Jazz is Dead Is Alive & Well: An Interview with Billy Cobham

By Brian L. Knight

Jazz is Dead is back at it again. A few months back, Jazz Is Dead, which consists of Billy Cobham(drums), Alphonso Johnson (bass), Jimmy Herring (guitar and T Lavitz (keyboards), took the nation by storm with its intense, jazz instrumental versions of Grateful Dead songs. Through their new album, Blue Light Rain, and heavy tour, Jazz Is Dead amazed both Deadheads and jazz fans from coast to coast.

To coincide with the first tour, the Vermont Review had an opportunity to speak with bassist Alphonso Johnson. For the second time around, we get to hear Billy Cobham’s side of story. Like Johnson, Cobham arrived into Jazz Is Dead though jazz avenues. Cobham’s first big gig was playing drums for pianist Horace Silver but he really gained national attention through his ventures into fusion. During the early 1970s, Cobham was involved with many fusion projects, most notably Miles Davis’ album, Bitches Brew, and John McLauglins’ Mahavishnu Orchestra. Cobham also maintained his own bands where he enlisted the support of fellow innovators such as John Abercrombie, George Duke and John Scofield.

In addition to his jazz journeys, Cobham had an early exposure to the Grateful Dead family when they played for Bob Weir’s solo project, Bobby and the Midnites. This is a common ground that he shares with Alphonso Johnson as well. Through an interesting approach of e-mail interviewing, the Vermont Review heard from Billy Cobham from his home in Switzerland.


BK: You are my first transatlantic e-mail. How long have you been living in Switzerland? Were your frequent trips to Montreux a cause for you living in Switzerland?

BC: I have been living in Switzerland for 17 years now. I decided upon Switzerland as my base of operations because of it centralized location.

BK: You have a couple of albums from the mid-1970s taken from your European tours. Is there anything in particular that is appealing about playing in Europe?

BC: What is attractive about performing in Europe is the ability of the ‘masses’ to pay attention to what I play in concert. The people in Europe will listen and absorb what they hear. They may not always like what I do but at least they, as a block will provide me with an opinion – one way or the other.

BK: Besides any musical related qualities, what do you like most about Switzerland?

BC: The relative peace and quite due to the general remoteness of the country.

BK: What do you miss most about the United States? (If anything)

BC: Nothing.

BK: How do the Swiss perceive Americans?

BC: I don’t know. I find the Swiss to be very private as a people and so am I so, I don’t ask them how they find Americans.

BK: Whom could you claim as your musical influences?

BC: John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Art Blakey, Gil Evans and many more

BK: Whom would you claim as a non-musical influence?

BC: Gore Vidal

BK: What brought your family from Panama to the United States?

BC The dream of living in a "Free Country".

BK: Did you listen to the Grateful Dead as a music fan?

BC: Yes.

BK: Did you ever go to a Grateful Dead concert? If so, what was your impression?

BC: Yes, I went to my Grateful Dead Show in 1969 at the Fillmore East. I heard Bill Graham announce them as "the only band that does what they do". That is still the way it is today.

BK: How did you first meet Bob Weir and get involved with the Midnites?

BC: I met Bobby Weir through Bobby Cochran when all of us were endorsing Tama drums and Ibanez guitars.

BK: Are there any Deadheads in Jazz Is Dead?

BC: No, just sympathizers with their musical concepts.

BK: What is the your favorite Grateful Dead song that you play? Don’t play?

BC: I like Terrapin Station.

BK: Do you ever do non-Grateful Dead tunes?

BC: Yes, at the moment one composition, written by me called "Red Baron".

BK: With jazzy versions of already jazzed-up rock and roll, is Jazz Is Dead the ultimate example of jazz/rock fusion?

BC: I don’t think so. What we seek to present here is the music of a very widely and highly celebrated artist in a way that they would not present themselves. To seek to categorize is the involuntary decease of the world of Journalism. It’s a necessary evil, I know but still one I find difficult to participate in.

BK: How does the fusion of Jazz Is Dead compare to the fusion of the Mahavishnu Orchestra?

BC: It stands by itself as does the concepts that you mention above.

BK: There are a lot of rare GD tunes in your repertoire. Especially Unbroken Chain, which was never played live by the GD yet a fan favorite. Why did you choose the more rare Grateful Dead tunes?

BC: Because those compositions did not receive the exposure that the rest did.

BK: You have played with some great jazz guitarists over the years - Abercrombie, McGlaughlin, Scofield. How does Jimmy Herring compare with these guys stylistically?

BC: He is his own man.

BK: Have any members of the Grateful Dead seen your performance?

BC: I don’t know.

BK: Is Jazz Is Dead successfully cross-pollinating jazzheads and deadheads? Did this pollination already exist?

BC: I would hope that we have opened up some new avenues for the people who have attended our performances. As to whether this was the case before, I cannot answer.

BK: You have been involved with so many exciting albums over the years. Does any particular album stick out over the other?

BC: Miles Davis "Kind Of Blue"

BK: You have spent a lot of time on the road over the years. What is most beautiful place you have played?

BC: Florianapolis, Brazil

BK: When you are not involved in music, what are you doing?

BC: Enjoying life.

It is highly recommended that you listen to Billy Cobham in one form or another. In just about every project that he has been involved with, there has been prodigious music: Bitches Brew, his solo work, Mahavishnu Orchestra and now Jazz Is Dead. Blue Light Rain (Zebra Records) is a must get for both jazz fans and deadheads and their life performance should not be missed. Look out for Jazz Is Dead at the Higher Ground in Winooski on November 19th.