Bill Cosby: If You Could Hear It, You'd Smile
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, 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!!"
BC: Jack Benny was the other guest. He fell off the chair, and after I did my monologue, he said, "I have no idea of anything you said, but it was funny as hell!"
AAJ: Was that story about you and Stitt true? Did it really happen?
BC: Yeah. The Blue Note used to have these matinees. Mickey Roker will tell you about those jam sessions at 4 o'clock. And if you got up enough nerve, you could go up and tap somebody, indicating you wanted to play.
AAJ: So it actually happened that you played drums behind Sonny Stitt, and when Max Roach realized you were in physical pain from trying to keep up, he tapped you on the shoulder and took your place. That's incredible! [laughter] So, who are some of your favorite jazz musicians and recordings?
Seriously into Jazz
BC: I'm the kind of listener who for two weeks in a row, I'll love Bud Powell. Then another time, I'll get into Erroll Garner. Then again, I'll get into the CD, Ahmad Jamal in Pittsburgh and just keep listenin' to that. And then I'll go in, and for some reason, pick up Sun Ra and his Arkestra. Then I'll do nothing but Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, just with the Philadelphia musicians who played with him.
AAJ: Reggie Workman on bass.
BC: More often, it was Jymie Merritt.
AAJ: And Lee Morgan on trumpet.
AAJ: Timmons being the Philly pianist and composer of "Moanin.'" Sounds like you're a pretty serious devotee.
BC: Then I might listen to Ornette Coleman. It just comes, and I'll get interested. I may do nothing but Mingus for a while. And then turn around and listen to Richard "Groove" Holmes [the jazz "soul" organisteds.] doing "Misty." Then I'll turn on the jazz station of Sirius Radio, and although the sound isn't that good, you've got all these great cuts. A couple of days ago, around four in the morning, they played an organist, but I couldn't hear who it was, and I was just so frustrated. But there was a beat and a rhythm to it. It was just the blues, but when the back beat is something on the order of James Brown's drummer, the solos get lost, because the rhythm is so complex but funky, and it was a monster that forced you to go to the rhythm section. So the soloists got lost, like the paper napkin with the hors d'oevres.
And then, too, among the guitarists, Wes Montgomery is fantastic. He's always good to let you know what the art form is all about. It's the same still life that everybody is painting, but in comes Wes Montgomery, and it's right there! I love the music. But I never compare. I never say that Monk is better than Horace Parlan, for example. That's not the way I listen. I'll get just as excited about Wynton Kelly playin' with Miles. I amaze people because there was a time when you could put a record on, and like Leonard Feather used to do the Downbeat thing, the music during the '50's, and I could always tell you who the musician was. So sometimes I'll get in the car, and our driver keeps his 88.3FM or the Columbia University station on, which is fantastic, and I'll just open the door and get in, and I'll say, "That's Hank Mobley." Then the announcer will say, "That was Hank Mobley...." And the driver just shakes his head! He loves jazz too, but he's amazed that I know the players that well.
AAJ: Your knowledge and love of jazz is obvious just from the musicians you've mentioned.
Anticipating the Upcoming Playboy Jazz Festival
BC: When I do the Playboy Jazz Festival, in addition to being the emcee, I'll be playing with the group, "Cos of Good Music." We'll be performing on Sunday, June 13th. There are two guys who join me every year. They are Dwayne Burno on bass and Ndugu Chancler on drums. They know exactly what I want, and that will hold things together. Because all the other musicians, I've not worked with before. OK, so the rehearsal will be 10am that Sunday, and only Dwayne, Ndugu, and I will know what we're going to do. We'll rehearse for two hours, and then play at 3:40 in the afternoon. We'll have only one rehearsal.
AAJ: Do you have an idea of what tunes you're going to do?
