Bill Cobham

Bill CobhamBill Cobham is a legendary drummer who has played with the likes of Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and Oscar Peterson over the course of his 30 year career. This month, he comes to Australia to play the WOMAD festival in Adelaide so I spoke to him about his long life in music and the path his career has taken him along.

Bill was born in Panama but moved with his family to New York when he was three. We started off by asking him what his earliest musical influences were.

Well, I listened to a lot of big band jazz and of course Latin music, so my influences were most strongly Basie, Ellington, Tito Rodriguez, Tito Puente, people like this. And of course going to the School of Performing Arts helped to solidify my foundations in both those areas along with the classical music side. Jazz wasn’t a part of the curriculum at the School, actually it was taboo. We had to learn the classical repertoire: the Mozart and the Brahms and the Mendehlsson and all that—and that was very important. At the time I felt it was… well I could accept it but I understand more now why technically and for proficiency purposes it was very important to do. We still played jazz anyway and there was a very strong jazz community at the School of Performing Arts in the guise of people like Eddie Gomez and Fred Lipsius, who played with “Blood, Sweat & Tears”. So I had a lot of peers and we walked through the early days of jazz together and solidified our ideas and our projections as to what we wanted to do later in life and in our career.

After completing his studies at the famed New York High School of Music and Art, Bill had four years of playing with local musicians who he’d gone through school with, including George Cables, before he joined the military in 1964.

I went into the army and, actually, it was like the school of greater learning. There was the Vietnam scene and this was a good way for me to bury myself in the music books while all that was blowing over and so I went into the US army band and worked there until 1968. Then, when I came out of there, I began working with Horace Silver and I’ve been working ever since.

Horace Silver is one of many, many jazz greats that Bill worked with. In terms of the people from whom he gained the most insight:

It’d be Dr Billy Taylor, a great pianist, whom I worked with at one of the last clubs on 52nd street called the Hickory House. Also, Dizzy Gillespie, whom I worked with a little bit. James Moody. Miles Davis of course. Sonny Rollins. Just the way they handled themselves in front of a band, their stage presence, their consistency with everybody, looking out for their people. It helped me to have a good idea in terms of what I had to do once I was in a position to draw on those experiences. So I feel very blessed.

After working with Miles Davis for a time, Bill left to join John McLaughlin’s “Mahavishnu Orchestra”.

We’d both worked with Miles Davis and John had some ideas that he wanted to put forward. At the time he was also working with Larry Young and Tony Williams on a band called “Lifetime”. So, we were young leaders at the time developing and we were always given the opportunity to go out and make our mistakes, you know. But it was still a community where everybody could share their information and their ideas amongst us were other musicians like Joe Zawinul, Keith Jarrett, Wayne Shorter to just name a few. Herbie Hancock too, of course. We all were in an environment that was based sort of around Miles and Gil Evans. We had a chance to try things. It was a very rich period in time for music in the world and in the States especially at that time. It was really good for me to kind of find out where I fit in.

Since 1980, Bill has been living in Switzerland, first in Zurich and now Bern, I asked him about his reasons for crossing the Atlantic.

It was both creative and societal. I realised that it was very difficult to make a presentation in the USA—there were just too many musicians, too many artists. The platforms, the venues in which to work were steadily diminishing. The kind of music being presented to the public was being watered down into presentations that involved acts like the Village People, which had this constant, foundational techno drum or beat that permeated a whole record. Boom boom boom … constantly. I felt like the public was being purposely being beaten into some kind of submissive role where they marched to this sound. It was like the beating of the drums in the building of the pyramids; thousands of people pulling one stone to place it on top of the tomb of a king. It was the same kind of feeling. So, I wondered what it would be like to live in another environment for a few weeks just to compare notes. Why was there such a strong popularity for jazz and American jazz musicians in other parts of the world, like Europe? I felt like Europe would be a viable place for me to answer these questions and, in part, I’ve gotten some answers but it’s now almost 25 years and I’m still not fulfilled in my quest, so I’m still here. I feel that Europe is a good base for me to search the rest of the world from. I can get back to the US and present my ideas. I’ve found that my home is where I make it and so I lived in the US for a while but in essence my real home is in Panama. So, it’s better for me to go back there and re-establish my roots there, which I have started to do. But at the moment, my temporary home is still Europe and I continue to seek and search and think things through from here.

I wondered whether part of the attraction of Europe for Bill was that its own musicians were perhaps more outward-looking than their American counterparts.

I have not found this, it’s a good question, but I’m not really in a position to answer that about the others. I find that for me, this is the best place to be at the moment. The way people function in Europe is based around what triggers their imagination, what’s needed to find a happy ending for the day, if you will, and it’s something that you can come away with and say, “OK, I’ve accomplished something a little bit today, in doing whatever I do musically, artistically”. You arte definitely affected by the social environment in which you live, so you try to make the best of it however you can.

In recent years, Bill’s collaborations have included work with Peter Gabriel, who founded the world music label Real World and WOMAD. I asked him where he now sees his own work heading.

I think the world music platform is now my platform. That’s what I base my ideas on and where I place them. I don’t consider myself a jazz musician or specialist in playing jazz. I see myself as a student of the world music stage. I come with information to share with others, to learn more about music or more about myself through the music.