By Don Heckman
Long time fans of the Playboy Jazz Festival are going to receive a surprise this year for the legendary event’s 35th anniversary. After having hosted virtually all of the previous Festivals, Bill Cosby has decided to retire. He’ll be replaced by George Lopez, stand up comedian, actor and host of the late night show Lopez tonight. Last week Lopez shared his thoughts about his high visibility new assignment.
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Don Heckman: How did you feel, George, when you got the news that you were replacing Bill Cosby at the Playboy Jazz Festival?
George Lopez: I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it when I first heard about it. And I still can’t believe that Bill Cosby would ask me to be the host of the Playboy Jazz Festival. There’s not a lot of people that I respect more in life than Bill Cosby.
DH: Were you familiar with Cosby’s work at the Festival?
GL: Sure. I’d known of his association with being host of the Festival for years. But not until I got involved did I learn that he had been there for 34 years. And I was also surprised to learn that the only two people who had ever filled in for him were Flip Wilson and Steve Allen, I believe.
DH: How did you find out about the new assignment?
GL: I got a message to call him, I think it was in October. Months before the February announcement. He told me he did not want to continue as host. And he asked me if I would take over for him.
DH: Did you have any contact with him before that?
GL: Yes, Mr. Cosby had done my talk show a couple of times. And we had a nice rapport. He was very kind to me about my comedy. So when I found out why he wanted me to call him, I thought, “Well, it doesn’t get any better than this.”
DH: What’s your background in jazz, George? What kind of fan are you? Warm, luke-warm, what?
GL: I’m a luke-warm. But I have a tremendous respect for music. I mean, I love all music. From my association with Carlos Santana I learned a lot about Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and more. When I was in high school, George Benson had crossed into the mainstream. And even then I knew about Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter and guys like that. Not to the degree of what Mr. Cosby knows. I appreciate jazz for the craftsmanship of the players, but also because their music is from the soul.
DH: Over the years comedians like Cosby, Mort Sahl and others have mentioned the similarities between the improvisation of jazz and the improvising of stand-up comedians like you.
GL: Yes. That’s true. In fact somebody once said to me, ‘You know, your comedy is like jazz, free like jazz. You don’t play the same notes all the time.” And I agree. There’s a warmth and a soul to jazz that is not in a lot of music.
DH: You also grew up in a very musical culture, didn’t you?
GL: Absolutely, It’s always been an everyday part of my life. There is a tremendous amount of love for music in our culture, of jazz and really of all music..
DH: I assume, however, that there won’t be a Lopez Band to replace the Cos of Good Music, Bill Cosby’s unique band?
GL: No. I mean, wow, that’s right, Cosby had his own band. But what did he play?
DH: Sometimes drums. And he played them pretty well. But mostly he just inspired a carefully chosen group of fine players to do their best.
GL: Wow. I’m afraid that’ll be missing from this Festival. I wish I could. I wish I was talented enough to be able to play something. Anything. At the Hollywood Bowl. And I’m not saying that – if I continue as host of the Jazz Festival – that I would not consider putting together a little quartet myself, down the line. The same way Mr. Cosby put that band together. That would have to be one of the most exciting things, to put a band together and play at the Hollywood Bowl.
DH: Sounds like a very interesting addition to the Festival.
GL: Right. Especially if I had Poncho Sanchez and Sheila E in my band.
DH: Even better. How did you work out the way you would handle the hosting of the Festival? Did you talk to Cos about it?
GL: Cosby ran some things by me. He told me he didn’t perform so much as just host. He was like “It’s not about comedy, man. It’s just about hosting.” I just want to stay energetic and keep the audience connected. I may jump in and play congas with Sheila E. at some point. Or a tambourine. Throughout the day I would love if the guys would occasionally have me play maracas or tambourine. Because I think that would help keep the audience connected.
DH: That’s something Cosby did extremely well.
GL: Right. Which is what I want to do, too. I want to keep everybody in the Bowl, from the back to the front, connected. Keep the band pumping. I can imagine myself walking out into the crowd. Because I did it once when Santana and I played there. Cosby also told me to draw attention to the musicians: “Hey, how about so and so on the drums!” Or “Give it up for so and so.”
DH: Are you all set to go for Saturday and Sunday at the Bowl?
GL: I can’t believe it’s almost here. I just want everything to go smoothly. And there’s a lot going on. Including Quincy Jones’ 80th birthday celebration.
DH: And are you ready to come back next year?
GL: I’d love to be invited back to continue to host the Festival. To honor the selection of me as host to follow Cosby. It would be win-win, and fill my heart with a lot of love.
DH: Thanks, George. Looking forward to the weekend.
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The 2013 Playboy Jazz Festival takes place at the Hollywood Bowl on Saturday and Sunday, June 15 & 16. For information call (310) 450-1172.l