Q & A: Bill Cosby, Jazz and the Playboy Jazz Festival

By Don Heckman

Bill Cosby’s irrepressible personality has been such a vital element at the Playboy Jazz Festivals that the event seemed to lose its spark in the one year in which he took a hiatus. In addition to his role as master of ceremonies, his all-star Cos of Good Music band has become one of the Festival’s highlights – a shifting collection of generation-crossing musicians performing Cosby-chosen programs embracing the entire history of jazz. A recent conversation with Cosby touched upon his lifelong love of the music as well as his lengthy association with Playboy and the Festival.

DH: Cos, you’re an East Coast guy, initially from Philly, yet here you are in L.A., year after year, doing the Playboy Festival. Has it begun to feel like a once-a-year home out here?

BC: Well, actually, I’ve had a house here for years. This was the house that Jello built. I was doing the commercials, a good thirty years ago. The family traveled with me. So we’d have four kids check into the Beverly Hills Hotel. And after a while, one morning I just saw the breakfast bill, with all of us sitting around. And I noticed that a pitcher of freshly squeezed orange juice was $85. So I decided I could buy a house and buy a quart of Tropicana a day and the difference would pay for the house. And it did.

DH: Can we go back a little earlier to where it all started, to those days when you were a kid in Philly hearing your first jazz?

BC: There was an AM station, and they played progressive jazz in those days. And I heard it on our Philco radio. And it was Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Dave Brubeck, Stan Getz. And Bud Powell and the big bands at the Earle Theatre. So what I listened to and what brought me in was the difference under the umbrella. The difference. Tiny Bradshaw and Earl Bostic. And then Red Prysock and Illinois Jacquet. The guys that played the danceable music. And then there was the Max Roach and Bud Powell and John Lewis and Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and all those guys that played super fast. 78 rpm records and dancing. So that you danced to the honking guys. Oh, and don’t forget Mr. Louis Jordan. Please. Please! So all of that was together. You could keep time to those guys. And then of course there were the singers – Sonny Till and the Orioles, groups named after all these birds and things. And we danced slow to them.

DH: So dancing was basic to your listening?

BC: Right. When Parker, Dizzy and others – Max Roach – played, their tempo was “Cherokee.” What we did in those days was called Off-Time. You cut the meter in half. That way you wouldn’t die running around the dance floor, like the professional people you saw, throwing the women over the shoulder. And they had the big skirts and the saddle shoes and all that. No, we cut it in half. And that’s the dance that I do for Cliff’s character in the intros of the Huxtables [on the NBC-TV hit sitcom series The Bill Cosby Show]. Which people laughingly say “You can’t dance.” But they don’t know that I’m doing an Off-Time, which was invented in the forties. But the other thing is that if you ever see a full show of Cuban music, and the male and female come out to dance in their classic culture, you will see that Off-Time in the male as he goes around the female, telling his story. Now for me, that’s what hooked me.

DH: But jazz was even more than that, wasn’t it? More than dancing, more like a kind of lifestyle approach?

BC: It was. For instance — Miles Davis in clothing. Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in clothing. The Brooks Brothers box cut Ivy League suit. And all five of them dressed the same way. And then that famous photo of the MJQ. Brooks Brothers, salt and pepper tweed, three piece suits. Looking like warriors. And I mean the clothing we copied – the way they dressed. Everything about it. When dating you would reject a beautiful girl who would think that Chico Hamilton was a singer. And you had nicknames for the LPs, you called them your sides. And the most popular girls were the ones who loved jazz.

DH: Speaking of singers, any particular vocal numbers come to mind?

