William Emanuel “Billy” Cobham Jr. (born May 16, 1944) is a Panamanian-American jazz drummer who came to prominence in the late 1960s and early 1970s with trumpeter Miles Davis and then with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. According to AllMusic’s reviewer, Cobham is “generally acclaimed as fusion’s greatest drummer”.
He was inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame in 1987 and the Classic Drummer Hall of Fame in 2013.
Ever since his breakthrough in the early 1970s-as a founding member of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and as a drummer/leader whose recordings (such as Spectrum) and powerful, complex style of play exerted a strong influence on the course of jazz and jazz-fusion-Billy Cobham has remained a tireless musical explorer.
Panamanian by birth, a New Yorker by upbringing, and a resident of Switzerland for more than 25 years, Cobham has pursued an ever-broadening, ever-deepening engagement with the world not only as a master drummer and percussionist but as a composer, producer, educator, and clinician who gives service through music even as he constantly expands his personal creative expression.
In 1969 Cobham co-founded the fusion group Dreams, which also featured Randy Brecker, Michael Brecker, John Abercrombie, Don Grolnick, Barry Rodgers, and Will Lee. The following year he was invited to join Miles Davis’s 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.
Mahavishnu Orchestra was formed by McLaughlin in 1971 with Cobham, Jan Hammer, Jerry Goodman, and Rick Laird. They released three acclaimed albums (beginning with Inner Mounting Flame) before the band was dissolved and Cobham chose to launch his solo career with Spectrum, one of the definitive albums of the jazz-rock era.
During the 1970s and ’80s, he recorded steadily as a leader in collaborating with artists ranging from George Duke, John Scofield, and Tony Williams to Jack Bruce and the Grateful Dead, both on stage and in the studio.
In ’93 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.
By the start of the 2000s Cobham had introduced “The Art of Jazz” series, recording and touring extensively first with the Art of 3 (Kenny Barron, Ron Carter), then the Art of 4 (Carter, Donald Harrison, James Williams) and the Art of 5 (Harrison, Guy Barker, Eric Reed or Julian Joseph, Orlando Le Fleming). He also worked with Culture Mix, recording two albums with them and in 2003 reactivated Spectrum as a band that revisits the music of that genre-reinventing album.
Of late, Billy had been working on a series of recordings that are a tribute to his parents and his roots. The project is call “Fruit From The Loom”. The first CD, of the same name, was released in 2009. The second CD – “Palindrome” was released in 2010. In 2013 was released the third recording entitled “Tales From The Skeleton Coast”.
Then Billy worked on the recording entitled “Billy Cobham Spectrum 40 Live” and released this project at the beginning of 2015.
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 the world.
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.