Bill Cosby, who has featured jazz greats like Joe Williams, B.B. King and Dizzy Gillespie on his top-rated TV show, has long been an ardent champion of the art form.
Recently, the ex-drummer has taken a solid step forward in that direction by serving as producer, co-composer and occasionally part-time percussionist on a series of productions for the Verve/Polygram label. The first of these, "Where You Lay Your Head," is a funk-oriented project that was released Tuesday and features drummer Al Foster and guitarist John Scofield (both ex-Miles Davis sidemen), pianist Harold Mabern, saxophonists David Murray and Odean Pope, among others.
"What I want to do is make this music accessible, educate people in a way that won't hurt them," says Cosby. "My partner in writing the music is Stu Gardner. We have a good relationship; we can sit at that piano and write 40 tunes a day. Stu wrote the theme for 'The Cosby Show' and the two albums of music from the show. But basically, this record is really, really mine. Stu was there, in the background, to see that nobody messed around with me."
Cosby says he tried to capture, in a studio, the feeling of a live club session. Of his second album, on which he embarked recently, he says, "I've got a budget of 40 grand and I'm not going to go over it, so I lay my stuff out very carefully. I don't overload and call up 200,000 musicians; just 4 or 5 guys who respect each other, and who are willing to experiment. I believe there is a great audience, to some extent untapped, out there for the real thing."
Cosby's involvement with these new recordings is another plateau in a lifelong dedication to the music that's been called "the sound of surprise."
The comedian first heard jazz growing up in Philadelphia when his father would take him to the movies, telling him that they were going to see a "Lone Ranger" serial.
"But that was just an excuse," he recalls. "He wanted to go to the theater because Duke Ellington was playing there. I was about 6 years old and I'd keep yelling, 'I don't want to see Mr. Duke, I want the Lone Ranger!' The funny thing is, now I've got all these Ellington CDs and I'm trying to get my own children to understand."
It didn't take long for Cosby's own interest to develop, and soon his mind was made up: he wanted to be a drummer.
"They had a musical instrument store in Philadelphia, Wurlitzer's, where a guy gave drum lessons," he says. "He'd teach you for a half-hour for $1.25. I took about 10 lessons with him, and my mother bought me a set of drums on layaway for $75."
After gaining some proficiency, Cosby began to work, often for strippers playing bluesy, R&B-ish tunes like "Night Train." "But that wasn't what I wanted to do," he says. "I wanted to swing, man. I wanted to be the driving force."
But something was missing. "The closest I came, I guess, was with Charlie Chilsom and the Philadelphians, a quintet," he says. "I was with them for seven months. I think it was then that I realized Charlie was being awfully kind to me, because I knew what I lacked in technique. So I started playing football and running track and taking care of my skills as a teacher; and then, of course, I got into comedy."
Later, living in New York, Cosby was able to nourish his musical appetite as a listener, rather than as a player. "I was in Greenwich Village, doing comedy until 4 in the morning, then I'd go around to coffee houses and meet Pharaoh Sanders and all these other guys," he says. "The Village was incredible--the Vanguard, the Half Note, the Five Spot, the Village Gate--every 12 feet you had a jazz club. Man, I was like a blind dog in a butcher shop. Besides, now I had a little recognition as a comedian. (Reedman) Eric Dolphy would come over and say 'Hey, Bill, how you doing?' And I'd see Sonny Murray, the drummer, who went to high school with me. I could walk up to the musicians and give 'em a big hug. I felt like I was a real musician, even though I never got to be the drummer I wanted to be."
A few years later, having moved to Los Angeles, Cosby had established himself well enough as a comedian to become a local celebrity. On many evenings at (the now defunct) Shelly's Manne Hole (on Cahuenga Boulevard in Hollywood), he could be found sitting next to this writer as the two of us soaked up the sounds of Coltrane or Horace Silver or Shelly Manne's own group. As Cosby recalls: "I never sat in for Shelly. I wouldn't fool around with that, but I did get up and do comedy there."
When Cosby hit nationally with "I Spy," his involvement with jazz continued unabated. One night, he subbed for a drummer at a Greenwich Village club. The legendary drummer Philly Joe Jones, who was in the audience, offered to go on the road with him and "clean up his act" as a drummer. Cosby demurred.
Cosby has never stopped playing. As those in the audience know, he has sat in with such artists as the late Willie Bobo at various Playboy Jazz Festivals.
An anecdote points out why the comedian feels this is a good time for jazz.
"I'm in Bloomingdale's, taking my 13-year-old shopping for Christmas last year, and I run into this lovely white woman, about 55 years old, short gray hair, wonderful happy-with-life face," he says. "She tells me, 'I loved the show when you sang "Moody's Mood for Love." ' That was the one when Nancy Wilson was the guest and we all sang that famous James Moody solo.
"Then this lady says, 'You know, I had the first record of that by (singer) King Pleasure and I wore it out. I tried to find another copy but couldn't, so I bought the George Benson version, but it just wasn't the same.'
"I promised to get a copy (of King Pleasure's version) for her, but I've lost her address," Cosby says. "The important thing is, you can't tell a book by its cover; you never know where the next jazz fan is coming from."