Conversation with Billy Cobham, Part 1: The Art of Creation

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Billy Cobham

Throughout his lifetime, Billy Cobham’s musical journey would be fueled by his enormous drumming talents, by his challenging compositions, and by his keen instincts in choosing to work alongside extraordinary bandmates and collaborators. What drove Cobham to attain those heights might have been borne out of simply having to make a living, but what cannot be denied is his passion for creating memorable music where the tools of the trade are just that: mastering scales and attaining instrumental prowess won’t engage listeners unless each member of the ensemble is actively listening to, and interacting with, one another at any and every given moment.

Those are amongst the core principles that Cobham offered at the Billy Cobham’s Art of the Rhythm Section Retreat, where musicians serious about their craft expand their experience and knowledge through various workshops conducted by Cobham and a staff of formidable talents. The third annual event in Mesa, AZ — which retreat General Manager Nancy Balik hailed as a “resounding success” – recently ended in late July, and the fourth is already scheduled for July 14-20, 2019. (Anyone interested in attending next year’s retreat can email [email protected] and receive details prior to their appearing on the retreat website sometime in the coming months.)

Earlier this year, Cobham was on tour presenting the Crosswinds Project, bringing a new appreciation to pieces from his second solo album. Accompanying Cobham offstage was longtime friend Brian Gruber, author of the new book “Six Days at Ronnie Scott’s: Billy Cobham on Jazz Fusion and the Act of Creation” in advance of its subsequent publication in May 2018. Don’t let the book’s title fool you—while Gruber meticulously outlines the story behind the event at Scott’s, he has succeeded in providing an informative and thoroughly entertaining biography of Cobham’s life.

This interview was conducted in Seattle, WA in March 2018 while the two were in town for the Crosswind Project’s stint at the Jazz Alley, and due to its length the interview is presented in two parts. In part 1, presented here, Cobham discusses various topics, including the challenges in staying afloat throughout his career. In the second part (which will follow in the coming weeks) both Cobham and Gruber will dive into the story behind the show at Ronnie Scott’s including how Gruber tackled the daunting task of juggling the book’s many paths: discussing the event itself, incorporating Cobham’s colorful life stories, and obtaining memories and thoughts from those who have come into Cobham’s orbit.

It’s no exaggeration to append that last sentence with “and much, much more” — which also accurately describes what one can reliably expect from the music and the mind of Billy Cobham.

MIKE TIANO: I’ll just start by asking, “Billy, how are you?” It seems that you’re always working and I’m guessing the reason is because you have a lot of projects that you’re passionate about. Can you divulge the passion-to-survival ratio of your life right now?
BILLY COBHAM: [Laughs.] That’s interesting that you should bring that up! No, I can’t. [Laughs.]

MIKE TIANO: You have a lot of projects going, and for myself that’s exciting … but a lot of musicians are struggling nowadays and have to work just to survive.
BILLY COBHAM: Well, that’s been the way it’s been since I can remember. The only difference is the attention-span ratio to what we do on the bandstand or wherever we perform, where painters and artists are always trying to survive, reinvent themselves just naturally because people lose interest so quickly, especially now. But can you imagine if … [have] you’ve been here from Seattle most of your life?

MIKE TIANO: Actually, I moved up here from Los Angeles.
BILLY COBHAM: That’s not so bad, actually. Then you might know there’s still the Lighthouse jazz club [in Hermosa Beach, CA], that bands would come and play there for two, three weeks, or something. You have Gerry Mulligan or something like that back in the ‘60s and ‘50s and earlier, less things to do then. I think pinball machines at that time were just coming online and they could be the analog equivalent of what we see now with Super Mario Bros. And that happened so fast in terms of light years, and it’s the speed of what you’re doing, the concentration of people. So, you compare that to – even a situation more acute would be in New York City where you got hired to play a club and you could play the Vanguard for maybe four or six weeks. Same thing, maybe get 20 people out of 100 coming in; a hundred would sell out, 120 people maximum sell out that place – now this is the Village Vanguard in New York City where everybody played in, from the East Coast and from the West Coast. Any great European or non-American players would play the Vanguard, that can’t be done now and it would be three shows, four shows a night to a non-sellout house, trust me. People would be sleeping in their glasses of whiskey while unbelievable music is going on. And most of those guys were inundated with whatever liquid they could find inside the club just to keep warm.

