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COVER STORY : Common Cos : Every year, one of the most powerful men in show biz relinquishes the spotlight to a few of his musician friends. Hey, hey, hey, it's Bill Cosby, your humble Playboy Jazz Fest host.

June 11, 1995|Don Heckman | Don Heckman is The Times' jazz writer

It's a great day for a jazz festival. The Hollywood Bowl is filled to the brim, the sun is shining, the wine is flowing, and a world-class quintet is grooving through the final choruses of a be-bop blues tune.

As the group reaches its climactic, flatted-fifth closing chord, a familiar figure leaps to his feet from a chair perched at the side of the stage.

The crowd roars its approval as Bill Cosby, multimillionaire media mogul and the perennial master of ceremonies for the Playboy Jazz Festival, leads the thunderous applause, spotlighting each musician by name before the rotating stage brings on yet another act.

It's a scene that has taken place annually since 1979. Cosby has served the multiple role of master of ceremonies, cheerleader, coach and all-around musicians aide for 16 years, a run that exceeds even the impressive eight seasons of his hit sitcom "The Cosby Show." On Saturday and next Sunday it happens again, with Cosby setting aside his multiple financial and entertainment interests to spend a weekend hanging out in the world of jazz.

The list of performers he has witnessed during his tenure reads like a Who's Who of the music. Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Gerry Mulligan, Miles Davis and Wynton Marsalis are among the dozens of major names who have played the festival.

But the nagging question remains: Why does one of the most successful and richest men in show business--with a wealth estimated at more than $325 million by Forbes magazine last year--elect to endure eight to 10 hours onstage in the Hollywood Bowl sunlight for two long days every June? This is, after all, a man who changed the face of television sitcoms with "The Cosby Show." Who sold more than 4 million copies of "Fatherhood," his first book, and nearly 2 million copies of "Time Flies," his second. Who has placed three comedy albums in Billboard's Top 10 and been awarded eight gold records and five Grammy Awards. Who was once a major player in a significant effort to buy a major television network: NBC.

And who, again this year, will be playing a very subordinate, if highly supportive, role to a lineup of musicians who--whatever their achievements--cannot begin to match his level of entertainment business success.

But listen to Cosby's description of why he's there:

"As far as I'm concerned, I've got two customers that I have to serve. Whatever those musicians need and want at that time, in terms of what will make them play better, I try to give it to 'em. Because when they get it, then it goes to the audience, and the important customer is the listener."

The notion of having a comedian as jazz festival host dates to 1959, when Playboy founder Hugh Hefner asked Mort Sahl to front the first Playboy Jazz Festival in Chicago. When Hefner decided to initiate the Hollywood Bowl series of festivals in 1979, he turned to Cosby.

"Bill and I have been personal friends since the moment when he first came to the mansion back in the '60s," Hefner says. "I liked the idea of having a host with a comedy connection who also loved jazz. So he was the logical choice, and I've just been delighted that he's continued to do it for all these years. You never know exactly what Cos is going to do when he goes up there. But whatever it is, it's always the best and most natural thing for jazz."

Characteristically, Cosby puts it more simply: "I do it to get a free seat. There isn't a jazz fan alive who would turn down the chance to have a seat at the festival and occasionally be able get up and say, 'Ladies and gentlemen, here he is . . . Horace Silver!' "

Perhaps Cosby's explanation is a bit too modest. Try to imagine, say, Johnny Carson playing a similar second banana to the Doc Severinsen Orchestra. Or try to imagine comparably influential entertainment moguls--Barbra Streisand, for example, even without her legendary stage fright, spending two days at the Hollywood Bowl running around to make sure the musicians are content with their audio monitors.

But Cosby, whose good-folks image as a mass-media entertainer is not all that different from the pleasant, easygoing image you might encounter in a one-on-one conversation, insists upon a relentlessly uncomplicated rationale for his continued presence at the festival.

"It's looking at people enjoying themselves without having to sign any autographs," he says with a chuckle. "And I get a chance to talk to the musicians--people I respect and listen to. Many of them are old friends. You know, it seems as if the whole of acoustical jazz hasturned 70 this year. So it's a great feeling to just be a fan, sitting there and being able to be of service and give to these guys who've given so much to me and to everybody."

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