BC: Well, when I turned 13 or so, there were two songs I remember. I did not understand the first one. It was called “All About Ronnie.” I don’t know why it was popular. I had no idea what it was about, because I wasn’t into singers, just instrumentals. Now if it was Sonny Till singing “Crying in the Chapel,” that was something else. But the girls were hipper than the boys about singers at that age, and they knew all about it. But the real whammy, the real breaking news was the song “Moody’s Mood for Love.” It is the national anthem of black puberty. Because as it passed through time, our daughter knew the words to it because of George Benson. But we were singing the song at age 13, singing the song and doing the high pitched parts. You could sing it and not know what the hell you were singing about. And the girls knew the words, too. Everybody was walking around the neighborhood singing. If you went to ten black people all across the United States and said “There I go, there I go,” they would either King Pleasure or Moody you. Everybody just knew it. Ask Herbie Hancock how old he was when he first heard the words. I knew a man who became the Secretary of the Army under LBJ, and he can sing it. He’s 74 years old.

DH: Let’s talk about New York. You got out of the service, began to work there as a comedian in the fifties, an amazing time for jazz.

BC: . I think it was at its high point. Miles Davis. Lenny Bruce at the Village Vanguard, maybe the Village Gate for maybe a couple of hundred people at most. And then there was Basin Street East. You had the Village Vanguard, the Village Gate, the Five Spot, Birdland. This was way before the taking over of the music business by the Beatles and Haight Ashbury and things like that. So these jazz musicians, they were the guys. I mean Brubeck and those guys could come in and do concerts in halls, too.

DH: And you were a fan.

BC: I was a fan. I had a record player and I loved the music. You could walk into a record store – well, I did. And there was a lady there, and I’d say “What’ve you got?” And she’d say, “I’ve got a new Blue Note. Art Blakey,” and so forth. And I’d say “Okay, give it to me.” Don’t even listen to it, just buy it. “What’ve you got?” “MJQ.” “Gimme it.” And she knew. It was the East Coast sound. Which really was Rudy Van Gelder. They’d put that bottom into it, that bass thing. And I was always happy when there was a new Horace Silver, who plays what I call the best jazz rhythm ‘n’ blues piano. I mean Horace plays 4/4. When he accompanies you, you don’t get a one and three and then spaces. Horace is a pump. Your tire will not go down. He always amazes me with that left hand, cuz it’s almost like a grunt. Wonk, Wonk-wonk. He’s always pumping with you. And that showed, as far as I’m concerned, what it meant to have your taste be way up there, where you could just walk in a record store and say, “What’ve you got?” “A new Bud Powell.” “I’ll take it.” “Two forty-nine.”

DH: You spent a lot of time in the clubs, too, didn’t you? Both performing your own act and listening?

BC: Sure. I could finish up a gig, jump in a cab and it’s a four minute drive from the Half Note to the Vanguard to the Five Spot or whatever. And they stayed open. I remember one night I was working, must have been 1963, at the Gaslight in Greenwich Village. I’d get off at 4 in the morning, and the streets were still full of what’s left – college people, etc. – and I’m walking around and I hear music, being played live. And I walk into this place and there’s Ben Riley and Buster Williams. Cedar Walton. They were playing, people were eating, it’s quarter to five in the morning. And I said to Ben, “How long are you guys going to play?” and Ben said, ‘’Til death.”

DH: I guess every jazz musician’s had at least one of those gigs. Okay, let’s jump forward. Jazz, Playboy and you. When did that all start to happen?

BC: I think when Leonard Feather was about 12 years old. [Laughter] See you have to look at Playboy when that stuff started. Hef was setting the style. Iyy league, those skinny pants, the skinny tie. Shel Silverstein. The beginning centerfolds, Gadgets, stories by Nat Hentoff, etc. The Guide to How To Be Hip. It all ran Esquire into second place. And so the Playboy Jazz Poll became hip, too. And the Playboy Clubs, no matter what city they were in because they were private clubs, they integrated, no segregation, period. The first. And the talent, as well — Dick Gregory. Then they started the Playboy jazz festival, first in Chicago. Then Hef moves to California, and somebody gets an idea 32 years ago. Hef says “Let’s do it. It’s going to be different.” And it has been. If you started with the Festival 32 years ago you can pretty much say there weren’t many of the great ones that you missed. Male and female.

