A wandering depositor, peeking into the room, might not have noticed the stocky, unassuming figure sitting at the drum kit, tucked behind the horns. In a gray shirt and NASA baseball cap, drummer Jimmy Cobb looked like a moonlighting tradesman drafted into duty at the last minute by the nattily dressed MSU Professors of Jazz.
But jazz studies senior Ryan McMahon and a few hundred other listeners noticed. McMahon couldn’t peel his eyes off the sticks going ta-tik, ta-tik, ta-tik on the rim of the snare drum and the face of the man that changed his life.
“He’s one of the reasons I started playing jazz,” McMahon said.
As a freshman at Indianapolis North Central high school, McMahon joined the vast ranks of mortals who have discovered Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue,” the best selling and the most universally cherished jazz recording of all time.
Cobb, 86, is the lone survivor of the “Kind of Blue” band: Davis, John Coltrane, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, Wynton Kelly, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers and Cobb.
This week, Cobb serves as legend in residence and keeper of the mysteries of time at MSU’s Jazz Studies program.
“Time is a funny thing,” he told about 100 students at a Q&A session after the credit union gig. “You have to grow into time. Listen to how the tune goes, where the time stays, and pay attention to the people around you.”
But his advice wasn’t all philosophical. “When something goes wrong, they blame the drummer,” he warned.
Through Saturday, Cobb will hang with students, hold master classes and barnstorm the state with MSU’s student big band, meeting with high school students in Kalamazoo, Ann Arbor, Traverse City and Detroit. Friday, he’ll join MSU’s Jazz Orchestra 1 and the Professors of Jazz for a wrapup concert at Fairchild Theatre.
Cobb’s visit kicked off with a concert for members of the credit union, which funded the jazz residency series with a $1 million gift two years ago. Midway through Monday’s gig, Cobb and the Professors played “So What,” the track that hooked McMahon in high school.
“I went home and I played it once. I played it again. And again,” he recalled. “The feeling and the groove in Jimmy Cobb’s ride cymbal — I felt a mixture of excitement and curiosity I just had to follow. Even now, I still get that same feeling.”
Another drummer and Jazz Studies senior, Ethan Lucas, stood next to Mc- Mahon, listening intently.
“Watching a living legend play tunes he’s played for 60 years, since he was in his late teens and 20s — he’s the definitive version,” Lucas said. “It’s just incredible.”
Cobb hasn’t been standing still since “Kind of Blue” was recorded in 1961. He’s played with dozens of greats over the years and now leads two groups of his own, including Cobb’s Mob.
Monday night, he looked ready to record a fresh set of tunes with MSU’s jazz all-stars.
“He was playing some things I’ve never heard him play before on recordings,” Mc- Mahon said. “I could hear decades of music in his playing. It’s like he’s exploding with all these different ideas.”
“He took a lot of liberties,” Lucas agreed. After the credit union gig, Cobb met with students until 11 p.m., even though a 6 a.m. call awaited the next morning. He told the students that he joined Miles Davis’ band because the previous drummer, “Philly” Joe Jones, was unreliable.
“I would sit around waiting for Joe not to show up,” Cobb said.
Finally, Miles called Cobb in New York at 9 p.m. and told him the job was his if he could make it to Boston for that night’s gig.
“Boston?” Cobb objected.
He changed his voice to imitate Davis’ rasp.
“You want the gig, don’t you?”
It was a dramatic debut. When Cobb arrived at Storyville, the band was already playing the moody intro to “’Round About Midnight,” without a drummer. Cobb climbed onto the stage and set up his kit just in time for his first lick — the famous boom-boom-boom-ta-boom volley that kicks the tune into tempo.
Cobb told the students about the pleasures and pitfalls of playing with singers like Sarah Vaughan, Shirley Horn and Ruth Brown.
“I didn’t know what (Brown) liked, so I laid a few things on her,” he said. “She told me, ‘Stop beboppin’ my music.’”
Vaughan, he said, was a “sweet woman,” but “if you were doing something wrong, she’d let you know about it.” Horn signaled her displeasure with a dreaded shift of her shoulders.
Cobb told the students that ballads are toughest of all to play.
“You have to play soft,” he said. “Just let ‘em know where ‘one’ is.”
Cobb served up some jazz lore that’s not in textbooks. Guitarist Wes Montgomery, he said, picked up police radio chatter on his amplifier during a gig. Alto sax great Adderley loved to eat.
“He was Cannibal first, then Cannonball,” Cobb said. “Him and Miles would get a rack of ribs at 4 o’clock in the morning.”
After a meal, he added, Adderley would fall asleep with a newspaper.
“His stomach would be gyrating from digesting all that food and the newspaper would flutter,” Cobb laughed.
Cobb talked about the determination of John Coltrane, who got tired of being “beat up” by tenor sax rival Sonny Rollins night after night and forged his own sound.
Cobb reserved his highest admiration for his favorite pianist, Wynton Kelly, heard on one track of “Kind of Blue.” For years, Cobb, Kelly and bassist Paul Chambers formed one of the most sought-after rhythm sections in jazz.
“Wynton could play drunk, sober, sick, whatever,” Cobb said. “That’s what I learned from those guys. Whatever you got, give it up. That’s what’s gonna do it for you.”
As Cobb’s visit wound down, McMahon looked forward to a week of master classes with a jazz legend, touring high schools around the state with him and bumping into him in the hallway. Time might be mankind’s mortal enemy, but Cobb almost makes it a comfort.
“Music is a vessel to live,” McMahon said. “I look at the last eight years as the happiest of my life, the most fruitful and inspiring, and pretty much all of it has to do with this.”
Jimmy Cobb with MSU Jazz Orchestras
8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 4 $10/$8 seniors/FREE for students
Fairchild Theatre 542 Auditorium Road, East Lansing (517) 353-5340, music. msu.edu