Those days are long gone, man. And to some degree out of that, that saved the music – saved the people because anything that is equated to jazz is a reflection sonically of who we are as a society. So, it will never go away. It is the source for all of that stuff that non-musicians and marketing people put forward as being pop or popular. But the reality is if they don’t have it [then], they don’t have a place to draw from – something to get the ideas from. Then, they’ve got nothing, and they can’t have nothing because it’s based on who we are as the human race. So, therefore we always have something because it has to come from the folkloric side. And again, it drives home the point that music is actually a mirror sonically of who we are, where we’ve been, and where we want to go.

MIKE TIANO: And even back then if artists played three or four sets a night, they were playing jazz. It wasn’t like going up and playing “China Grove” over and over. It’s very malleable.
BILLY COBHAM: That’s the beauty of the platform. It morphs with every combination of players. You know it never will ever be the same. You can play the same tune for the whole night, a whole week, a whole month and depending on who’s on the bandstand and what they’ve gone through from minute to minute that’s going to change … just normal.

MIKE TIANO: I thought it was interesting in La La Land how they kind of explained what jazz was to the layman. Did you see that movie?
BILLY COBHAM: No, I didn’t.
BRIAN GRUBER: I liked it. I thought, for a mass-appeal movie, they did a nice job of presenting at least that one character in the L.A. scene.

MIKE TIANO: Right, the Ryan Gosling character – [to Billy:] just for your edification – basically explains to the Emma Stone character, “This is what jazz is and here’s how the different musicians actually interact with each other,” and I thought, that’s a great way of explaining to the layman what jazz is, because a lot of people think, what is it? It’s not repetitious like pop …
BILLY COBHAM: Yes, it’s true. It’s true. But I mean, pop being the popular part of jazz, somebody took that, “Let’s loop that and feed that to the general populace so everybody can go [claps].” [For] jazz, not necessarily because it’s on a train track that can go anywhere at any time and pick up anything, so you’re going to get the garbage with the diamonds, so to speak. And it will all be there. And depending on who is sensitive to what’s there is, who will present what they interpret as being something very special for them. I see no problem with that. It’s wonderful.

MIKE TIANO: The Crosswinds Project followed Spectrum 40 and, in the rock world, there are numerous artists whose output today are far from the classic albums they produced in their heyday. So, the trend is for those artists to create their hit albums even down to the running order of the original releases. When did you first decide to start going down this path of revisiting your albums and how, in your mind, does your approach differ from those like, say, Yes going out and playing all of Tales From Topographic Oceans?
BILLY COBHAM: I started to consider this probably in the early ‘90s when I realized that I was out there by myself. I had no support from “the system” [quote unquote], that’s set in the Harvey Weinstein group. I didn’t have anywhere near a way to get into that nor was there any in any interest clearly in their supporting me, or by any organization – not just not to just put a monocle on Harvey Weinstein, it’s just the entertainment industry didn’t have any interest in Billy Cobham as a drummer, as far as they’re concerned, with no direction. They’ve got enough drummers for what they do, what they presented: You play, you know you’re not inventive. You do as they say not as they do, until they tell you. And if you do the right things maybe they’ll throw you something – maybe or maybe not.

