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.
spring of 1971, Cobham was invited by John McLaughlin into the Mahavishnu Orchestra, joining Jan Hammer, Jerry Goodman, and Rick Laird. They released three acclaimed albums, beginning with Inner Mounting Flame. Mahavishnu’s
pioneering combination of classical virtuosity, jazz spontaneity, and rock prowess broke new ground in the music world. In this setting, Cobham’s dramatic, explosive power, extraordinary
dexterity, and complex style of play brought him global attention and critical acclaim.
When the original Mahavishnu Orchestra disbanded in 1973, Cobham began leading his own groups and releasing his own albums, beginning with Spectrum, which
unexpectedly became a sensational hit around the world. This breakthrough album is widely regarded as one of the most important, defining statements of the jazz-rock genre.
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
During the 1970s and '80s, Cobham recorded steadily as a band leader for Atlantic, CBS, Elektra, and GRP, collaborating with artists ranging from George Duke, John Scofield, and Airto Moreira
to Jack Bruce and the Grateful Dead, both on stage and in-studio.
In 1992, Cobham was engaged by UNICEF to work with autistic outpatients and street children in the city of Santos
(in São Paulo Prefecture) Brazil, in a musical project which lasted for several years. As Cobham describes, “The street children fell into my realm of operations almost by chance, as it was not part of my original mandate. But
due to the unavoidable specter and shadow cast by so many little personalities with big hearts, minds and so much time to ponder life without parental direction, it was inevitable that I would find myself
working with them—some of the brightest minds harboring raw talent that I have ever witnessed to date.”
In 1993, Cobham performed, recorded, and produced at the WOMAD Festival (World
of Music, Arts and Dance) with Peter Gabriel, Nigeria's Okuta Percussion, and Farafina from Burkina Faso. (His association with WOMAD continues to this day; over the last several years he's conducted sessions in performance techniques at the University of
Bath Spa in England, and he is now an Official Patron of WOMAD in Bath.)
Other highlights of the 1990s included his touring and recording with Jazz Is Dead, Paradox, Nordic, the London Jazz Orchestra; and development of the
Conundrum book series, whose titles have music-minus-one capability that allow participants to play along on their specific instruments. (Drum set, piano, brass, woodwinds, bass,
and guitar books are available through Alfred Music Publications in association with Rhythmatix Music, Ltd.)
At the start of the new millennium, Cobham introduced "The Art of Jazz" series,
recording and touring extensively first with the Art of 3 (with Kenny Barron and Ron Carter), then the Art of 4 (with Carter, Donald Harrison and James
Williams) and the Art of 5 (with Harrison, Guy Barker, Eric Reed or Julian Joseph, and Orlando Le Fleming).
He also produced Culture Mix featuring
steel pan player Junior Gill, recording two albums with them for CMMC (with distribution through In and Out Records).
In 2002, Cobham collaborated with the Cuban group Asere at the WOMAD Festival
in Reading, a rich collaboration that would continue for many years. He also recorded the CD, De Cuba y de Panama with Asere, and a DVD, A
Latin Soul, directed by John Hollis, featuring Cobham and Asere performing together.
In 2003, Cobham reactivated Spectrum as a band that revisited the music of that genre-reinventing
album, featuring Leland Sklar (the original bassist), Dean Brown (guitar) and Gary Husband (keyboards).
Cobham was the centerpiece of a 90-minute documentary by director Mika
Kaurismäki, entitled, Sonic Mirror, which was released in April 2007. The genesis of the film dates back to 2001, when Kaurismäki approached Cobham about producing
a portrait of his life and times. "But then we started to think of other ways of doing it," the director reveals. "We finally decided to do a film about Billy and some of his projects, focusing on rhythm and music as communication and universal
The film takes place in Switzerland, New York, Salvador da Bahia (Brazil), and Helsinki (Finland) and has screened at film festivals in Munich and Cologne,
Germany; Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, Brazil; Pusan, South Korea; Gijón, Spain; Adelaide, Australia; Guadalajara, Mexico; and Buenos Aires,
Argentina. It had a commercial release in France, and a multiple-disc DVD release is available, focusing on the concert in Finland with Randy Brecker; Malê Debalê,
a Bahian bloco afro; the Glarus concert (with Swiss musicians and yodeling choir); Okuta Percussion and Autistics; and the Okuta Percussion concert.
In 2007, Cobham released Fruit
from the Loom, through his own production company, Creative MultiMedia Concepts, Inc. (CMMC), which is a wide-ranging representation of his roots and his musical
journey. He reprises two of his best-known compositions from the '70s, "Spectrum" and "Crosswinds," by incorporating violin on the former and steel pan on the latter. "I've always found it difficult to focus upon one direction in music," Cobham notes, "so
I've resigned myself to projecting ideas and thoughts through a musical kaleidoscope, from Latin to rock and jazz. This version of 'Spectrum' is a testament to that idea."
Fruit from the Loom, dedicated to the memory of Cobham's parents William and Ivy, features support from longtime colleagues Stefan Rademacher (bass), Jean-Marie Ecay (guitar), Christophe Cravero (piano/violin) and
Junior Gill (steel pan).
