Billy Cobham: "At age 6, I played my father's 1950 Chrysler car fender...and here I am"

Written by
Jennifer Greenberg
While August's Red Sea Jazz Festival gets a lot of attention as Israel's hottest jazz event (and not just temperature-wise), there's another contender that's much closer to get to: the annual Jaffa Jazz Festival. This September, over 50 musicians will join together to fill Jaffa with the rhythms, melodies, and magic of jazz dedicated to legends like Charles Mingus and Dave Brubeck. One of this year's key performers is jazz legend, Billy Cobham, whose accomplishments in the Jazz world are far from few. The Panamanian-American jazz drummer worked with Horace Silver, played on Miles Davis' revolutionary Bitches Brew, and was a founding member of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Time Out asked Cobham a few questions about his life and the upcoming trip to Israel.
Is this your first time in Israel?
No, I have been performing in Israel since the early 1980’s. I think my first time was at the Tel Aviv Jazz Festival in 1983. I have returned with my bands and once with Peter Gabriel in 1994 when I replaced Manu Cache for the remainder of the performances. We played in Eilat and in Tel Aviv as well. This was a very memorable time.
Also, why the Jaffa Jazz Festival?
Amikam Kimelman asked me to come to Jaffa to mentor the jazz musicians scheduled to perform there, along with local Israeli talent. Two years ago, I was in residence at the Rimon School of Jazz where I had a wonderful time collaborating with teachers and students. When Amikam reached out to me to be a part of this project, I was immediately open to the idea.
What expectations do you have?
I come with an open mind and no clear expectations except to enjoy the moments as much as possible.
This year's format pays homage to the jazz greats. Which musician(s) will you be paying tribute to?
I am scheduled to mentor and perform with three groups who will feature the music of Charles Mingus, Joe Zawinul, and Dave Brubeck. During this same period I have one master class to present as well.
What can audience members expect from your concert?
Good performances from all who take part.
Billy Cobham


I've been told that the festival is intended to serve as a platform for unique creation? What new elements are you bringing to the table?
My personality in combination with the personalities of the artists whom I will share the band stand.
Which Israeli artists will you be collaborating with?
Inbar Fridman, Gilad Abro, Ronen Shmueli, Uri Gurvich, Ariel Volnez and Eric Niceberg.
What cultural or musical differences have you found in working with Israeli musicians?
They play their history in every note to the best of their ability.
Do you think music can ignite change?
Yes, with every note played or sung.
What surprises are you bringing to the table this September?
I don’t know as I will probably be surprised myself.
Do you remember the first record you every bought?
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Michel LeGrand
Who were some early inspirations?
Everyone in my immediate purview was an inspiration.
Tell me about going to gigs with your dad as a kid.
Sometimes I would accompany my dad to an early performance of his when he had no drummer and we would enjoy the experience that life provided us by being alone together, something that words fall short of describing. As a child you mentor your elders and my dad was a disciplinarian of sorts so there was very little “hanky-panky” on the bandstand. As well as being fun, it was truly a learning experience for me.
Was there a specific moment you knew you wanted to be a musician?
Yes, at the age of about 6 or 7, I had an epiphany with the help of my friends when we asked each other what we wanted to be when we grew up. I told them I wanted to be a drummer. They said prove it so, I did by playing my father’s 1950 Chrysler car fender...and here I am.
You've been through a wealth of decades and styles. Is there any one group or one specific era that will always hold a closer place to your heart?
Birth of the Cool and the transition to Fusion.
What does music mean to you?
Life and Death. It's reflected in the frequencies of when we start and when we finish.
Billy Cobham

© Dominique Meienberg

You've transitioned back and forth from co-founding your own fusion group where you're at the forefront (i.e. Dreams) to being part of someone else's concept (i.e. Bitches Brew) and back? Do you have a preference?
I prefer to have the reins of music and control my own destiny.
What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment?
I haven’t achieved that yet. What is it that I seek to achieve? I don’t know.
What's next on the horizon?
Prior to performing in Israel at the Jaffa Festival I am scheduled to perform at the World Exposition in Astana Kazakhstan with my band featuring Christian Galvez, Camelia Ben Naceur, Jean Marie Ecay and Steve Hamilton. After the residency is completed at the Jaffa Festival I will seek to complete my next CD entitled Tierra Del Fuego. Plus, before the end of 2017, I will tour northern Europe with my new band, The Crosswinds Project, featuring Ernie Watts, Fareed Haque, Tim Landers and Scott Tibbs.
What's the most impacting piece of advice anyone has ever given you?
Ever onward...Never look back!
Find out more about the Jaffa Jazz festival event or visit the hot jazz website for tickets.
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