Known as the Wild Man of the Tenor Sax," Arnett Cobb began his recording career with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra in 1943. He quickly became one of the band's stars, and his solos were eagerly awaited by audiences. But Cobb would suffer several Job-like misfortunes, only to fight his way back to the microphone, where he established himself as one of the greats on his instrument.
The first incident occurred in 1928, when Cobb was 10. After sliding out of his family home in Houston without telling his mother, he took the trolley downtown to the Majestic Theater, where his aunt worked. Before the movie started, he ran across the street to get a sandwich. When he tried to cross again, he was hit by a car. Cobb jumped up and ran away, fearing his mother's wrath. But as a result of not being treated, Cobb would suffer from hip pain for years as he grew. Finally, in 1948, he had hip surgery, which sidelined him until 1951.
His career would be put on hold again on April 23, 1956. While driving back to New York with his wife and 3-year-old daughter, Cobb blacked out and hit a tree near Hartford, Conn., an accident that crushed both of his legs. While his wife suffered lung injuries and a broken arm, his 3-month-old daughter was unharmed thanks to the carrier she was in. For the first year, Cobb had to lie flat on his back at the Hartford Hospital, according to the Baltimore Afro-American of June 30, 1956.
Cobb spent 1957 and '58 recuperating and didn't record again until 1959, when he signed with Prestige for a series of miraculous albums. Among them were two that he recorded in 1960 with pianist Red Garland—Sizzlin' and Ballads by Cobb, the latter for Prestige's Moodsville line. His playing on both albums is extraordinary. On the Sizzlin' album, we get a taste of the Wild Man as he swings along weaving in and our of melody lines. On Ballads by Cobb, we hear an enormously sensitive player with a tough bite. In both cases, Cobb had a wonderful sense of space, often pausing for a beat or a half measure to let the listener's ear catch up. Absolutely gorgeous playing. We're even treated to Red Garland on celeste.
A few more blue notes. To make matters more difficult on Cobb, the doctors in Hartford neglected to make his legs even using bone from his hip. As a result, he needed special footwear so his legs would be at the same length. Despite having to use crutches for the duration of his life not to mention the pain and discomfort, Cobb remained one of the giants of his instrument on both slow and swinging material. This album is proof of his beauty, stoicism and resilience.
Cobb would be dealt one more blow. His wife died in 1970 after a sudden pulmonary hemorrhage, a chronic problem resulting from the car accident in 1956. Cobb died in 1989 and was survived by his daughter.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find both albums mentioned above on Arnett Cobb: Blues & Ballads (Fresh Sound) here.
JazzWax tracks: Here's Cobb playing Black Velvet with Red Garland (p), George Tucker (b) and J.C. Heard (d).
Here's Cobb live at the North Sea Jazz Festival in 1979 playing Deep Purple...
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