All of that’s cool. I get it. It’s a business, nothing personal. They have an overabundance of artists who can really, really do their thing with their instruments or their voices. And at some point in time those artists must be supported in some way. I mean thank goodness for organizations like that. If you go back and you look at the Bill Graham organization and the Dead and all of the different bands that they really were behind, truly sincerely behind, [it’s] because they saw the value. They didn’t have time for one drummer so that drummer had two options: die or find a way to survive. I chose the second. For me, that was very, very important because I saw that the door was open, and yeah, I’m going to make mistakes. You know, I’m going to fall all over myself. But will I learn from the mistakes or will I continue to make the same mistake again? Or will I be prepared for the next situation that presents a little different version of the problem I had before? How will I deal with it? And what I found to be challenging was to take those ideas or that thought process and make something of it, number one. Not get bogged down in what people said about me or what I thought they said about me.

What I found to be very important is that it was I stayed below the radar, that I be underestimated as much as possible – and to do my thing – so that from time to time I will definitely surprise people and it may not necessarily be to my advantage. The last thing I want to do is even surprise somebody who doesn’t feel very good about me, that I actually accomplished what I was accomplishing without them, because that means now they’re going to focus on me more to find out how did I do that, who do I know, blah blah blah blah. And it always proved itself correct because again I was standing alone. All I was doing was using logic to my advantage. I need to eat: how do I do that? Maybe I ought to take the Spectrum album and do something with it in this way; let me just write another arrangement. Now that I know how to arrange better, let me use my tools to continue to get sharper and understand better the musicians whom I’m working with. Let me invite my colleagues whom I’m hiring to play with me who respect me to the degree of wanting to join me to provide music that I will play of theirs. So, hence Tim Landers, Dean Brown, Gil Goldstein, Michael Abani, Mike Stern, all in my bands back in the ‘80s, they always play their tunes as well, and the deal was I’ll play your tunes.

That means you get the publishing. It’s OK. Everybody’s looking on in your publishing probably because they know the word, but they still don’t understand what it all means. Yes, you get 5 cents or 6 cents or 20 cents or whatever they say you get when they decide to give it to you. That’s the most important thing. But you don’t really see it all until you really investigate what that word really means. There’s copyright; there’s what you get personally; there’s [all] that stuff. And then there’s the whole other thing. So, that’s another word that’s an art form unto itself trying to figure out for what I provided, how many people get a piece of everything that I got. What do I get in the end – it’s another story for another day. But the fact that I was thinking that way, I could attract fellow players who I felt were at least on my level, to help me do what I wanted to do quietly in a way that got us work. Why? Because the product was good, the brand was good, and that’s exactly where we’re at today. But that was happening back in 1975 — well, actually that’s not true, 1978 is when I really started to get it going. ’75, I made mistakes like you wouldn’t [believe]. I had no idea. I was with Sid Bernstein, who left me out there hanging in Europe and I even signed a white-paper contract with him that stated that he was not obligated to do anything for me.

MIKE TIANO: That was Sid Bernstein of Beatles fame? [Bernstein is best known for bringing the Beatles to Carnegie Hall in 1964 and Shea Stadium in 1965.]
BILLY COBHAM: The only Sid Bernstein I knew was in New York City Management. He did Madison Square Garden and all that stuff but as far as I was going, he did absolutely zero for me. And I put myself in that position; it was not his fault. He did me a favor by attaching his name to me at the time. But I learned, you know, I’m out there by myself. And so I’ve got to either die or do something with the time I have left on this earth that makes some sense for me.

