Jimmy Cobb, a jazz drummer whose propulsive ride cymbal imbued countless classic recordings with a quiet intensity, including Miles Davis’s epochal album “Kind of Blue,” died on Sunday in Harlem. He was 91.
The cause was lung cancer, according to his daughter Serena Cobb. As the only surviving member of the “Kind of Blue” sextet, Mr. Cobb had long been hailed as the last apostle of a defining moment in American music.
His great talent was his ability to play understatedly, almost casually, without letting the beat or the momentum sag. He rarely took a solo.
“I was just trying to get it done,” he said in a 2010 interview with the National Endowment for the Arts, adding, “You have to be at the right place at the right time with the right stuff, and then you got a chance.
Released in 1959, “Kind of Blue” — with Mr. Davis’s trumpet backed by Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane on saxophone, Paul Chambers on bass, Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly on piano, and Mr. Cobb on drums — received warm reviews, but its immortality accrued only over time. Through changes in fashion and dips in jazz’s popularity, its brooding, translucent aura has never gone out of style. It is widely known as the best-selling album in jazz history, and last year the Recording Industry Association of America announced that it had surpassed five million copies sold worldwide.
For most of its tunes, Mr. Davis brought in only rough sketches of melody; all but one of its five tracks were recorded in single takes. Mr. Davis’s advice for his drummer at those sessions was simple. “He said, ‘Jimmy, you know what to do. Just make it sound like it’s floating,’” Mr. Cobb recalled.
He remained in Mr. Davis’s band for over four years and contributed to other landmark recordings: “Porgy and Bess,” “Sketches of Spain,” “Someday My Prince Will Come” and more.
In 2003, listening to a set of live recordings from 1961, Ben Ratliff of The New York Times celebrated Mr. Davis’s rhythm section — Mr. Kelly, Mr. Chambers and Mr. Cobb — as “the gold standard for straight-ahead, postwar jazz rhythm.”
Mr. Cobb knew what moved him, and what didn’t. When jazz turned toward the avant-garde in the 1960s, he stayed on course, relying on his regal status to find work with giants of the hard-bop era, often in Europe and Japan, after the clubs scene in New York had dried up.
Though he never hungered for the spotlight, Mr. Cobb did embrace a leadership role in his last decades, often fronting bands under the name Cobb’s Mob. In a Times review of Mr. Cobb’s 2014 album, “The Original Mob,” Nate Chinen took note of the “indefinable but unmistakable pull in the ride cymbal beat of the jazz drummer Jimmy Cobb, who’s now 85 and sounds not unlike he did at 30.”
The national endowment named Mr. Cobb a Jazz Master in 2009, the year he turned 80.
In addition to his daughter Serena, Mr. Cobb is survived by his wife, Eleana Tee Cobb, and another daughter, Jaime Cobb.
James Wilbur Cobb was born on Jan. 20, 1929, at his home in Washington. His parents, Wilbur and Katherine (Bivens) Cobb, lived just blocks from U Street, which had recently become the center of the country’s most robust urban black middle class, as well as one of its greatest music scenes. His mother was a domestic worker, his father a security guard and taxi driver.
The couple separated when their children were young, and to help support his mother, Jimmy worked from an early age: shining shoes, delivering newspapers, toting heavy bags of ice for $5 a day. He spent summers working on his grandfather’s tobacco farm in Maryland.
He fell in love with the drums as a teenager, listening to modern-jazz records with a friend and using his knuckles to hammer out rhythms. Before his 20th birthday, he was working at clubs on U Street, sometimes accompanying stars who passed through town, like Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker.
Mr. Cobb first went on the road with the saxophonist Earl Bostic, then joined the vocalist Dinah Washington’s band, which was as loaded with talented young instrumentalists as Mr. Bostic’s had been. Ms. Washington and Mr. Cobb began a romantic relationship and lived together for a time.
Soon after they split up, he began to fill in here and there for Mr. Davis’s first-call drummer, Philly Joe Jones. Then one day in 1958, Mr. Davis called Mr. Cobb at his home in Queens about 6 p.m. and asked him if he could make a gig that night.
“I say, ‘Yeah, where?’” Mr. Cobb recalled. “He say, ‘Boston.’”
Mr. Cobb packed his drums and hustled to La Guardia Airport. He caught a plane and arrived at the club just as the band was starting to play “’Round Midnight.”
Mr. Davis’s classic arrangement of that tune has a sequence of rhythmic hits in the middle, pinching the tension before things open up into steady swing. With the band making its way through the first half of the piece, Mr. Cobb set up his drums just in time to nail those hits.
“When they got to this certain part,” he recalled, “I played this little break with them, and I was in the band. No rehearsal, no nothing.”