. The head of A&R from Atlantic Records said you need to get a band. I said, no man, I can’t afford a band. Nobody is going to come listen to a drummer leading a band. Finally he showed me the Billboard charts; I never looked at that stuff. He said do you understand, it says #31. I said what does that mean? He said it means it’s going up the charts. We had a big argument because I’m thinking I can’t afford a band. That means thirty one thousand dollars that I have to put in for this or that; I don’t have that kind of money. He said, you don’t get it, we’ll support you. And that’s how I started to learn the music business. They don’t support me with their money, they support me with my money, the money that I didn’t get (Laughing).”
Ray Shasho: The Spectrum album came out in 1973, the Mahavishnu Orchestra was formed in 1971, and then Jeff Beck releases Blow by Blow in 1975 and the media calls him a genius? Nothing against Jeff Beck but I think those music critics have gotten it wrong.
Billy Cobham: “I didn’t want to say anything but between me and John, we didn’t even have a spit in the bucket in terms of the amount of acknowledgement that Jeff has. It’s always been quirky for me, here’s a guy who really-really loved my music. Okay, thank you very much. So one day in 1978, I get a call, I think it was from Stanley Clark to come and work with Jeff at a rehearsal someplace in Japan for a ‘Live Under the Sky’ or something that we were going to do. I was already doing a ‘Live Under the Sky’ as a guest of Tony Williams at the time.”
“I arrived in LA from Geneva where I had been working at the Montreux Festival and I had a 24- hour virus that had been knocking me down. So I get off the plane and go to the Sunset Marquis Hotel in LA. The next thing I know, I get a call, and now I’m at a rehearsal hall with Stanley and we start playing together. Just a little blues shuffle. The next thing you know, Jeff Beck walks in. We’re grooving and we finally see him and stop playing, hey Jeff how are you doing? He says… I’m just going to the toilet and I’ll be right back. So we go back and start to play again. We’re grooving and having a ball, next thing you know …one hour passes, then two hours pass and no Jeff. So we’re wondering what Happened to Jeff? That was 1978 and I never saw Jeff again.”
“In 1998, I’m standing in line at the Montreux Festival and there’s Jeff in front me. I said, hey Jeff how are you doing… and he doesn’t remember me of course. I said so listen man, when you went to the bathroom did everything come out alright? Because I’m still waiting for you so we can go ahead and play. He looked at me and then finally got it.”
“I’ve always thought there was a reason why he never came back …maybe I said the wrong thing or I played or did something wrong, or he wasn’t comfortable with me … I don’t know?”
Ray Shasho: Or it might just be Jeff’s persona. I interviewed Jim McCarty the drummer for The Yardbirds and he had this to say about Jeff … “We were on a grueling tour, forty date tours- two venues a night, with all the other bands on a greyhound bus. Jeff only did a couple of the dates and he disappeared. He said, I can’t handle this and he went to California with some girlfriend out there. We ended up doing the whole tour without him.”
Jeff was actually fired.
Billy Cobham: “It was amazing. In 1998, I thought I said something really wrong … so the last thing I expected was to hear him on a DVD with him playing my music. I was like … get out of here! So God bless him and thank you very much, but I didn’t get it.”
Ray Shasho: Billy, you’re an amazing player …such a natural, very smooth yet very intricate in the way you sound.
Billy Cobham: “It’s a whole objective of trying to analyze the self analytical … okay the reason I’m doing these things is… this is a drum and it’s made up in a specific way, drum heads are very-very important in the whole combination of things …a drum stick and the “B” design …the neck design is from the shaft the width … all these things help you decide how you’re going to apply yourself and attack that drum. The more you know about each individual drum, its depth, its diameter, the plies … the easier it is going to be for you to play. So it makes you study and become more of an artist than just someone who applies a drum stick to the drum and leaves it there for fun. Now, what you want to do is be Muhammad Ali and sting the drum while you float over it like a butterfly. So the whole objective is concept, technique and approach. In order to have that you have to imagine why you would do that and in what situation, this now brings you to the point of becoming an artist.”
“For me, the whole reason why I make it look so easy is because I know if I play harder than that ... I wouldn’t be able to play as long. The objective is to make the drums work for me.”
Ray Shasho: Billy, I worry about certain musical genres that seem to be fading, especially rock and roll, jazz and the blues.
Billy Cobham: “The blues has got a problem. That’s coming from the gut! When the person who has that story passes into the next dimension, its gone man. That person has to play that and you have to play it with him. When you hear what’s going on now where everybody’s speaking, there not singing 1-4-5 chord, they’re singing monotonically, if you want to call it singing, they’re just talking. It’s a different dimension, a different approach, and makes a lot of things fragmented. For the blues as we know it … it’s going away. It’s fading and maybe in a cycle it will come back in a different way, but it has to come back with some different folks. I think it’s the most difficult music to duplicate now.”
Ray Shasho: Billy, here’s a question that I ask everyone that I interview, If you had a “Field of Dreams” wish, like the movie, to play or collaborate with anyone from the past or present, who would that be?
Billy Cobham: “I would love to play with John Coltrane or Red Garland and “Trane” or Wynton Kelly and “Trane” or maybe even Bill Evans and “Trane.” Interestingly enough my bass player would be Jimmy Garrison. I would have loved to had the opportunity to play with them back then only to gain the experience as a young person. I would love to do it now knowing what I know.”
Ray Shasho: Who are some of the drummers that you admire?
Billy Cobham: “A drummer that I really admire, living now, would be Roy Haynes. In the past … Elvin Jones, Buddy Rich, Louie Bellson and Mel Lewis, those are the guys that I looked at and felt a kind of kindred feeling with.”
Ray Shasho: What do you think about Buddy Miles as a drummer?
Billy Cobham: “I thought he was amazing. He was amazing from the standpoint of consistency … he laid it down! I’m still trying to understand how a man with a Caribbean accent would come out of Omaha, Nebraska. So I always wondered where does this cat come from. He could have sang with the three tenors, just a wonderful voice, and then to turnaround and learn to play the guitar backwards… that’s just plain not fair (all laughing). To me he even sounded better when he played guitar and sang.”
Ray Shasho: Billy, thank you for being on the Skype call this afternoon. More importantly for all the incredible music you’ve given to all of us and continue to bring. We’ll see you September 20th at the Palladium Theatre in St. Petersburg.
Billy Cobham: “Take care Ray, see you in Florida!”
Billy Cobham will be performing the 40th anniversary of his classic Spectrum album on Friday, September 20th at the Palladium Theatre in St. Petersburg, for tickets and information visit www.mypalladium.org or call 727-822-3590 for more information.
Billy Cobham official website www.billycobham.com
Purchase Billy Cobham’s 2-CD set entitled 'Compass Point' at amazon.com
Visit Billy Cobham on Facebook
Very special thanks to Nancy Balik FitzGerald of Whole Picture Media, LLC and Billy James of Glass Onyon PR
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