MIKE TIANO: When did you decide to go out and present Spectrum again for audiences? [Was that] ahead of the current wave of these rock bands going out and doing their albums – or did you see some of them doing that, and that’s what gave you the idea?
BILLY COBHAM: No, I saw it as an act of desperation. I got fired from the band that I was working with that I thought I would be working with forever – and that was the Mahavishnu Orchestra. So, when I got fired again I thought, well, I can roll over and die or I can do something for myself, by accident. It’s like learning you got a job at the local newspaper and they said, “Do you type?” You say yes. Why? Because you need the job. But you didn’t say how fast your typed and how you typed. So, next thing you break out your two index fingers and you start doing this. Why? Because you’re desperate; you need to earn a living or you’re in trouble. So, that’s what I did. I just took whatever I could from the whole thing and made sure that I learned as quickly as possible how to arrange and how to write. So [hums the intro to “Crosswinds”] was on the piano with two fingers, you know, and because it seemed to make a lot of sense. If I’m playing with a band that [does fast runs] and all of this kind of stuff, there is a groove in there somewhere – but it means you’ve got to take a course, a doctoral thesis, to figure out where it is. But if you just throw [hums passage from “Crosswinds”] over and over again and you lay it down – hey, we got something, that’s the pop in all of that stuff in Mahavishnu. So, I just took that out, put it on the record, and the rest is history.

MIKE TIANO: There’s something to latch onto.

MIKE TIANO: To me, it’s the difference between the old-school progressive rock bands like Yes, Genesis and King Crimson, and some of the newer ones like Dream Theater who play [sings fast runs], where there’s nothing to hang onto.
BILLY COBHAM: Yeah. Well, the whole thing about Dream Theater is that what came before that was [Frank] Zappa and they went that direction because they were trying to find a way with their limited abilities to translate the technical into the musical, what was happening on the bandstand. They wanted to be the next Mahavishnu; they wanted to round off the edges and be like Frank in concept. But they forgot about who they really were and where they really came from. And it’s not about the institutions that they attended, and somebody gave them a piece of parchment. It’s about the real school – the one of hard knocks that we all talk about. You get slapped around and said, if I ever hire you again – from the promoter – this is what I’d like you to do: Just give me C, F, G, C, those four chords and make sure that you tell me a story. They call it the blues in C.

MIKE TIANO: You have an advantage with recreating your albums because of the jazz idiom. Your audiences will accept hearing variations and will embrace it, whereas when Steve Hackett went out and started to do songs by Genesis [in Genesis Revisited], there’s one, “Firth of Fifth” – I don’t know if you’re familiar with that one – but he really made a major change to it, and audiences kind of recoiled. They rejected it, because they wanted to hear the Genesis arrangement while Steve Hackett was trying to do something different – and he faced some resistance there, whereas with you, you can pretty much do what you want as long as the main themes are still there, and be creative about it.
BILLY COBHAM: Yes, parameters. You use set parameters and say, this is where we’re working. This is our sandbox, don’t step out of the sandbox, okay, if you want to really keep everybody with you in the sandbox and do something that everyone can relate to. Just recently, I was talking to my guys about the fact that I feel that we’re very blessed, that we have this one big element going for us. We play too much, we play too fast, and we’re still not at the point where we can we understand our power source. I have individuals who are playing so academically and are institutionalized by all of the stuff that they study, and forget that there’s a right note and a wrong note to play at the right time. So, we’re going through that process. There are very, very few people that I can have that conversation with.

We’re not talking about playing good – of course, they play well. They play beyond well. What we’re now trying to do so is to get them to think. I want to get them to think about what you’re saying in each bar: Is it required that you play eight sets of 30 second notes per bar at a tempo that’s 120 or 132 beats a minute? Where is it time for people to digest all of that? That tells me that you are only playing for yourself. Music never lies. When you play for everybody else, you play the right notes because we all we wear our emotions on our sleeves – and if we play the right note at the right time, those notes last. Ask Carole King. I mean, there’s a whole lot of people. Ask James Taylor, [Joan] Baez, Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell. They’re just sitting and just playing their hearts out. You know it’s just beautiful to hear that. You know, when it happens it’s just simple. But some of the most complex things to do – ask Ron Carter, and Herbie Hancock: He plays a lot of notes sometimes, and then other times when he just drops that note, that right note, and you go, wow. You know, “Speak Like a Child” or a lot of recordings that he’s done.

