As legend has it, Miles Davis assembled a super group of jazz musicians in a New York studio and recorded a bunch of songs without retakes. They left Columbia’s 30th Street Studio having no idea that their work would become one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time.
Drummer Jimmy Cobb said that’s mostly correct.
He recalls one song required a second try. And while they may not have known they were making history, they understood they’d created a hit with “Kind of Blue.”
“We knew it was pretty damned good,” Cobb joked.
Cobb, 90, of New York, is the last survivor of the musicians who assembled for “Kind of Blue” — saxophonists Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane; pianists Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly; bassist Paul Chambers; and, of course, trumpeter Davis and drummer Cobb.
The album, released 60 years ago, on Aug. 17, 1959, captured a moment when jazz was transforming from bebop to something newer, cooler and less structured.
On the album, Davis experimented with “modal jazz” by using simpler “modes” instead of traditional chord progressions, giving his performers more freedom to improvise on the album. Sound engineers captured the sessions, held on two days, with a superb hi-fi recording.
Cobb grew up in Washington, D.C., listening to jazz albums and staying up late to hear disc jockey Symphony Sid playing jazz in New York City before launching his professional career. He said it was Adderley who recommended him to Davis, and he ended up playing on several Davis recordings.
He’s still making music.
On Aug. 30, he’s releasing “Remembering U” with Japanese pianist Tadataka Unno and Italian bassist Paolo Benedettini, and guest appearances by saxophonist Javon Jackson and the late trumpeter Roy Hargrove.
As for “Kind of Blue,” Cobb said Davis assembled musicians who had chemistry and understood what he required for his minimalist approach in the studio. Davis craved authenticity and spontaneity, and his approach in the studio achieved it, Cobb said.
Davis had some notes jotted down, but there weren’t pages of sheet music. It was up to the improvisers to fill the pages. “He’d say this is a ballad. I want it to sound like it’s floating. And I’d say, ‘OK,’ and that’s what it was,” Cobb recalled.
The full takes of the songs were recorded only once, with one exception, Cobb said. “Freddie Freeloader” needed to be played twice because Davis didn’t like a chord change on the first attempt, he said.
The album received plenty of acclaim at the time, yet the critics, the band and the studio couldn’t have known it would enjoy such longevity.
The total number of copies sold has surpassed 4 million.
“It was authentic. It was fresh,” said Ken Cervenka, a trumpeter who teaches “The Music of Miles Davis” and leads several Miles Davis ensembles at Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Cervenka used to listen to the album over and over when he was kid.
“Even today, you listen to it, and it sounds fresh,” Cervenka said. “I’ve never met anybody who’s heard that album who didn’t love it.”
These days, the 30th Street Studio is long gone. Many of the nation’s legendary jazz greats are gone, too. But the music endures.
And so does Cobb.
Cobb still performs — with recent gigs at jazz festivals in Italy and in Maine — and over the years he played drums for Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday, Pearl Bailey, Dizzy Gillespie and Sarah Vaughan, among others.
“Remembering U” shows he still has his chops.
It’s his 12th recording as band leader, and the first on his Jimmy Cobb World label. It features six originals, including a song that he wrote for his sister. There are ballads, swing and gospel — and a pair of Michael Jackson songs. It is being released digitally on his own label.
There isn’t much Cobb would change about his career. With the benefit of hindsight, however, he might have taken a cut in pay in favor of a cut of the proceeds from “Kind of Blue.” As it was, all of the musicians on the iconic album were paid union scale.
“The only thing that’s depressing about it is I’m not getting any money from it,” Cobb said, with a rueful laugh.