BC: I sure do, and so will they, because I'm going to mail them my selections along with CDs whose versions I like. For instance, we're going to do Wayne Shorter's "The Chess Player," which he did when he was with Art Blakey. I want the attack to be the same as when the Messengers did it, because it's very exciting, and that's our opening song. It's to get the people in a festive mood. The second song is going to be John Coltrane's "Ole." The message I'll give to the musicians will be that I want them to enter their solos in the same pitch and intensity that John enters in his first solo on "Ole" because I think it is absolutely perfect and will keep the audience attentive. See, it's an open-air festival, there's food, there's wine, and people will be just arriving because there's sets from 2 to 10pm. So you really want to spark their interest, capture the spirit, and give it to the people so that they feel alive. And when John played his solo on "Ole," I want that pitch and intensity, and then you play whatever you wanna play. It's different if you're at home listening alone. At a place like the Hollywood Bowl, there are lots of distractions, and I want the audience's spirit to be lifted and for them to realize that they're in an energy area.
AAJ: That's a great concept. I've been to Newport a few times, and it really is hard to hold people's undivided attention in that large open-air setting.
BC: I've played Newport four times, and at times it was hard to get through to the audience.
AAJ: There's something the musicians call the "zone," and you only get to it once in a while.
BC: The Playboy Festival gets 18,000 people, and we really do it. The audience is appreciative, and don't forget one thing, mon frère, Mr. Philadelphia! We're East Coast musicians and we're playing for the West Coast people. And they are applauding us. We're out here competing with the ghosts of Stan Kenton, Shorty Rogers, and Bud Shank!
AAJ: So, tell us about the musicians in "Cos of Good Music."
BC: OK, now, Ingrid Jensen, on trumpet and flugel horn, plays as beautifully and hard as Woody Shaw. Maybe more accurately, she can "hang with" Woody Shaw. Marc Gross on alto and soprano sax, I heard with Jimmy Heath and James Moody with their big band. Gross took a solo on Dizzy's "Manteca," and the lights went out, and he kept playin'! So I'm listenin' for his fire. Jay Hoggard on vibes is a professor of music at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. In hip jargon, he's BAD!
AAJ: That means he's GOOD!
BC: [Cosby responds with a long, deep chuckle.] Exactly! Now, we're leaving out my pianist.
AAJ: D.D. Jackson?
BC: That's right! Now this is a guy who's gonna take those keys and pull 'em up off the piano! He'll be crawlin' inside and underneath! I'm tellin' you, he's fantastic!
AAJ: Sounds like you've got a very exciting group.
BC: Here's what's exciting. If you could be there, you'd come to our rehearsal, with nothing miked, and one of those old box pianos, in something like the back room of the Village Gate, and everything's acoustical. I had Don Braden write out my concept of "Sweet Georgia Brown." What I want to capture with this tune is the rhythm section flow that sounds and feels like the guy playin' the spoons, straight 4/4, and it stays just that, and all it does is build different crescendos. The rhythm follows the soloists, but it stays just there, and the soloists have to do it. I've got it in my head, but I'm musically illiterate, so I've told Braden what I want, and I'm gonna start this out with Mr. Gross and Ms. Jensen playing the bridge, and repeating the five notes of the bridge. But then they will begin to play off each other- just the two of them. And they're playing lightly, having fun, so that they're drawing you in. You hear these two playing, [Cosby scats the idea]. Trumpet and saxophone, just out there, and then way in the back, you hear this sound- the bass, drums, vibes, and piano on 4/4, almost like a march, with the drummer playin' on the side of his drums to mimic the spoons, and it's like a dance is comin.' If you could hear the rehearsal, you'd smile.
A Postscript on Youth and Jazz
AAJ: Just quickly, I had in mind to ask how you think jazz can be brought more to the younger generation, who are exposed to other pop music much more than jazz today?
BC: I think the problem is the short attention span of our youth comin' up. And also they can think this music is for the older people, so the prejudice is there. And if you don't have that sound, they're not going to listen. Whatever else you do, you've still got to do what Duke Ellington said. "Get it out there." The more you play it, the more they're gonna love it.