And of course, Miles [Davis], Train, and [Duke] Ellington. Listening to what they do together in a rhythm section that could be labeled bombastic elsewhere. With Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones yet to taste, the touch, when the pianist is Ellington, quite different. And John [McLaughlin] just plays John and it’s all the right notes, because that’s really what they feel. If you go back as far as “Pops” and Louis Armstrong, so again the right notes. Ella Fitzgerald, great example. [In her] 70s, she lost her range but knew how to control the range that she did, in fact, have. I saw that, I experienced it at the Hollywood Bowl. It was a remarkable concert – 1984, ’85, somewhere in there, just sitting in the audience. I think it was then; I just got a ticket. I went and bought a ticket and I just went and did my thing and just sat in the audience, you know just to do what I do. Or Wayne Shorter’s “Juju,” – these recordings that he’s made, they speak so many chapters of information about how to just choose. And it’s not easy to play what you really feel to take away that barrier of defense where you must show everybody you’re competing with the world: “You know I’m smart here, and I’m a professor of this or that I’m going to show you. So I’m going to play every scale, Lydian, and blah blah blah blah blah, and they’re wonderful.” They are incredible tools but it’s about when you use them.

MIKE TIANO: Context.
BILLY COBHAM: Yes, that’s what this is all about.

MIKE TIANO: I read an interview where you mentioned you were able to right some wrongs that occurred during the original sessions for Crosswinds.

MIKE TIANO: What were some of the reasons for those transgressions?
BILLY COBHAM: Because I didn’t know how to write at the time that I wrote it. [Laughs.] So, it gave me a lot of room to grow. You know, I was like [sings intro to “Red Baron”], OK, we’re going to do this – how long are we going to do this? And the melody is short again. And then what? OK, solo – come on, it’s got to be more than that, you know. Yeah, everybody plays solos. What goes around the solo? Then you start to think big band, you know, where would you go with it, with a big band? Da da da or something in the back too. Yes, solos are still playing but we are doing something too: the band’s bouncing back and forth. It’s one of those situations where you continue to think of how to interact as a unit with the band, with the soloist. You don’t leave the soloists out there by themselves. And that’s when it becomes a really a band. Yes, we have some set situations in which it’s in the box – that’s the parameters – we have to play that whomever is playing the solo has to hear that for many different reasons and so you open up those new, new areas. And it continues to go on like this. And I had to learn that; it took me quite a while. When you’re with music, it’s your life so it’s not about you on a clock. You know, except that yeah, you’ll die at some point – and you want to try to get it done before you do that.

MIKE TIANO: When you said that, it occurred to me what Alfred Hitchcock said about the movie The Man who Knew Too Much. He first made that movie back in the ’30s, then he remade it in the ’50s with James Stewart and Doris Day. He said the original was made by a talented amateur, and the remake was made by a professional.
BILLY COBHAM: That’s a direction that I’d like to think I’m going, because I can see myself, I mean in the future, that would be the total eclipse. And I might even come back to Spectrum at some point in time because, when I first recorded Spectrum, it was a salute to where I just left. That’s where the 7/4 came in. The “Taurean Matador” is again a little bit of salute to that. “Quadrant 4” for was the Mahavishnsu-esque influence. And then it was “To the Women in My Life” and “Le Lis,” which had nothing – that was, well, pre-smooth jazz by like 20 years. Working with Creed Taylor, we did this back in 1969, ’70, we’re making “God Bless the Child” with Kenny Burrell – quite different. And for me, that was home. And then someone came up with the name “smooth jazz” — yeah, right, you know, but OK, it works. It’s got to sell it. It’s marketing and so you realize, of course, music is a vehicle – and in the hands of specific organizations, it can be changed. You can morph into whatever anybody wants it to do so, sociologically speaking.

