An interview with jazz veteran Billy Cobham



By Charles Hallman

Staff Writer

Billy Cobham Photo courtesy of publicist Nancy Balik
Billy Cobham
Photo courtesy of publicist Nancy Balik


According to, Billy Cobham’s music has been sampled over 40 times, including two signature songs “Red Baron” (sampled eight times) and “Heather” (sampled 15 times) first released during the 1970s.

A founding member of the Mahavishnu Orchestra in 1971, Cobham co-founded his own fusion group in 1969, and then was invited to play on four cuts on Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew.

At age 69, he’s still as strong as ever: Cobham’s current Spectrum 40 tour swings through Minneapolis on October 1 for a one-night stop at the downtown Dakota Jazz Club.

“It will be a real pleasure to perform there,” he said during a recent phone interview with the MSR.

On his website,, it says that the Panama native, who grew up in New York, got his “first paying gig” when he was only eight years old, then later joined a local drum and bugle corps and attended New York’s famed High School of Music and Art — where he studied music theory and drum technique.

“I started on the road in [19]63,” recalls Cobham, who later played in the U.S. Army Band as a percussionist during his three years of military service in the mid-1960s. After he was discharged, he joined Horace Silver’s band.

He then later worked with Max Roach, Tony Williams, Stanley Turrentine, Shirley Scott and George Benson. After collaborating with guitarist John McLaughlin on Bitches Brew, Cobham joined with him as a founding member of Mahavishnu Orchestra, who released three albums before the group disbanded.

“What led me to want to lead my own group,” responded the drummer-percussionist when asked, “One, I didn’t have a choice because I was told I was fired [when Mahavishnu Orchestra disbanded]. I had no place else to go but to it. Then after that it was about trying to figure out now that I am on the other side of the door… what do I do now, and how do I go about doing what I do.”

Cobham obviously found his answers ever since, beginning with his breakthrough album Spectrum (1973), which features the classic “Red Baron,” and is one of the definitive albums of the jazz-rock era. He then followed that up with the LP Crosswinds (1974). Both albums are part of this reporter’s musical collection.

Over the years, he’s been called a jazz fusion innovator, a “genre-reinventor” and a “musical explorer.”

“The labels are a necessary evil,” states Cobham. “Someone comes up with [them] — let’s call it ‘jazz fusion.’ Nobody can really define jazz or come up with a solid history. I believe whatever you want to call [the music] — jazz, jazz fusion, I don’t know. What I try to write is what I am influenced by, what I see, and what I [have] experienced.

“You can’t change the past — once it’s done, it’s the past,” he believes. “Music only reflects the way we change internally and what we go through in our immediate social environment…”

The drummer also doesn’t allow age to slow him down. “It’s a way of life. It’s what we do [as musicians],” says Cobham. “I’m working [now].” He recounts a recent encounter with jazz singer Jon Hendricks, who helped introduce vocalise, which adds lyrics to existing instrumental songs and replaces instruments with vocalists, who just turned 92 years-old on September 16.

“I just saw him three days ago. The first time I saw him was in 1968 when I was with Horace Silver. He is 92 years old — and he [was] walking down the street like he was 25 years-old. He is one of the great jazz vocalists of all time,” says Cobham.

Furthermore, Cobham says he doesn’t have time to rest on his laurels. He has performed, recorded, and produced music in such locations as Nigeria, South Africa, London, and Brazil. He has worked with notables such as the late George Duke and the Grateful Dead. He has toured with trios, quartets, and quintets as well. His “Spectrum 40” tour features the drummer and three other musicians.

“I continue to move on so I don’t have time to rest on my accomplishments,” he duly noted. “It’s all about the music first and foremost. We are all trying to do the best we can,” he concluded.


Billy Cobham’s Spectrum 40 tour stops at the Dakota Jazz Club on October 1, 2013. For more information, visit or call 612-332-1010.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to