A fly on the wall doesn’t begin to describe the amazing vantage point of author Brian Gruber’s jazzy thrill ride through nearly a week hanging out with legendary drummer Billy Cobham. Gruber’s “Six Days at Ronnie Scott’s” is crisp and conversational, allowing the reader to whip through the book like butter. A thoroughly entertaining journey from Cobham’s growing up days in late 1940s Brooklyn to the marathon six-day run at an iconic jazz club.
What inspired this book, both the subject (Cobham) and particularly the setting of a six-day time frame?
I met Bill in France some years ago and, as I was developing a live streaming jazz service from iconic clubs around the world, I saw him perform numerous terms. Milan. Rio. Paris. New York. Oakland. Whenever we got together, he would tell these most amazing tales. He really has played with everyone. Miles. Horace Silver. Billy Taylor. The Grateful Dead. Santana. Hendrix. Getz. Finally, I told him to please stop. We had to at least get these stories all properly recorded for posterity.
British bandleader, trumpeter, and composer Guy Barker was assembling a 17-piece big band with some of London’s top jazz musicians to perform an original arrangement of Bill’s work at Ronnie Scott’s. So we decided, OK then, I would be a fly on the wall for the whole process. The rehearsals, the sound checks, the backstage meals and banter, evenings at the pub or meals at the hotel. It then struck me that one method of storytelling might be six decades of Bill’s extraordinary musical life woven in and out of encounters with musicians, critics, fans, club staff, and friends during Bill and Guy’s six-day run. It was a creative risk, but readers loved it.
How long did your research take? What was the single most daunting challenge of compiling and synthesizing all the information?
I had followed Bill for some years and watched his musical methods and studied his history. Once we decided to do the project, I spent a few months before the event interviewing him long distance, then the 11 days in London, two months transcribing interviews and doing additional research, then four months writing the book, and another two editing. The biggest challenge was finding the truth in his story, and in the many interviews and anecdotes gathered along the way. Some themes emerged. His interest in educating young people, which connected with his family life and early years performing, his attitudes towards the business of music, the use of the venue as a “character” in the book, the Mahavishnu experience, the notion of jazz fusion. And many of the jazz greats I contacted for interviews – Ron Carter, Randy Brecker, Jan Hammer, Bill Bruford – were just immediately forthcoming as they have genuine esteem for the man.
What was your method of extracting the best nuggets of each of your interviews, and boiling down a lengthy chat to bring out the material that would move the story forward?
I think it starts with the technical act of transcribing, and then allowing rounds of edits to mold the story, separating key storylines. And then allowing the narrative of the book to emerge, to dictate its own pace and order, until it all starts integrating and making sense.
Did you find that each new decade of jazz has something different to teach us?
I’m not sure it’s broken into neat decades, or even eras. Jazz survives and lives because its roots are so deeply grounded in the American experience, the human experience, so it keeps reinventing itself. There is an incident where London saxophonist Ronnie Scott wanders Manhattan’s 52nd Street in amazement after World War II. Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, all these masters playing their gigs then jamming with each other past midnight at clubs along the street. White Dixieland players would jam with black bebop musicians, and genres and styles would meld and ferment together. Bill can do it all. He plays with classical orchestras, rock bands, in one show there will be Latin themes – that 6-day run had a big band feel that blew the doors off.
Can this book be appreciated by those who are not necessarily jazz fans but want a glimpse into our cultural/arts/societal development over the past 60 years?
It’s a great book for anyone interested in the act of creation, which, as you know, is a phrase in the title. How did a 3-year-old black Panamanian-American kid have his world transformed by listening to the Latino percussionists in Fulton Park outside his Brooklyn bedroom window? And why does he still create year in and year out into his seventies? Not only is there a lot of historiography, but the backstage moments give the reader an understanding of how master musicians and creatives work, collaborate, learn, rebound.
What is the most remarkable element of Cobham’s career thus far?
They keep happening. That’s the miracle of the life of a lifelong artist. The time when John McLaughlin asked him to test some ideas and jam for two weeks straight, which became the Mahavishnu Orchestra after they added Hammer, Laird, and Goodman. The second year of Mahavishnu when Cobham, playing constant gigs, recording often, and with no training in writing music, composed and recorded the hit fusion album Spectrum, most cuts in a couple of takes. His jamming with the Grateful Dead. His performance with the world’s great jazz musicians at the 1977 Montreux Jazz Festival, an almost unbelievable stage of master craftsmen. Being the percussionist in Muhammad Ali’s Broadway play. Endless stories, and all revealing something of the sweep of the jazz world’s changes over a half century.
Why does jazz fusion speak to you?
The book starts off with a prologue describing how my brother, a rocker, and my father, a jazz lover, made peace by taking me to live shows in New York. Certain fusion strains, whether the jazz samba albums of Getz and Gilberto, or Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew – Bill collaborated with Miles on that and numerous other albums – or Mahavishnu, brought together generations who could now speak via a common idiom. There are numerous passages in the book that address the theoretical and political aspects of fusion and the heady days in the late 60s and early 70s when young and old musicians played with and invented new genres.
The single best thing about writing this book… has been the extraordinary experience of living with 17 master jazz musicians for 11 days, from the rehearsals through to late night drinks after closing night, seeing them slay their dragons and take a very complex challenge and execute with fire and heart. That’s the great cheat of the oral historian – you get to go to places you would otherwise never experience and share those stories with the work, hopefully with style, rich detail, and much respect.
I didn’t know how the book would be received but it received universally strong reviews. Downbeat called it an unusual and welcome addition to the jazz bibliography. That’s quite a humbling tribute.
For more information visit www.amazon.com/dp/1717493009.