Houston celebrates jazz legend Arnett Cobb’s 100th birthday with music
By Andrew Dansby
August 5, 2018 Updated: August 5, 2018 5:44pm
Photo: CHRISTOBAL PEREZ, STF / HOUSTON CHRONICLE
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Historic photo of “Arnett Cobb performing” at an unknown location.
A teenage Arnett Cobb used to wander around the Fifth Ward looking for some wide-open space to play his saxophone. This was during the 1930s, when the neighborhood wasn’t quite as densely populated.
“He’d just find some spot where he wouldn’t bother anybody, and he’d blow,” says Lizette Cobb, daughter of Houston’s legendary saxophonist.
Lizette mentions the great jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery and how he developed his distinctive sound by having to play quietly in the attic of his home. Cobb’s rehearsal space allowed him to set loose a growling bear of a tone on his instrument, with which he’d come to define the Texas Tenor style.
“It’s interesting how different players develop different technique,” Lizette says. “I also have the technical information on his reeds. His reed was very thick, a big piece of wood. Most saxophonists don’t use such a hearty reed. That’s part of it, too.”
The Jazz Church of Houston presents Arnett Cobb 100th birthday celebration
Featuring Shelley Carrol, Andre Hayward, Mark Simmons and more
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where: Eldorado Ballroom, 2310 Elgin
Details: free; facebook.com/jazzchurchhouston
Arnett Cobb Birthday Celebration!
Featuring Woody Witt, Shelley Carrol, Mike Wheeler and more
When: 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Where: Cezanne, 4100 Montrose
Details: $20; cezannejazz.com
Friday marks Cobb’s centennial, and affords another opportunity to look back at a remarkable musician who was born in Houston in 1918 and died here 70 years later. Lizette and her son Shae have also unearthed a diamond of a previously unreleased recording from 1963 that Cobb made with some top jazz players of the day. The Cobbs planned to release the album this week for the saxophonist’s birthday, but some personal complications have pushed back the release a few months. Still, the week remains one of celebration by and for Cobb enthusiasts.
THE LOST ALBUM: Arnett Cobb created a love letter to Houston. Then it got lost for 55 years.
Two concerts will honor a musician whom jazz star Kendrick Scott calls “one of the true masters,” including a free Friday night date at the Eldorado Ballroom and a two-night stint Friday and Saturday in the Cezanne.
Saxophonist Shelley Carrol, another Houston native who studied under Cobb before playing with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, calls Cobb “the epitome of Texas jazz.
“He had this great big tone, but he also taught me ‘Willow Weep for Me.’ He could blow the house down, but he wasn’t just a rough rider. He could milk so much emotion from his instrument. I remember seeing him, he’d play a beautiful solo and then go sit down and start crying.
“He played with incredible feeling.”
Cobb is so associated with the saxophone, but his first instrument was the violin, a gift from his mother. He took the stringed instrument with him to Wheatley High School and tried to make his way into the marching band. It’s difficult to believe, but Cobb was, briefly, inaudible. So the band instructor gave Cobb a saxophone, and the young student found quiet spaces where he could work on his tone.
In addition to band, Cobb started playing gigs across the city while still in high school. He graduated from Wheatley and joined Milton Larkin’s Orchestra, a proving ground for many aspiring Texas jazz musicians. Larkin sought saxophonists with burred tones, including Cobb and Illinois Jacquet. Both of those tenor players moved from Larkin’s band to Lionel Hampton’s big band.
As a vibraphonist, Hampton developed a sound full of open spaces, so the deep, chesty sounds of Texas tenors such as Cobb and Jacquet were perfect for his ensemble. Cobb played with Hampton from 1942 until about 1947.
He started his own band, which pulled R&B and blues into its jazz. Cobb for a time lived in New York, but his health brought him back to Houston. He suffered from pleurisy and tuberculosis. A nearly fatal car accident in 1956 necessitated spinal surgeries and the use of crutches he’d require the rest of his life.
“The way he played the saxophone played a big part in his health as he got older,” Lizette Cobb says. “It kept him strong. Somebody started a rumor that he only had one lung. I don’t know where that came from. But I see how we need our myths and legends. It’s not true. But he had some challenges.”
Being in Houston in the 1960s established Cobb as a cornerstone of the city’s jazz scene, past and future. He was a fixture on local stages, recorded regularly and also mentored subsequent generations of players.
But because he wasn’t in New York in the ’60s, he was far from the center of a storied era of jazz as it evolved further away from the big-band era.
Cobb’s many recordings haven’t made the same jump from vinyl to the digital sphere as artists whose work appeared on labels such as Blue Note and Impulse. They require a hunt, but they’re worth the effort. Which makes the prospect of the 1963 session more tantalizing. Cobb cut the record with saxophonist Don Wilkerson, another Houston player whose brilliant playing was scantly recorded; avant garde bassist Buell Neidlinger; drummer Duke Barker; and pianist Paul Schmitt.
“We don’t want to rush it just to hit an anniversary,” Lizette says of the recording. “We want to do right by it.”
Ideally, the set will put attention back on a performer whose renown further faded after his death in 1989.
When Tierney Malone — an artist and poet from Alabama — moved to Houston, he says, he was unaware of the city’s jazz history, including Cobb’s work.
“I discovered quickly how important some of these cats were through their entire careers,” he says. Malone hosts the Houston Jazz Spotlight on KPFT and champions from the city’s musical past.
“He’s so important. If Arnett Cobb didn’t come back in the ’60s and make Houston his home, you wouldn’t have had this amazing jazz scene for decades,” Malone says. “His presence is undeniable. Houston can be slow to appreciate its history and culture. But Lizette has said you can’t talk about jazz in America without the Lone Star State. And that’s true. You can’t find a single musician in the jazz universe who doesn’t have some Houston connection. And that’s all part of his legacy.”
Malone helped organize one of the city’s Cobb tributes this week. He’ll play host at the show, which will include stories about Cobb as well as a performance by the new Houston Jazz Collective, a group that includes Carroll, trombonist Andre Hayward, organist Bobby Sparks of Snarky Puppy and Mark Simmons, who drummed for the late Al Jarreau.
“We’ll be interviewing cats who knew his life and his music,” Malone says. “You don’t hear enough about this brother. So we’re going to do our part to let people know how important he was.”