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A project of Jazz Appreciation Month, KNKX and Jazz24 celebrate highly regarded jazz creators who continue to inspire.

Billy Cobham's impeccable timing makes him a pivotal jazz drummer

A man with bandana wrapped around his head plays at a large drum set on stage.
Marek Havel
Billy Cobham Press Kit
Billy Cobham has been known for his massive drum kit that includes three bass drums, four toms, five cymbals, three snares, a hi-hat, and a hanging gong.

A powerhouse drummer who fueled many legendary fusion jazz recordings of the 1960s and '70s, Billy Cobham came to prominence when he worked on early fusion recordings with Miles Davis and John McLaughlin in the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Born in Panama and raised in Brooklyn, New York, his father was a pianist. By the age of four, Cobham was playing along with his dad. After being drafted in 1965, Cobham played with a U.S. Army band.

In 1968, he was discharged and settled in the middle of the New York jazz scene, where he became a member of the Horace Silver Quintet. He quickly became a first-call drummer for live performance and recording projects with the top names in bebop and contemporary jazz styles of fusion and soul-jazz.

Cobham's first solo album, Spectrum from 1973, went to No. 1 on the Billboard jazz charts. However, during a KNKX Studio Session in 2022 Cobham said his first big recording break came a few years earlier with another artist:

“But the first recording on a very professional level that I ever did was with Hubert Laws and Ron Carter on a Hubert Laws album for Creed Taylor who had just started a recording label called CTI.”

It was the very first album released on CTI Records. Cobham is credited with being on 67 albums from 1969 to 1973. In 1973 alone, he was on 20 recordings. He also toured extensively with the Mahavishnu Orchestra and appeared on two of the orchestra’s studio albums, The Inner Mounting Flame and Birds of Fire.

His strength, training, and impeccable timing — fueled with the ability to deliver complex time signatures with the pure power of rock — are the components that have made him one of the most influential players.

In a vast field of talented jazz drummers, Cobham's muscular style of playing combined with the fusion jazz and rock music of the day, lit the imaginations of listeners and musicians alike. His playing style and the fusion moment in music history, placed Cobham in the position to truly be called a pivotal drummer.

Those who have given credit to Cobham as a major influence include progressive rock and jazz drummers like Steve Smith, the drummer from the band Journey who went on to have his own jazz fusion band, Vital Information. Smith is quoted in Modern Drummer, as saying, "The first time I saw Billy Cobham was in 1974, and it changed my life!"


You can’t talk about the power of Billy Cobham without acknowledging his massive drum kits. Without getting into too much “gear talk,” he is known for large kits in various configurations. For his second album Crosswinds, he began experimenting with different setups and custom built components. Cobham's been known to use three bass drums, four toms, five cymbals, three snares, hihat and for full effect – a hanging gong.

A band project called Billy Cobham's Glass Menagerie made a big impact in 1981. Glass Menagerie was formed with violinist Michał Urbaniak, pianist Gil Goldstein, bassist Tim Landers and guitarist Mike Stern. They released two albums - Stratus and Observations & Reflections. The title track from Stratus was composed by Cobham and has been covered by many progressive artists, including Prince and sampled by Massive Attack in “Safe From Harm.


Since those early releases, Cobham continued his work with straight-ahead and progressive players in the worlds of jazz and rock, from Stanley Clarke and Jack Bruce to Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead.

Cobham was inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame in 1987 and in 2014, the same publication named him one of the "50 Greatest Drummers of All Time." In 2013, he was inducted into Classic Drummer magazine's Hall of Fame, as voted by the readers, honoring the most influential drummers of the 20th century.

When we caught up with him in 2022, we asked about some of his songs being revisited and recorded by new artists and used in movie soundtracks.

“Well, every 10 years, those songs, regenerate themselves, but different individuals playing them. That's why to me again, music is eternal," Cobham said.

"And the language as a way to express oneself and the listener reacts to the player. And that's an important aspect because the player is then given a reason to play more. It goes back and forth like this until the end of time.”