“Six Days at Ronnie Scott’s: Billy Cobham on Jazz Fusion and the Act of Creation”

PREFACE  

There was a domestic war in the United States, a growing ‘generation gap’ in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s even as the conflict in Vietnam was escalating. I was 14 in March of 1970, my brother Jeff a wise but wild role model at the advanced age of 19.

My earliest memory is of my mother Claire tying my shoes at three years old at our Legion Street, Brooklyn tenement. But my fiercest early memory was Mom raging at Jeff in our East New York, Brooklyn housing-project apartment upon finding anti-war paraphernalia. Five decades later, I can tell you exactly what one button said: “The Great Society, Bombs, Bullets, Bullshit.”

It was a political and cultural divide and music was smack on the front lines. Jazz, firmly established as America’s popular music, had been overwhelmed by rock and roll, which my parents despised. Anti-war buttons aside, and well before music might be safely sequestered in iTunes libraries, vinyl ‘records’ littered teenage bedroom floors, with designs, liner notes and musical forms aspiring to subvert the existing order. Relatively clueless, as I trailed my brother’s political and musical evolution by a half decade, I could tell the degree of subversion by the pitch of my mother’s voice.

The Sad Sad World of Mothers and Fathers??!?” That Brute Force title was not well received by Claire, nor were Frank Zappa lyrics, or odd, loud explosions of sound taunting my parents’ more civilized record collection, tucked neatly in the hi-fi stereo cabinet.

Billy Eckstine was a favorite of Mom’s. As was Frank Sinatra. There was Cab Calloway, who my father hired in the ‘30s to perform at his Brooklyn house party. And lots of Al Jolson, who Dad could imitate flawlessly. Some of the records did find some purchase amongst the kids. Dave Brubeck’s odd-metered Take Five. And the first jazz album that turned my head, the breakthrough bossa nova classic, Getz/Gilberto.

In March 1970, President Richard Nixon was promising peace with honor in Vietnam while striking out at the Paris peace talks. But my dad Sol and brother Jeff found their own way to harmonize personal and musical differences: they took me to my first concert. The Fillmore East was Bill Graham’s Manhattan rock and roll mecca, and a unique breeding ground for visual and musical experimentation. The headliner, Neil Young and Crazy Horse, was preceded by the Steve Miller Blues Band. With Miles Davis opening, and performing, among other things, the breakthrough release that is widely considered the birth of jazz-rock ‘fusion,’ Bitches Brew.

No, that’s not quite right. Davis played second.

I was opening for this sorry-ass cat named Steve Miller…didn’t have shit going for him, so I’m pissed because I got to open for this non-playing motherfucker just because he had one or two sorry-ass records out. So, I would come late and he would have to go on first, and then when we go there, we just smoked the motherfucking place and everybody dug it, including Bill. – Miles: The Autobiography, by Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe, Touchstone/ Simon & Schuster, 1989, pg. 301

A few weeks before, William Emmanuel Cobham Junior found himself in a studio recording tracks for Bitches Brew, along with John McLaughlin and an astounding cast of artists who would go on to transform jazz and popular music.

I first met Billy Cobham just before my birthday in August of 2010. I was spending a good part of the summer at friend Marynell Maloney’s home in France’s Loire River valley. A few days earlier, just across the river in Jargeau, Joan of Arc’s old stomping grounds, I was reading in an open-air plaza, sipping a glass of local wine, when three musicians suddenly set up a few yards away. They proceeded to perform an acoustic rendition of Chick Corea’s Spain. After their shockingly good performance, I introduced myself and got their card. Marynell invited them to perform at the birthday party and I casually suggested Bill might join them. She rightly scorned the idea, a legend playing with local musicians, won’t happen. But after dinner, as they played on the patio under a starry sky, he did just that on a tiny drum set. A friend of Bill’s remarked, “He can’t help himself.”

In the years since, I have seen Bill perform in Paris, Milan, Rio and numerous U.S. cities. As he plugged his iPad into my car audio system, he would share a never-ending stream of stories that were not only insightful, bawdy and astounding, but also provided a unique panorama of the last half-century of American music. So, when Bill told me he was collaborating with Britain’s hottest arranger, jazz trumpeter Guy Barker, to orchestrate and perform his oeuvre with a 17-piece big band at Europe’s premiere jazz club Ronnie Scott’s, I thought: why not hang out backstage, in rehearsals and at the bar during the six-day run and finally gather those stories. Not a biography, but an oral history exploring six decades of music, an improvised series of encounters during one special week. Talk to the greats who have played with him, club owners, music critics, friends and family to explore the source of Billy Cobham’s musical power and joy, this jazz fusion pioneer and innovator, and discover what motivates him to continue to create at the age of 73.

Guy is calling the six-day residency at Ronnie’s “a celebration of Bill’s life and work in music.” Billy Cobham, a guy voted year after year as the greatest drummer in the world, considered the greatest living jazz fusion drummer, one-time bandmate of Miles Davis, Randy Brecker, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Jimi Hendrix, Ron Carter, George Duke, Stan Getz, Muhammad Ali (!), George Benson, Freddie Hubbard, Billy Taylor, Horace Silver, from incarnations of the Grateful Dead and Jack Bruce to Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD, the list seems endless.

Back in the chateau’s expansive dining room, I asked Bill if he had any birthday advice for me. He answered without hesitation, “Live your life with reckless abandon.”

I’m working on it.

Brian Gruber

December 18, 2017

Koh Phangan, Thailand

 

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