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Billy Cobham: The Musician as a Student

Jazzed Magazine • March 2010Spotlight • March 24, 2010

The Musician as a StudentThroughout his storied career, Billy Cobham has constantly been one of the most innovative and influential drummers in the world of jazz. Scratch that Billy Cobham is one of the most innovative and influential drummers in the world, period.

In 1968, while on tour with Horace Silver, Cobham played one of the first ever Electronic Drum Controllers produced by the Meazzi Drum Company. He was also one of the first drummers to play ‘open handed’ (leading with his left hand) a technique which has influenced drummers from Steve Smith to Carter Beauford. Perhaps most importantly, Billy is one of the preeminent drummers to successfully lead his own groups, composing, arranging and directing several ensembles from 1978 to the present.

His playing has influenced drummers from all genres who envy his powerful yet precise technique and the undeniable grooves he lays down. With a career that spans over 50 years, not only is Cobham one of the most recognizable names, but also one of the hardest working musicians in the business. He’s played with everyone from Miles Davis and Chick Corea to Peter Gabriel and Santana. As a composer, performer, and bandleader, Cobham is one of the most prolific drummers to date. Currently, Billy is credited on over 400 albums, over 40 of which are his own. In fact, when JAZZed caught up with Cobham, he was in the middle of rehearsing for his latest project: Palindrome.

Despite his busy schedule and intense work ethic, Cobham is a laid back, patient, and very thoughtful person. Oftentimes, our focus at JAZZed is, understandably, on the “musician as a teacher.” Cobham turned that angle on its head as his focus, in his own musical quest, is on the musician as a student. While Cobham does run clinics, workshops, and master classes all over the world, his ability to push his own comfortable limits, learn new things, and constantly hone his art is admirable. After all, jazz is an ever-evolving art form, and if you aren’t hitting the woodshed to learn new things for yourself, what good are you to your own students?

JAZZed: As a young musician, did you have any mentors that helped shape the way you play today?

BC: Not really. There were some people who helped to shape my personality in some ways. One would be Ed Bigton, one would be Grady Tate, one would be Billy Taylor, and another one was a guy named Chris White. They were people who I really respected and are also very special musicians some of whom are no longer with us.

JAZZed: Who were some of your earliest influences?

BC: Oh, Man Early? Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Nelson… People like that.

JAZZed: What was it like to work with Miles?

BC: Working with Miles was an opportunity to learn how to become independent in my thinking. By that I mean that he wanted you to think and make decisions that you were responsible for. If he said nothing, then they were good decisions. If he had something to say relatively negative, then you knew you made a mistake and it should be something that you don’t do again. I was very fortunate that I had that opportunity to experience, at that level, that kind of freedom.

JAZZed: Did that opportunity and experience change your playing?

BC: Absolutely! It’s at the foundation of what I do to this day. The objective is, at least as a writer, to seek out and to find individuals who can interpret what I have written in the way that I would like. This is due to the fact that I feel in my presentations it might be difficult for me to actually play in real time the ideas that I think. So, with that as a base, I try to give them a very strong fundamental presentation. From there, I expect them to not just play that presentation, but to still be independent within the way I present it to them and to expand it to a dimension that they feel much more comfortable with and maybe one that I will feel more comfortable with. That gives us two options. The one that I gave them and the one that they have inside them and this is something that I feel I kind of morphed into after working with Miles.

Billy Cobham and AsereJAZZed: As a bandleader and musician, how has your approach to playing and leading musicians changed over the years?

BC: I feel that I have matured in terms of making decisions, both quick, for the short term and far, seeing in the long term. I have learned to differentiate between tolerance and authoritativeness, when necessary. These traits have helped me through some very interesting times over the past 35 years.

JAZZed: How do you approach the writing process? Is it organic or do you force yourself to write new music?

BC: I write in an organic way, as I am impressed by the life on and off stage and seek to reflect these experiences through my compositions.

JAZZed: What’s the hardest thing about teaching?

BC: The hardest thing is getting people to accept your dogma.

JAZZed: How do you get over that hurdle?

BC: You don’t get over it. You try to be as instructional as you can so that you can adjust to the personalities which you have to work with. The last thing the world needs is a teacher that is rigid in presentation. What teachers, coaches, or someone who is a consultant must do, and what makes them strong and effective, is have the ability to make their presentation to an individual and get their point across based upon the relationship between the two. The thing is: everybody’s different. So, you have to find the key, that opens up the lock in the students mind in such a way so that they can understand what you’re presenting to them.

JAZZed: What’s the most fulfilling thing about teaching?

BC: When you see your ideas put into motion by the student.

JAZZed: Do you have any advice for young musicians?

BC: Have patience. This will take a while.

JAZZed: What up and coming drummers are you currently listening to?

BC: None

JAZZed: Wow. Does that say something about the state of drumming or the state of music today?