MIKE TIANO: Recently, a prestigious British manufacturer announced they’re going to end production of compact-disc players. One reason was the advent of digital downloads, where consumers can pick and choose what songs they want to hear. Do you think this differs for jazz artists in comparison to pop or rock stars?
BILLY COBHAM: No, because I think at this point in time as far as the commercialized aspect of it, a jazz artist has to be smart enough to understand that they are the record company – and so, if they play to their ability and they are acknowledged for such, they will sell if they tell people they have something to sell and it has some history – as you would notice that I do on my shows. I will share that information with my audience, my constituency, because otherwise I don’t sell any records. They don’t sell themselves. Many times, it galled me to listen to artists who would go, “I don’t have time for this. I made that record deal; it will sell itself,” and then walk away. They are walking away from their people. The impression that they’re making is long lasting, no matter whether or not some idiots think, “Wow, he did that; he’s or she’s so special because they put us down.” I don’t think so, no. Down the road at some point in time, those same people as they get older will say, “You know, he had or she had the audacity to think I was less than him.” Not a good idea.

MIKE TIANO: I think that would probably translate to the music, as well.

MIKE TIANO: It is a part of you; it remains a part of you. Whereas if you’re just doing it to make a few bucks, it’s gone; it’s not really a part of you.
BILLY COBHAM: And to me, it’s an active defense, concern, that they don’t look bad. They’ve done something that is supposed to be within their character. This is how they are portrayed by their management. It’s like, I was playing in a club that I totally despise – I won’t mention the name – and in walks a person that announces as if this was the town crier: “Everybody be aware! Victor Wooten is in the room!” I’m looking at this person [thinking], who cares? I mean, I know Victor; he’s a great everyday guy – blue collar, puts on his pants just like everybody else. “Who is this [announcing Victor’s entrance]?” And it’s just some Broom Hilda that walks in and everything was fine, until that happened. All of a sudden the focus is on her, not Victor, for the big mouths. And you go, “This is all a show that I don’t need in my immediate area of consciousness.” I mean, I’m still playing a gig in the city, and she walks in and does this – I don’t think so. And you realize it’s an act, it’s a bad act. And that’s something you don’t need in the business, at least not where I am. You know and it’s all it’s all part of the downside of entertainment, specifically speaking.

MIKE TIANO: Sometimes it’s cyclical, because we all thought vinyl was dead but now vinyl is really making a comeback. Do you think that might be the shining light that will bring back the concept of the album?
BILLY COBHAM: No, but it’s nice to have. The shining light is on the artist itself. And if you know what to do and what to say, if you believe in what you do, in my opinion, then you’ll tell people about it, and not just speak. You will tell them through the notes, because if you can play then there’s no question. Music does not lie. It will tell everybody how good or how bad you are. Your choices, your selectivity, all of that is there for everyone to go – not, “God, that’s terrible” – but the body language will say, “Gosh, I don’t know if I needed to pay money to see this. Why am I here? Probably the food wasn’t good – no, no, it’s the music. I didn’t enjoy myself because everything wasn’t in harmony. And while the band was playing, it really was a drag.”

MIKE TIANO: Even if the gig is bad, everyone has bad gigs. But if the passion’s there, that’s going to come through. That’s the main thing.
BILLY COBHAM: Yes, there you go.

Part 2 of this conversation will be posted before the end of August 2018, where Billy Cobham will be joined by Brian Gruber to discuss ‘Six Days at Ronnie Scott’s: Billy Cobham on Jazz Fusion and the Act of Creation.’ The book can be purchased from the Something Else! Music Shop below.

Special thanks to Nancy Balik and Faina Cobham.

© 2018 Mike Tiano. All Rights Reserved.

Mike Tiano

Mike Tiano

Best known for his work with the Yes-related fan page Notes From the Edge, Tiano launched the official website YesWorld and has written liner notes for several of the group's reissues. The Seattle resident is recording tracks for his upcoming album 'Creetisvan,' and is an expert on movies, TV, prog rock, and the Beatles. Contact Something Else! at [email protected]
Mike Tiano
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