Six Days at Ronnie Scott’s

London, england

Few musicians have transformed a genre like Panama-born, New York-raised Billy Cobham. "SIX DAYS AT RONNIE SCOTT’S: Billy Cobham on Jazz Fusion and the Act of Creation" is a one-of-a-kind oral history of a legend’s life work. From his early days with Horace Silver and Dreams to the epochal Bitches Brew sessions with Miles Davis to the breakthrough Mahavishnu Orchestra and beyond, here is a first-ever deep dive into six decades of musical innovation. The book’s setting is six days at iconic London jazz club Ronnie Scott’s, as Britain’s hottest arranger Guy Barker orchestrates and leads a big band performing Cobham’s greatest works. Jazz greats such as Ron Carter, Randy Brecker, and Jan Hammer, family members, club owners, critics and superfans provide colorful insights and remembrances. Readers are given an unprecedented behind-the-scenes look into rehearsals, performances, adjustments, and preparations between shows, and the evolution of a sold-out six-day run.

In this excerpt, Cobham provides a rare look at his early influences.

GRUBER: Was there a point where your father tried to inculcate the love of music or jazz or musicianship in you?

COBHAM: If he did, it was very slick. Because I didn’t know it. We would go to dances or a rehearsal and he would just do these things. It always triggered a positive response. People acknowledged him, and me, for this positive thing he was doing; I wanted to do the same thing. I loved the music. As long as it was played with heart and feeling, I was enthralled by it. When I listened to classical music, it was the same way.

GRUBER: Did your mom have a similar love of music?

COBHAM: Mom loved music but she was more comfortable being housewife and controller of our home environment. Had everything worked out better as a family, you would have found her at home. She was a tailor, very creative, she would make patterns for people, with images from an Amsterdam News, a Daily Mirror, Daily News, and her payment was to see her work walking down the street.

GRUBER: At some point, I would love the technical details of Keith’s first drum set.

COBHAM: I’ll tell you right now. It’s a 22-inch bass drum, a 5½ by 14-inch snare drum, 8 by 12-inch rack tom. Two 16-inch floor toms. All the old trappings. I’m having my guys cleaning that stuff up. All of the heads are original. Still says Manny’s Music Shop, 48th Street. When I saw the drum set, I was shocked, in drum heaven. For some reason, it started to take hold on me. It was the first time I reached out and touched a drum set and heard it live.

GRUBER: When did you start taking lessons?

COBHAM: If I have studied with or been in the presence of more than five teachers in my life, that’s a lot. My father took me to see Specs Powell, drummer in West Side Story on Broadway. Next time was Warren Smith, worked with Gil Evans. It did move me in the direction I wanted to go, jack of all trades. Then the great Chauncey Morehouse, who played bass drum in the New York Philharmonic. I was still leaning toward classical percussion but it didn’t last very long. After that, my biggest teachers were drum and bugle corps marching band teachers, of which there were two. Bobby Thompson. And Ken Lemley, who showed me the way with rudiments. After that I taught myself. And watching the greats on TV, in real life, playing, Max Roach, Buddy.

I went to Music and Art High School, northernmost part of Manhattan, Compton Avenue and 135th Street. Many artists, much of the band Blood, Sweat & Tears came out of that school. Laura Nyro, one or two years after me, Janis Ian was in school with me. Eddie Gomez, the bass player, sat next to me in my home room class. The great Jimmie Owens, trumpet player, Larry Willis, who played with Harry Belafonte. (New York City Mayor) Fiorello LaGuardia started the school in the ‘30s I think. Because Roy Haynes and Ray Copeland recommended that I should take the examination, they thought I had good ears and a good sense of rhythm, I ended up going for three years, ’59 to the summer of ‘62.

GRUBER: And a couple of years later, you were in the army. Were you concerned about being drafted?

COBHAM: My number was up. I knew it was coming. I was playing the 168th Street Armory up in the Bronx and I was in a band run by a guy named Ron Anderson. One of the things I learned was, if I am on time, and played well, and I don’t cause anybody any problems, the chances are I would get hired again. I know I need to get to the gig first so I can be ready. If it’s an hour set-up, be there early, then leave a half-hour or hour after the band leaves to tear it down myself.

That is when I met Hendrix. I remembered him because he played upside down guitar. He had moves that would not quit. Great rhythm player. I would play dances at the Armory, had a 220-yard indoor track, huge place, collegiate athletics all the time in the winter.