BC: No, It says that I am absolutely oblivious to young drummers. I don’t have time to listen to young drummers because I’m just trying to find a gig for myself. I’m not about to go to a club or listen to a record and say, “Wow that guy sounds good. Who is that?” No, more than likely, I’m just trying to figure out how to do better than I have been doing because I’m a student, too, and I’m constantly trying to hone my craft. If I hear somebody that I like, probably I won’t even go up to them and ask them who they are. If I do find out, it’ll be in passing, for sure. Most of the time, I’m trying to be creative on my own and come up with things music or compositions that continue to represent who I am now based upon my past, so I’m not listening to a whole lot of people.

"Working with Miles was an opportunity to learn how to become independent in my thinking."JAZZed: You mentioned that you think of yourself as a student. As a student, how do you approach learning new techniques, skills and music?

BC: I keep my mind open to new avenues and approaches to my craft. I believe that understanding what not to do is as important as learning and understanding what to do in any given situation. Analysis is key to everything. So, I try to absorb what is said or done and then take my time to understand what is before me before I choose a path in working with it.

JAZZed: What are some of the things that you’re currently working on and how are you approaching them?

BC: I am trying to better grasp the concept of working with south Asian and Caribbean percussion as a base, with vocal choral presentation. I intend to present an example of this concept within the next two years. Also, I’ve been working to further develop my understanding of music and it’s usage within the realm of Autistic and Down Syndrome Therapy.

JAZZed: You’ve been living across the pond in Switzerland for over 20 years…

BC: Actually, almost about 30 now.

JAZZed: What prompted the move?

BC: Slower pace. I’m not really somebody that’s fast of foot or fast of mind, but I love to think deeply about things before I make a move. In the United States, that’s kind of tough. I find myself in Europe very much backing away, and going to Europe to view the United States from across the water helped me understand the treasures that are there because the U.S. is extremely rich. I mean, I was brought up in an environment where I could have gone to school and got a Doctorate in music and in the process never left New York. I could have walked to every school all my life and never been farther away than five miles from my home in any direction.

That tends to give you an idea of what’s available in society in the United States. I mean everything high school, middle school, baseball everything was there. And that said to me, “You gotta get out of this secure environment that dictates what the world is all about. Go visit and see for yourself if in fact what the words in the books say about the world is actually true.” So, eventually I made that move.

Remember, when I was a kid, I had books in geography that dictated how and what was China. At the time I was going to school, China was a geographical outline in red with a yellow hammer and sickle in the middle. Africa was black and it said, “The Dark Continent,” and it didn’t give the names of any countries! Russia was another yellow hammer and sickle on a red background with only one city: Moscow. If you believe that, then that sets you off in a specific direction. But, if you go and you look for yourself, you’ll find that there are many, many countries that made up what was USSR, and as I have traveled I’ve found that they are all extremely different. They’re as different as New Jersey is from Oklahoma! So, the more you know as a musician, the better. You play what you know. So, you have to build and make adjustments for the things you haven’t been told and learn to read between the lines as much as possible that’s what creates unique personalities.

JAZZed: Speaking of personalities, what qualities do you look for in a musician?

BC: I think there are certain things that are very important about a musician. A good musician has to be very patient as patient as he possibly can be. He also has to be extremely observant, and he has to be healthy, both mentally and physically. You have to understand that the machine that you’re controlling with your mind is your body and it is imperative that both work together very well for the life of the artist. If you can find musicians who do that, you normally find musicians who excel. Most musicians are thinkers who express themselves in specific ways because they’ve had time to sit back, think and observe the rest of society and say, “Well, I think I can do this in this particular area.” All of those things are very important qualities.

JAZZed: You were one of the first people to embrace electronic instruments. How has technology affected your craft?

BC: The electronic environment is a platform that allows infinite creative directions for me. I try to commit to a path within it and expand on this route as best I can without knowing where I am headed but understanding that the concept will be greater than what I had before.

JAZZed: What do you think about the state of Jazz today?

BC: I think that the lines are very clearly cut as to what happens in the jazz environment. It’s gotten to the point where even philosophically I mean you have band names like, “The Jazz Police” — people only want to play bebop or they only want to play one specific type of jazz and they are aggressively against any other environment that reflects that particular name. I think that World Music encompasses, or is now the umbrella under which, all music is enveloped. Jazz is just but a small, yet extremely rich and intense, concept that lives and leans, in a very real way to the right. Most of the geniuses in music, or at least in modern music today they kind of slip into that area. The problem with that is, because they’re geniuses, they’re very, very selfish people. They only want to hear and talk about themselves. Then, they require an audience which would be more than one person which would be themselves that can justify what they’re talking about! The end result doesn’t change. These guys are the ones who create the fundamental base for everything that we call popular or “pop,” so they’re quite necessary.

JAZZed: What are your future goals as an artist?

BC: To continue to create the music of my mind and the music of my experiences. The music is a reflection of where I’ve been, what I’m doing now, and also what my future holds for me. In a certain way, it’s a glimpse into where I’d like to go. Especially when I make blatant mistakes. You know, things I’d like to try to do but for some reason I can’t because I don’t have my head wrapped around it yet. I’m always experimenting and I think that that’s very important and a major requirement in performing this kind of music. Actually, any kind of music, but this kind of music, especially.

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