In 2008, he released the CD, De Cuba y de Panama with Asere, and the DVD, A
Latin Soul. This package contained live concert footage, two documentaries, and a bonus CD with live and studio tracks. Cobham and Asere also toured together during this time. In Cobham’s words,
“Music will tell the world who you are, based on what you present and how you present it. You can't lie through this medium. Therefore I find myself trying again to connect the dots, to learn. Through this relationship with Asere and the music we make
together, it's helping me to connect. I'm reconnecting with my roots in Panama in order to see my future better through this clearer view of my past."
In 2010, Cobham released Palindrome, the second
CD of the four record set in his Fruit from the Loom series. It features Dean Brown in addition to Jean-Marie Ecay (guitar), Victor Bailey and Fifi Chayeb (bass), Christophe Cravero
(keyboards and violin), Marco Lobo, (Latin percussion), Ernie Watts, (saxophone), Michael Rodriguez (trumpet), and Marshall Gilks (trombone).
In 2013, Cobham celebrated the 40th anniversary of the release of
Spectrum CD by touring in USA, Canada and Europe with the Spectrum 40 Band. These performances were extremely well-received by longtime and next-generation fans.
that year, Purple Pyramid Records released the Billy Cobham Compass Point two-CD set, recorded live in New Providence, Bahamas, which features Gary Husband, Stefan Rademacher
and Carl Orr.
In early 2014, Cobham released the much-anticipated Tales from the Skeleton Coast, which was the third instalment of the four recordings produced as a commemoration
and celebration of Cobham's mother and father.
At this time, he continued to develop his Extended Works series, which was a trailblazing musician exploration and collaboration with local
jazz orchestras around the world. This performance series brought his critically acclaimed and widely appreciated material to the orchestral jazz stage, thus sharing his vast musical history with diverse audiences globally.
In the summer of 2014, Cobham released a live CD recording from his highly regarded Spectrum 40 tours, which thrilled audiences around the world, in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of Spectrum.
In 2016, Cobham developed and introduced a groundbreaking educational program for rhythm section musicians, known as The Billy Cobham Art of the Rhythm Section Retreat, held in Mesa, Arizona.
This immersive learning experience, designed for drummers, bassists, guitarists and keyboardists alike, helps musicians learn to play more cohesively as a unit and develop better teamwork and stronger communications
skills throughout the band. Entering its third year of operation, the Retreat continues to expand and evolve in its scope, attracting accomplished musicians and music educators from around
In March 2016, Cobham performed in Poland with Polish National Jazz Orchestra in Katowice. Later, he performed his compositions with the Guy Barker Big Band at Ronnie Scotts Jazz
Club in London, SWR Big Band in Stuttgart and later in 2017, with the Luxembourg Jazz Orchestra in 2017.
Also in 2017, Cobham recorded and released a CD with the new Swiss Youth Jazz Orchestra,
including four time Grammy-winning Klaus Genuit, Master Engineer at Hansa Haus Studios as mixer, with performances by Ryan Quigley, Bobby Watson, Marques Young, Jeremy Monteiro, Rudi Engel, and some
gifted members of the Swiss Youth Jazz Orchestra: Fabian Tschopp, Mathieu Bitz, Felix Piringer, Sofie Schindelholz, Gergő Szax, Dmitry Zinakov, Ivan Akatov, Sebastian Wey, Silvio
Benz, Jérémy Lenoir, Riccardo Ooms and Loris Di Marco.
This album pays homage to the late Dave Brubeck, the pianist and jazz icon who was an inspiration
to many a composer, writer and player over many decades. The theme provided a perfect setting for a production in an educational platform like the ‘Bandstand Learning With Role Models’ at the annual Jazzaar Festival
in Aarau, Switzerland, where Cobham served as maestro.
As of late 2017, Cobham was readying to unveil his Crosswinds project, designed
to reflect upon his second recording on Atlantic Records from 1974. Ernie Watts (saxophones), Scott Tibbs (keyboards), Fareed Haque (guitar) and Tim Landers (bass) will join Cobham in this endeavor. As Cobham explains, “Since its inception, I have
not played all of the music from Crosswinds, because I did not feel comfortable performing material that I felt was not yet completed. For instance,
with “Spanish Moss” I wanted to do more with it in terms of creative development and it has taken over forty years to confront this issue and produce the ‘goods.’ I started to play the title tune from
the record on a consistent basis only in 1988 when I toured with Wolfgang Schmid and Joe Sample in Europe. Heather was also on this recording, which I started to play consistently in 2014
with the Spectrum 40 band. Now the listener will experience all of the music from Crosswinds plus a few new bits as well.”
He is also currently working on producing a new portfolio of music that is slated for release imminently
for the fourth CD in the aforementioned four-volume set.
The release of the Billy Cobham Real Book through Hal Leonard Publishing is imminent and will be in music stores throughout the world before the end of 2017.
In addition to Cobham’s infinite musical explorations, he is an accomplished photographer, who began shooting seriously when he was in the U.S.Army in the mid-60’s. In recent times, Cobham’s works
have been displayed at the Leica Gallery Mayfair, London. In 2017, he collaborated with Scene Four on an ingenious and visually stunning “Rhythmic Expressionism” art series created by long-exposure photography
and lighted drumsticks that capture Cobham’s legendary, dynamic performance movements.