From the time he attended Settlement Music School as a young teenager, West Philly native Jawanza Kobie, now 66, has wanted to be known as a jazz composer.
Though he jokes that he intended the title of his newly released second album, Jawanza Kobie Jazz Composer, to serve as a “business card,” it also commemorates the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.
Following his retirement in 2014 after 33 years as a mechanic and manager for SEPTA, he has finally dedicated himself wholly to music. “As soon as I reached retirement age, I was out of there,” said the Wilmington-based pianist, keyboardist, and composer.
“I had already released my first CD, but I wanted to do it full time. I just said, ‘This is it. I have to do it now or never.’”
Kobie had never abandoned music, even throughout his decades with SEPTA. He moonlighted as a producer and songwriter for Alpha International Studios, wrote scores for TV commercials and independent films, and amassed an impressive stockpile of compositions that largely went unheard.
But after studying at Boston’s renowned Berklee College of Music and touring for a year with soul singer Billy Paul in the late ’70s, he realized that the musician’s life wasn’t particularly lucrative. “I developed a habit,” he jokes: “I liked to eat, and I didn’t want to mess that habit up.”
He also had a young family at home to feed. Between his studies at Settlement and his years at Berklee, Kobie had attended Dobbins Technical High School and served an apprenticeship as a journeyman electrician, so he applied those skills to what he calls the “steel wheels” side of SEPTA, working on the transportation service’s rail trains and trolleys.
After a decade as a mechanic, he went into management, running the motor shops at 69th Street and Woodland and, for a brief span, serving as assistant director at Fern Rock Transportation Center.
“If you rode the Broad Street subway from 2005 to 2007 and you made it safely, it was because of my department,” Kobie said. “But it was a 24/7 situation and was taking too much time away from music. So I asked them to put me back into a lesser position.”
That allowed Kobie to release his long-overdue debut album, Feels Better Than It Sounds, in 2013, a year before his retirement.
With newfound time on his hands Kobie began frequenting local jam sessions, and in 2016, he was among the artists selected for the Kimmel Center’s annual Jazz Residency program. There he wrote Bird Stories, a jazz-centric take on Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf intended to introduce young listeners to the instruments and concepts of jazz through a musical fable.
“That meant everything to me,” Kobie said of the Kimmel Center commission. “I have never won anything in my life. So to be recognized at this age — I get emotional just thinking about it. Somebody paying you to write what you want to write? Man, you can’t beat that.”
That sentiment captures Kobie’s attitude towards his own music. Never intent on becoming a star, he’s a self-described introvert whose passion lies in the backstage details of the music rather than the spotlight. He even contemplated enlisting another pianist for his new album, though he ended up filling the role himself.
“I always picked up records and looked at who wrote and arranged the music — the behind-the-scenes stuff. I was more enamored with [Motown songwriters] Holland-Dozier-Holland than the stars they wrote for. [Beatles producer] George Martin is a big hero of mine. That’s what I gravitated towards.”
Jawanza Kobie Jazz Composer continues along the lines of its predecessor, sleek contemporary jazz full of funky grooves, hummable melodies, and pop songcraft redolent of Steely Dan or Grover Washington Jr.
As with all of his work, Kobie wrote the music with a strong emphasis on accessibility. “My idol, Quincy Jones, said, ‘If you can’t whistle it, it ain’t worth a [damn].’ So I try to make melodies that you can whistle, that you can instantly memorize.”
Kobie’s own introduction to jazz had come via artists with a similar attitude. He was hooked on the music the day his father brought home a copy of Oscar Peterson’s rollicking Night Train and later worshipped pianist Ramsey Lewis, who scored crossover hits with pop tunes like “The In Crowd” and “Hang On Sloopy.”
Like them, Kobie surrounds himself with top-notch players. Jazz Composer features many of Philly’s most respected musicians, including bassists Lee Smith and Mike Boone, drummers Webb Thomas and Harry “Butch” Reed, trumpeter Leon Jordan Jr. and guitarist Anthony DeCarlo.
On two tracks, he reunites with some of the musicians who’d played in his short-lived big band at Berklee, including saxophonist and former Jazz Messenger Bill Pierce.
The pandemic has been difficult for many musicians, but Kobie has embraced the opportunity to focus on composing even more new music. “This is what I like to do,” he said. “It’s good for someone who likes to be in his own company. I would love people to hear this music, but regardless of who hears it, I’m going to keep writing.”