Passing on the Tradition: Joyce Cobb’s Influence on the Memphis Community as an Educator

Alexandra Howard ‘18 worked this spring semester with Dr. Bass on an independent study on the life and legacy of Memphis jazz legend Joyce Cobb. Her final product was the April Block Party honoring Joyce Cobb and a final paper. Below is a condensed version of her final paper.

Passing on the Tradition: Joyce Cobb’s Influence on the Memphis Community as an Educator

It was the morning of my first voice lesson at Rhodes College and I walked into a dimly lit music office to see a massive piano at which sat the Memphis jazz legend, Joyce Cobb. After hastily introducing myself and calming my star-struck nerves, she looked at me and said, “The first thing you need to know about jazz is what makes it what it is. Jazz is only jazz because of improv. If there is not improv, there is no jazz. It’s just pop.” Memphis has a rich history steeped in jazz and blues, but as time progresses, many of the victories and highlights of these art forms are lost and forgotten. Without proper education and experience with these musical forms, not only will members of the community not have an opportunity for artistic development, but a large portion of the city’s culture and history will be lost. Joyce Cobb came to Memphis in the 1970’s originally to pursue her career as a performer; however, when the opportunity presented itself for her to carry on the tradition of jazz in the Memphis community, she did not hesitate to take it. With a background in music as well as social work, Joyce Cobb not only knew how jazz should be played, but how the audience should be receiving it. Through her career as a performer, educator, and tireless advocate Joyce Cobb has worked to build and sustain the jazz community in Memphis, Tennessee.

Joyce Cobb grew up in a very musical family. Her grandfather John S. Cobb founded and ran Lincoln school in Cape Girardeau which educated children of post-slavery families. John S. Cobb became principle of the school and children in the community earned a well-rounded education including music. In addition, Joyce Cobb’s mother and father were both devout teachers as well as music lovers. “My father was in the Columbia Record club. He would have all these albums that came every month and I grew up listening to Monk, Charlie Parker, Benny Goodman, Stan Kenton, June Cristy—all those artists just dancing in my brain”. Growing up in such a rich artistic environment, it wasn’t hard to see how she fell in love with music. However, Joyce Cobb did not start out wanting to teach others about music.  “My brother and sister and I all vowed we’d never be teachers! Never! My parents and grandparents were just so absorbed into it and everything that goes with it.” While Joyce Cobb did sing classical pieces in High School for school church services, she stopped pursuing music upon her transition to college. “I majored in sociology because I thought it was a safe thing. I didn’t think I could make money with music, but sociology I knew would be safe and I could help people.” And following her passion, Joyce Cobb became a social worker. But after a few months of working, she realized this wasn’t where she was meant to be. Being in charge of 7 different daycare centers, Joyce Cobb realized she didn’t enjoy the paperwork-packed job as much as she had hoped. “So eventually I just said nah, I’ll do music.” She began rehearsing then playing for Ramada Inns with her friend Bill Timmy until he finally wanted to settle down with his family. At this point, Joyce had been performing all over the US, but specifically in Nashville, and she moved to Memphis because of the amount of jazz that was happening. “When I came to Memphis there was this place under the airways bridge that was open at 3 o’clock in the morning. People were showing off their chops and the air was thick, and the liquor was flowing, and the music was like Harlem Renaissance, and that’s what sold me to Memphis. I was like, ‘Oh my god I’ve never seen anything like this from Nashville.’ I love this place. I swear. I ran to Memphis when I saw this kind of music happening.”

    Once Joyce made the move to Memphis, she immediately began working gig after gig singing with groups from every genre of music due to her knowledge of the American Songbook. By equipping herself with the knowledge of these classics combined with her background in social work, which taught her how to connect emotionally and personally with any crowd, Joyce Cobb quickly became a very high-demand artist to perform with for bands across the city. “She’s such a high-level musician…she’s like a musical chameleon,” said Paul McKinney, the Instrumental Music Director/Jazz Studies Coordinator of the Stax Music Academy. After playing all over the city, owning her own club on Beale street, and becoming an icon of jazz, Tim Goodwin, a music professor from University of Memphis, approached Joyce Cobb about a teaching job at the University of Memphis, and so began Joyce Cobb’s official role as an educator. In addition to teaching Jazz voice lessons and other classes at University of Memphis, Joyce Cobb also taught the music history course at Stax Music Academy and now also instructs voice lessons here in our beloved home, Rhodes College.

In these days of instant communication and access to entertainment, the arts, and especially jazz, are struggling to find audiences and support. Coupled with this, decreased funding and support in schools are making it harder for young people to experience jazz, let alone participate in it.  And that is the true gift that Joyce Cobb gives us. She has taken her love for this art and is spreading it through her versatility in performance as well as teaching. When Joyce Cobb said to me on the first day of class that “Jazz is only jazz because of improv. If there’s not improv there’s no jazz,” she was teaching me much more than just the hallmarks of a genre of music, she was teaching me about life. It is more than mastering a craft, it is about connecting with people on the fly. And connecting with people is what she does the best. Joyce Cobb has impacted the community in countless ways, all through being flexible, but passionate. By letting her soul and energy guide her work, she has become a pillar of jazz and a respected figure in the Memphis music community. Joyce Cobb works tirelessly to build the community of Memphis Jazz one student, one audience member, and one class at a time. And she does it by just teaching what she knows.

Text by Alexandra Howard