GRUBER: What do you remember about playing the gig with him? Do you remember what he looked like, what he was wearing? And what were you playing? Rock? Jazz? R&B?

COBHAM: White shirt, black pants. Might have been Marcel-processed hair to be slicked down. R&B definitely. It was about people dancing.

GRUBER: In watching you over the years, and watching older videos, there is an incredible physicality that you bring. When you talk about the drum and bugle corps, was there something about that approach that affected your playing, your physical sense of style?

COBHAM: Yes, it was the discipline of playing with others, so that we sounded like one drummer playing. The objective was to play as part of a unit and to make all the drums together sound alike. Look and sound exactly like your colleagues, the same patterns. If you can do that, you could win the contest. This instilled in me a tremendous amount of discipline, to be observant and to practice in a specific way, to develop a routine, to watch myself in a mirror so as to sharpen my skills. To watch how my sticks went up and down.

The strokes had to be as close to being the same as possible. I never started with sticks touching the head. A half-inch above the head, stroke the head. This is how I practice everything, to this day.

Since this is such a demanding physical instrument, how can I pace myself over time to be effective at a high proficiency level. Controlling the power. Understanding where the power emanates from, setting the body. How to draw the sound out of each instrument. How can I be creative in that way, get more tone out of the drum? Instead of pounding on the drum, drawing, bringing, coaxing the sound out of the drum. Stinging the drum. Using less energy. It’s a mental process of refining one’s conceptual approach to expression through the drum set, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

GRUBER: I am wondering if the combination of two things, the drum and bugle corps and your time in the army, helped you learn how to conserve energy and prepare physically as a musician.

COBHAM: Army, yes. It was learning how to respond to the directions of my supervisors, my Non-Commissioned Officers. Do something? I did it. When I came in to the military, I was one step ahead of everybody. I came with that discipline. So, they listened to me a lot. That probably ended up saving my life, otherwise I would have gone to Vietnam. I was in the United States Army band. Was there from 1964, out in 1968.

GRUBER: How good a drummer were you when you left the army?

COBHAM: I was still pretty rough. My problem was the same positive element, all the discipline, now I had a problem just loosening up. I had help from Roy Haynes, one of my sponsors to get in to high school. We had jam sessions. This is a man at least 25 percent shorter and when he played on my drum set, I thought I had power, I had none. He knew how to attack the drums, bring out sound in drums. And you knew it was Roy when he was playing.

GRUBER: How did you meet him?

COBHAM: His nephew Artie Simmons played trombone, and was a leader of the first band that I ever joined, the Jazz Samaritans. We all lived in St. Albans, Queens, south Jamaica. Myself, George Cables, great jazz pianist, still lives in the same house out in Laurelton. Artie is still there as well, I believe.

We were inspired by what he (Haynes) was doing. He had a way, in his body language, to do some wonderful things, the way he challenged himself. He was a role model for us and still is to this day in his nineties.

GRUBER: OK, you complete your army stint, what happens then?

COBHAM: I got out of the military, already married, like an idiot, that is another part of the black social environment that I lived all my life. Living on love does not work. We wanted to do better, bringing up children, but we didn’t know how, only knew we wanted to. I couldn’t work, couldn’t get a job, my wife had no idea where we went from there, I was just supposed to take care of everything. Her parents were also like that; we were just reliving that nightmare from the generation before us. I ended up starting to figure things out. but it had a very high cost. I made a lot of mistakes. I did silly things without thinking them through. The two innocent children I had with her, not their fault. I continued to make the same mistakes, learning, until finally on my fourth time around, I found the person who is with me now. That was a very heavy price to pay. All of the lessons are with me, how to work with people, why we go through what we go through.

GRUBER: In her head, was she marrying a musician, a potential star?

COBHAM: She was trying to get out of a problem that we both faced. Her parents and grandparents were separated, she had two brothers just getting by, she wanted to be an actress, she wanted the better things in life for herself. But we were too young to understand, we never really got it, there was no one there to tell us, the black woman in a family hating the black man because he wasn’t there for her. Her father was a merchant marine, always on a ship, never met the man but that’s the only way he could make a living. It was never enough. Then I had my family. At that time, my mom was the only one taking care of me and my brother. I had to be like a father to my brother. We had no idea how to help each other.

To fully experience the life and music of the legendary Billy Cobham, order your copy of “Six Days at Ronnie Scott’s”.

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