Bill Cosby is a gentle giant, and not just physically. He is a powerhouse of energy and achievement. He's best known as a standup comedian non pareil. Moreover, his TV shows, such as The Cosby Show, have topped the ratings for many years, and he uses them as a way to promote racial reconciliation and disseminate a range of ideas that leaves other shows in the dust. He has won a slew of Emmy and Grammy awards. After dropping out of college to become an entertainer, he went back to school and earned a doctorate in education, not to mention a dozen honorary degrees. A philanthropist, he has endorsed and funded humanitarian and educational causes, including the Jazz Foundation of America. His outspoken views on race relations, the Afro-American family, and education have led to positive changes in the American landscape. At 72, he is truly a man for all seasons and an immortal legend.
Since his school days at Central High and Temple University in Philadelphia, "Cos" has been a jazz player (drums and percussion) and aficionado. He listens to jazz on radio and recordings, and drops in on club dates and concerts whenever he can. He's good friends with many of the musicians. He has featured prominent jazz musicians on his TV shows. His own group, Cos of Good Music, performs at various venues when his schedule permits. Currently, he is emcee of the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, where he does double duty performing with his group.
Cosby spoke knowledgeably and with great affection about the music and the musicians he has known and loved.
Marian Anderson Awards Concert
All About Jazz: Recently, AAJ reviewed the Marian Anderson Awards Concert with you as the recipient. It was a wonderful occasion; the jazz ensemble was great, and I understand that you suggested the two elderly saxophonists who played on that set. They were terrific.
Bill Cosby: You know, we just lost one of them, Max Lucas.
AAJ: He passed away? I'm sorry to hear that.
BC: I talked to Jimmy Heath. He was the fellow who told me about Lucas. Jimmy told me he went up to Harlem and saw this guy, Lucas, and I kept saying to Jimmy, "Can he play?" And Jimmy said, "Yeah." So I said, "OK, are you sure, because in their 90's [Lucas passed away soon after the Anderson Awards at age 99] some guys lose their bite!"
AAJ: Perhaps, but I'm thinking of the trumpet player Doc Cheatham, who was a regular at Sweet Basil in his early nineties.
BC: But a lot of the guys aren't that fortunate. Anyway, on Jimmy's recommendation, I felt that having Lucas and 95 year old Fred Staton [brother of the late vocalist Dakota Staton] at the Anderson Awards would take the show!
AAJ: It was very moving to have them up there with that jazz group, and they really swung!
BC: Well, those guys were also blessed to experience that huge audience applauding for them, because, like any entertainers, there's something in you that always needs that. No matter how old you are.
AAJ: And our local musicians need all the recognition they can get. For instance, your friend, Robert "Bootsie" Barnes, deserves to have his name up in lights. He's a legend who just plays around locally, and I was glad to see him get the appreciation of a big broad-based audience.
BC: There's a tenor saxophonist in Washington, D.C. by the name of Buck Hill. Like Bootsie, Buck never leaves his home town. And Jimmy Heath will tell you that if you bring your horn to D.C. and try to play with this old guy, and you think you're going to cut him, you're going to come out skinned up! You know what would make a great concert? You get a list from musicians like Jimmy and Mickey Roker, guys who have traveled around, and you say, tell me about the musicians in just Baltimore, Wilmington, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and Newark. You'll find men and women who just don't leave their city. What a great concert they would make.
Cosby, Comedy, TV, and Jazz
AAJ: That's a wonderful idea. Now, to change the topic, some of your fans don't necessarily know that you're into jazz. I personally do know you got involved as a jazz drummer when you were young. Could you tell us about your jazz involvement and interest over the years?
BC: I don't see why my fans wouldn't know about my interest in jazz. First of all, if you look at "The Huxtables," I had Art Blakey, Tito Puente, Bobby Sanabria, and the Mario Bauza Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra. I had Nancy Wilson. There's one show with Cliff down in the cellar trying to teach Malcolm or Theo about the music. Then we had Big Maybelle [R&B singer Maybelle Louise Smith] do her classic version of "Candy," and had Claire lip synch to it. [laughter] Wonderful things you can do when your show is number 1.
AAJ: And David Brenner said you insisted upon complete creative control of your shows.
BC: Yeah!!! I just didn't want to see the tired people comin' up and doin' the same old thing. Like for the Anderson Award, I asked myself, "Would Marian Anderson herself have enjoyed these performersand my conclusion was "You bet she would!!"