DH: Along with some unusual events, as well. Like the time bassist Jaco Pastorius had an emotional breakdown on stage.

BC: Jaco. Yeah. I just went out cause I knew he’d had enough, and I just walked up to him. He put his arms around me and he just started crying. But the crowd was getting angry and he was frustrated. That was a breakdown. Right before their very eyes. And you know, man, those drug dealers couldn’t care less. They couldn’t care less for the geniuses they’re responsible for taking out.

DH: You’ve also had a pretty wide range of experiences with your Cos of Good Music sets, as well. Like the one with the gospel group?

BC: You had to mention that, didn’t you? But you’re right. The worst set for me was when I tried to meld gospel with jazz to bring in the roots. I had a choir that should have lit up the place. I had heard earlier and they killed. I had Billy Higgins on drums. And you can’t miss with that. Jimmy Heath and I think Cedar Walton. But it didn’t work. It didn’t travel past me. Forget that it wasn’t going into the audience. It wasn’t going past me. Then I look out and I see Clint Holmes in the audience. And I know Clint kills in Las Vegas. So I go get him and say, ‘Clint, come here. You know the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic,’ and we’ll get the choir to back you…”. And then Clint dies, too. It was a staring contest. But it wasn’t the audience’s fault. The music never left the bandstand. It died.

DH: Not one of your better ideas.

BC: Oh, it was a great idea. But we should have left it at that. The best left ideas of man… To this day it is still the worst set I have ever played. But the good news is that every year I hear people say the same thing. “Listen, that band was better than last year’s, and I didn’t think you could do that.” So that means that my choices of songs are wonderful. And musicians, too. Like Anat Cohen last year. I heard her on the U. of Mass jazz station and I didn’t know she was a woman. So I called Darlene Chan and I said, ‘Darlene, lemme tell you something. There’s a guy I want. I heard a recording of his on the U. Mass jazz station. Get him. I want him in my band.” And Darlene says, “What’s his name.” I said, “Anat Cohen.” She says, “Bill that’s a woman.” And I said, “I don’t care who he is. Get him.”

DH: Can you give a little advance tip on how you’re approaching this year’s performance by the Cos of Good Music?

BC: Look at it this way. Everything I’ve done with the Cos of Good Music has been to capture the spirit of these people carrying their food in. It does no good for me to do a tribute to Django Reinhardt. I mean, they’re talking, they’re greeting each other, they’re waving to each other. So I have to put the spirit out there. To do that I choose certain things. They don’t have to be fast. But they have to have a spirit and a movement where people are getting something coming that is not a continuation of Muzak so to speak.”

DH: Like what?

BC: For this Festival we’ll open with Wayne Shorter’s “The Chess Players.” The reason why is because it goes like this. And you will hear it exactly like this. [He scat sings the line, touching on all the instrumental parts.] Now, you can’t get away from that. You’re carrying your wine and cheese and you’re greeting people and you hear [He scats again] and you’ve got your best clothes on. And it’s done with Art Blakey’s shuffle beat, which Ndugu Chancler does very well. It’s not a back beat, it’s a shuffle beat. And we drive that thing, man, with Dwayne’s bass up. That’ll capture the spirit, don’t you think?

DH: All the way. Then what?

BC: The second song is “Olé” – John Coltrane. [He scats the line]. It’s almost like “Mission Impossible.” All this stuff is going around in layers. And I’ve sent a note to every musician. It basically says you play what you want to play, but I want you to enter with the same energy that John Coltrane enters on his first solo. Because I know this is what excited that whole song. So everybody can play his or her own solo, his or her own notes, but with the same intensity. And then we will go from there, because then we will have them.

DH: A final thought about what the Cos of Good Music and the Playboy Jazz Festival mean to you.

BC: It’s in the name. It says “Playboy Jazz Festival” with this realization that jazz has this tremendous umbrella that keeps broadening, it keeps getting wider. And to me, that says everything.

DH: Thanks, Cos. Looking forward to the weekend.


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