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Bill Cosby, jazz connoisseur

June 8, 2011 |  2:38 pm

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Now in its 33rd year, this weekend’s Playboy Jazz Festival needs no introduction as a summertime fixture on the L.A. music scene. Yet arguably that tradition wouldn’t be the same without emcee Bill Cosby, who this year is hosting for the 30th time.

Cosby’s occasional interjection of one-liners from the stage might be expected, but his ability to sit in on percussion with bands such as his all-star ensemble the Cos of Good Music (performing Saturday) and last year’s playful turn with Pete Escovedo’s orchestra might surprise fans.

Cosby is deadly serious about jazz as an influence on his life, particularly as a form of individual expression. “That’s what we do in progressive jazz, it’s when the solos start,” he said, speaking by phone from his home in Massachusetts. “And it’s something that so many of the reviewers never really mention, what the musicians played ... what they interpret as artists.”

His influences:


George Benson: “There’s a cut, the song is ‘From This Moment On.’ I want you to get it and listen to it, and that’s George Benson’s solo. Wow. You listen to the first eight bars George solos on, and you tell me if your mouth didn’t open.”

Thelonious Monk: “The first record that ever made me laugh, in my ignorance, was Monk playing ‘Misterioso.’ And I laughed and said, ‘I can do that. What kind of piano playing is that? I can do that with two fingers….’ [Then] the solo started.”

Etta James singing “Night and Day”: “First of all, I happen to think that this song, the words — [Cole Porter] could’ve stopped after that. He could’ve just gone over to Mercer’s house and said, ‘Johnny, you don’t have one like this. This is clever, it’s real, it’s humorous. Mercer, you’re fantastic, but I quit.’ And then Etta James ad-libs the thing, after the song really gets cooking and she says, ‘And on and on and on.’ It’s fantastic.”

Classic jazz vocalists: “Listening to so many vocalists on the jazz stations, I’m just wondering at what point in their professional lives will they … develop that individuality that the masters have…. I think it was much easier because back in the ’40s, going into the ’50s, those songs were played over and over, but you knew Anita O’Day. You knew Carmen McRae, you knew Sarah Vaughan and certainly Ella Fitzgerald and Nancy Wilson — bam, bam, bam. [Today’s] singers come on and they scat, but it’s like they’re scatting in character.”

Anat Cohen: “So I’m sitting at home in Massachusetts and I hear this tenor [saxophone] player. And this tenor player is attacking, and the intelligence of the attack and the thinking is fantastic. And not afraid ... but not foolish. [This weekend] we’re going to come out with Curtis Fuller’s ‘The Egyptian.’ I want you to download that and you come to Wayne Shorter’s solo … I want you to hear what Wayne Shorter did with his solo, and then I want you to hear with Anat did with that same amount of time. You will know that is a bad woman.”

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Photo: Bill Cosby onstage at the Hollywood Bowl with his Cos of Good Music ensemble at the Playboy Jazz Festival in 2002. Credit: Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times.

— Chris Barton

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