Cobham Billy Interview: Start as Simply as Possible



“We are communicating. But it starts with the simple.” Meet drumming legend Billy Cobham who here reflects about playing jazz together with others.

Cobham underlines the importance of listening to each other. “It’s paramount. Every musician needs to listen to himself in relation to his colleagues. Only then we move on to areas never thought of.”

Jazz fusion pioneer Billy Cobham is an internationally renowned drumming virtuoso, percussionist, composer, producer, educator, and master clinician whose life has been dedicated to musical exploration and creative expression. Since his birth on May 16, 1944, in Colón, Panama, Cobham has been surrounded by music. His father was a pianist, his mother was a singer, and his family members built percussion instruments for religious purposes.

When Cobham was three years old, his family moved to New York, where Latin and jazz music engulfed him. At the age of eight, he experienced his first paying gig. He later began drumming as a member of St. Catherine’s Queensmen, a drum and bugle corps in St. Albans, Queens at the age of 14 years. Cobham attributes his time in the drum corps as instrumental in broadening his perspective, by giving him ample opportunities to compete, which he greatly thrived on, and learn how to play with fellow drummers and other instrumentalists.

He went on to attend New York’s famed High School of Music and Art, (now known as the LaGuardia High School for Music and the Arts), where he studied music theory and percussion alongside other individuals who would also become today’s musical legends, such as trumpeter Jimmy Owens, pianist George Cables, flutist Jeremy Steig, singer Janis Ian, bassist Eddie Gomez, and pianist Larry Willis. His intense involvement in drum corps as a youth helped shape a rudimental approach to drumming, which Cobham subsequently mastered and brilliantly expanded upon throughout his career.

After graduating high school, Cobham joined the U.S. Army, where he further developed and refined his drumming skills and overall approach to making music while playing in the U.S. Army Band as a percussionist. After he completed his military service, Cobham began his performing career with jazz artists such as Horace Silver, George Benson, Ron Carter, Thad Jones, Kenny Burrell, Stanley Turrentine, and Shirley Scott. In 1969, Cobham was a founding member of the band “Dreams,” which featured brothers Michael and Randy Brecker, along with Jeff Kent, Doug Lubahn, the late John Abercrombie, Barry Rogers, Eddie Vernon, and later, Will Lee and Don Grolnick. The following year, he was invited to join Miles Davis’ group and contributed to four pivotal recordings by the trumpeter, including Bitches Brew (where he collaborated with guitarist John McLaughlin) and Tribute to Jack Johnson. Throughout his career, Cobham has appeared on over 300 recordings, including those by pop and rock icons like Peter Gabriel, Quincy Jones, Jack Bruce, Bob Weir, and James Brown, and to date, has produced and released more than forty albums as a leader.

Billy Cobham was interviewed by Marc-Christoph Wagner at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in December 2020.

Camera: Rasmus Quistgaard

Edited by Rasmus Quistgaard

Produced by Marc-Christoph Wagner

Copyright: Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2021

Supported by Nordea Fonden

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