Post 3: A Moment of Appreciation in our Nation’s Capital with Jazz Great Jimmy Cobb

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Jimmy Cobb performing at the Village Vanguard in New York City. (John Rogers, NPR).

Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!

– Psalms 133:1

In the spring of 2015, I traveled to the east coast to hear some music. As a west coast resident and avid jazz fan, I sought out the heralded jazz venues of Washington D.C., New York City and the talented musicians who play there nightly.

My first stop was Blues Alley in D.C. Founded in 1965, Blues Alley is the nation’s oldest continuing jazz supper club. [1] Located in the heart of Georgetown, it has hosted jazz legends such as Sonny Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie and Sarah Vaughn. [2][3] The club is small yet intimate allowing spectators and musicians to be in close proximity.

When I arrived at Blues Alley, ‘The Miles Davis Tribute’ band was taking the stage. The group played many Miles’ classics, such as ‘So What’, and performed in world-class manner. The venue was truly electric as the band played and the audience responded with glee.

On the drums that night was Jimmy Cobb. At that time, Cobb was 85 years old and still playing after almost 60 years as a Jazz musician. [4] Throughout his career, Cobb has played with many jazz legends: John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie and Cannonball Adderley to name a few. [5] His contributions to the genre have earned him numerous accolades, including the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters award: our nation’s highest honor for jazz musicians.

 photo e511948f-c7db-433a-868b-d31e2175695b_zpsnyyrcq4s.jpg
Recording session of the Miles Davis classic ‘Kind of Blue’ which featured Jimmy Cobb on the drums. (Don Hunstein, Sony BMG Music Entertainment 1959).

That night Cobb played wonderfully, and with a youthful vigor more commonly found in a college conservatory. His sense of rhythm not only guided the band, but he unleashed several solos that brought the crowd to its feet. He was truly outstanding.

After the show, the band joined the crowd for introductions and conversation. Although I felt apprehensive, I knew I’d regret not introducing myself to Cobb, so I made my way in his direction.

Cobb was dressed casually, wearing slacks and a collared shirt. He looked much younger than his age, and sported metal rimmed glasses and a greyed goatee. As I made my approach, I noticed he had an easy air about him, evincing body language conducive to comfortable social interaction. We made eye contact, and I began my introduction.

“Good evening, Mr. Cobb,” I shakily said. “My name is Aaron. I traveled from California to hear you play tonight, and it is truly an honor to meet you.” Cobb looked at me, showed a smile, and responded, “Wow, thank you so much for coming all that way, and thank you for your nice words.” With that, we both extended our arms to shake hands.

The act of shaking hands commonly serves as an introduction, but it can also symbolize the meeting of two disparate realities. In a fluid world where people from different backgrounds seek opportunity outside of their place of origin, they inevitably encounter people with experiences antithetical to their own. These differences may include, among other things, race, culture or generation. Nonetheless, such distinctions can be temporarily resolved with a simple act of appreciation.

That evening at Blues Alley, I extended my hand as white male raised in a middle class community on California’s Central Coast. Being 31 years old at the time, I had grown up in a period of social stability, and had never suffered the indignity of being denied services or respect based on my race.

Conversely, Cobb offered his hand as an African-American from Washington DC. [6] Born in 1929, Cobb likely grew up amidst the cruelty of segregation. [7] During the 1930s and 40s, the nation’s capital remained segregated, including most public facilities, schools, and housing. [8] In fact, in a 1948 report by the National Committee on Segregation in Washington, a traveler from India said: “I would rather be an Untouchable in the Hindu caste system than a Negro in Washington.” [9]

We shook hands in Blues Alley as two people from different social constructs. One free of cultural conflict, replete with privilege and socially secure. The other a segregated environment based on majority cultural dominance where whites, many who probably looked like me, refused to treat African-Americans as human-beings. In terms of experience, there wasn’t much we had in common.

Even so, simple acts, such as an appreciative handshake, have the ability to bridge generational chasms. While they do not solve past injustices, these acts provide a bond, if only momentarily, founded on mutual appreciation. Best of all, this sense of appreciation can be based on nearly anything: such as exceptional musicianship, or even traveling 3000 miles to hear someone play the drums.

[1] Blues Alley (2017). Retrieved from http://www.bluesalley.com/visit.cfm.

[2] Id.

[3] West, M. (2015). Blues Alley is Still Swinging at 50. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/goingoutguide/blues-alley-is-still-swinging-at-50/2015/07/16/c3ab6cb4-2644-11e5-b77f-eb13a215f593_story.html?utm_term=.f7546b4f6d59.

[4] Kahn, Ashley. (2003). Jimmy Cobb: The Reluctant Don. Jazz Times. Retrieved from https://jazztimes.com/features/jimmy-cobb-the-reluctant-don/.

[5] Id.

[6] Marsalismusic.com. (2017) Jimmy Cobb. Retrieved from http://www.marsalismusic.com/jimmy-cobb.

[7] To be clear, I speak about Cobb without his guidance or permission. As a result, I hope I have not misrepresented his experience. If I have done so, it is with deep regret. This  article makes  assumptions of his early years based on historical reports of the racial climate in Washington DC during that time.

[8] Smithsonian National Museum of American History. (2017). Washington, D.C.: A Challenge to Jim Crow in the Nation’s Capital. Retrieved from http://americanhistory.si.edu/brown/history/4-five/washington-dc-1.html.

[9] Quigley, J. (2016). How D.C. Ended Segregation a Year Before Brown v. Board of Education. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-forgotten-fight-to-end-segregation-in-dc/2016/01/15/1b7cae2a-bafc-11e5-829c-26ffb874a18d_story.html?utm_term=.b50845388073.

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