The review of this book has given me problems like no other. Not from a dearth of things to say, but a very surfeit of them. I wanted to deliver a well-structured review with a natural flow and a coherent overview. However, just like it’s subject matter the style and structure of this book is like no other. But, after all, we are talking about the long musical life and successful career of the living legend that is Billy Cobham here – and if you think you know everything there is to know about him then think again, because this book will almost certainly make you reappraise it all.
The book starts in Brooklyn 1947 (when Cobham was 3 years old freshly arrived from Panama) but is not a biography as such, (the author describes it as “an oral history exploring six decades of music”) and it consists almost entirely of edited down transcripts of the hours and hours of interviews, but it is rich in anecdotes, colour and insight and is a real labour of love.
The first thing to say is that if you’re a fan of Billy Cobham, then you must read this book. If you’re a fan of jazz and/or jazz-rock, jazz-funk, fusion, Latin or any of the myriad popular forms that Billy Cobham has performed in over the last 60 odd years, then you’ll find masses of first-hand anecdotes and observations to pique your interest within this book. If you’re a drummer of whatever persuasion, you’ll get a lot out of it too – the sub-title might make it sound like a lecture, but it’s not, you will widen your mind by a process of osmotic narrative(!). And finally, if you’re a muso of almost whatever kind then you’re bound to instinctively recognise the descriptions of gigs (big and small), rehearsals, band dynamics, bandmates, agents, promoters, venues, recording studios, money issues and touring that this book so graphically brings to light.
As a quick reminder and to set the scene, musicians that Cobham has worked with include: Miles Davis, Randy Brecker, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Jimi Hendrix, Ron Carter, George Duke, Stan Getz, George Benson, Freddie Hubbard, Billy Taylor, Horace Silver and many many more!
The author, Brian K Gruber (a media and marketing consultant, ex-radio host, journalist and writer), has chosen to write about Billy – or Bill, as his friends and band members call him – using various narrative devices.
The way the book is built upon multiple conversations and interviews (interspersed with the author briefly setting the scene) often immerses you right in the heart of the situation – you feel like you are sitting in the Green Room in that half an hour or so before you have to walk on stage, you’re hearing the random bits of conversation between the band – a mix of serious musical debate on the arrangements, ongoing obscure touring in-jokes or those classic muso cries: “Has anybody seen my charts? I only put them down here a moment ago?”, “Can anybody lend me some gaffer tape?”, “Oy! Who ate all the biscuits?”, etc, etc.
You will feel like you are front row in the audience at Ronnie Scott’s as the hush descends and you’re about to be bathed in musical ecstasy, but the next moment you’ve been miniaturised and are sitting on Billy’s shoulder seeing the packed darkened club from the drummer’s seat and watching through his eyes as his gaze swivels to the other band members, gives the briefest of nods to the bass player or keys, and his arms come crashing down onto the skins or cymbals – always controlling the band from the back, tightening up and loosing off the reins as necessary.
Another device to note is the main title: “Six Days at Ronnie Scott’s”. Gruber decides to hang the skeleton of the book on a mix of interviews with Billy and members of the 17-piece big band fronted by British trumpeter and arranger Guy Barker, as well as various onlookers and staff over a period of 6 days residency at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club which took place in June 2017 (Cobham is 73 at the time). There is also a sort of aggregating sub-plot concerning each night’s performance as the band (formed especially for the run to perform Cobham’s music) settle into the numbers and new arrangements and also with each other, honing every note and groove, building upon the night before each time, until it’s as perfect as they can get it.
You literally feel like you are there – not just during the gigs but at the rehearsals in the mornings and the soundchecks before the gig (even to the precise and meticulous setting up of Cobham’s incredible drum kits!), or at the bar with the audience during an interval, and in the Green Room after the show, etc, etc. This is a very accurate insight into the life of musicians that most fans never see, illustrating both the excitement of creating exhilarating art in the moment and the sometimes comic contrast with the utter banality of a musician’s day and concerns at other times.
Pretty much everything in the book is written verbatim from the mouths of the interviewees. Apart from the centrepiece conversations with Cobham, Gruber also spends time mining the memories and opinions of others, such as current band members and collaborators, as well as past ones from Cobham’s entire career (eg Jan Hammer, Bill Bruford, Randy Brecker et al), friends, his wife Faina (who is his manager also), people in the music business, journalists, promoters, etc, but all of whom know him. You can really hear their individual voices and stories threaded throughout, each one shining another light on an aspect of Billy’s life or thoughts or processes, that you didn’t know before.
But the book also skitters around between all this with in-depth first-hand accounts (from Cobham’s lips or people that were there) of his childhood (which opened my eyes up), his family life, musical beginnings, army life, the long grind of working his way up through the musical ranks (eg from taking his kit to gigs on the bus, to getting picked by Horace Silver, being the drummer for Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew album and the release of his own works Spectrum and Crosswinds, etc) until fame finally hit (fortune is an even more fickle mistress). If you think Billy Cobham only popped into existence the day before the Mahavishnu Orchestra was formed then think on! There’s some serious name-dropping going on, but none of it boasting. Cobham is definitely the man.
It is this level of detail and knowledge that makes what you already know of Cobham’s life that much more rich and nuanced. And Billy comes across as a great raconteur – at the very least his knowledge of music and the scene from the 60s onwards is encyclopaedic and you are left gasping at the number of people he’s worked with and his photographic memory for occasions, stories, dates, etc. His recall is mind-boggling. You have to read the book to see what I mean.
To aid with further investigation there’s a Billy Cobham Discography at the back stretching from 1973 to 2016 and each chapter is linked to a Spotify list to illustrate it musically (Billy Cobham 1, Billy Cobham 2, etc).
OK, so the cons… The constant switching back and forth can take a bit of getting used to (as well as the jumping around within and between anecdotes over many decades of Cobham’s life). It sometimes feels like it might make a better film than a book, there’s certainly a cinematic eye to it.
There are times where you might not be as interested in particular ‘storylines’ as others – for instance I was fascinated with Billy’s Latin connection (far more pervasive than I’d ever imagined) but surprised myself by having very little interest in the Mahavishnu era and its sometimes fractious aftermath (even though, this is where I first came across Mr Cobham and his legendary ‘tree-trunk arms’, as a young pre-teen drummer myself). For others, they might be interested in Billy’s life during the 70s and 80s but not what he’s been up to (masses!!) in the last 30. But, overall it is packed to the gunwales with anecdotes about all kinds of jazz legends that are almost household names and the editing always assures that another “Wow! Really?” moment is always around the corner.
Finally, I suppose if you’re not into Billy Cobham, or jazz or fusion, or a drummer, or a musician, or a fan, etc, then you might find the subject matter and non-linear style of writing to be completely alien.
However, if you even know the name ‘Billy Cobham’ – whatever your connection to music – then I can thoroughly recommend this book as an incredible document and testament to a truly inspirational and influential musician (Gruber refers to him as “one of the world’s great musical storytellers”) who has witnessed the evolution of popular music from the mid-20th Century to the present day from behind his ‘throne of power’, a true locomotive of Afro-American music – and the journey isn’t finished yet by any means.