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Bill Cosby bids a fond farewell to hosting Playboy Jazz Festival

Bill Cosby wraps up his final Playboy Jazz Festival as emcee, saying it's time for someone with 'a newer voice.' Attendees say they'll miss him.

June 19, 2012|By Danielle H. Paquette, Los Angeles Times
  • Bill Cosby plays drums with the Cos of Good Music at the 2012 Playboy Jazz Festival.
Bill Cosby plays drums with the Cos of Good Music at the 2012 Playboy Jazz… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)

As the 34th annual Playboy Jazz Festival wrapped up on Sunday, Bill Cosby danced across the stage to play his final solo beneath the iconic bunny.

"It's my last time here," he announced to the applauding crowd, which filled the Hollywood Bowl to the last bleacher. "And I'm gonna give you something you've never heard before. Take it back to the bridge!"

Cosby grabbed a trombone from the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, who followed his order with upbeat, New Orleans-style jazz.

The comedian tapped his foot, held the instrument to his mouth, threw his head back — and abruptly pulled it into two pieces.

"Thank you!" he yelled, walking away.

Cosby, 74, who has hosted the event 31 times, announced earlier in the week he was ending his reign as the festival's master of ceremonies. Backstage, as pop-soul singer Robin Thicke performed, he reflected on the decision.

"It's the aging factor," he said. "As I began to look at the newer groups, the newer individuals on the level of selling 7,000, maybe 8,000 tickets, I realized there's a need here for a different feel.

"I think that the business changes, and we need a different emcee with a newer voice, maybe someone younger, maybe someone bilingual, maybe trilingual because this is Los Angeles."

When he told his wife, Camille, of his plans, she didn't believe him.

"All year, Mrs. Cosby would say, 'Now this is it — right?'" he said, mimicking her voice. "And I'd say, 'Yes.'"

The festival, Cosby said, has been a special part of his career. He loves jazz, having a good time and making people laugh. Hugh Hefner, who watched Saturday's concert and whom Cosby calls "a very close friend," gave him the rare opportunity to combine all three.

Cosby treated his last gig as a casual, two-day party. On Sunday, he wore a black crew neck sweater, black Adidas sweat pants and sandals with ankle-high, white socks. He set up VIP booths in the audience for friends and family, and invited them backstage to mingle with performers, which included blues sensation Keb' Mo' and legendary acoustic pianist Ramsey Lewis.

Over the decades, Cosby said the festival has produced some of his favorite memories.

"My mother-in-law and wife don't drink, do tobacco or smoke cannabis," he said, straight-faced, recalling one show. "And they don't really know the smell of cannabis. So, as the Santa Ana winds blew the cannabis down from the criminals smoking, my mother-in-law and wife — as I'm told by my daughter — were hit by the cannabis and didn't know it. And people laughed very hard when, during a very quiet moment in the box, my mother-in-law said, 'I want a cookie.'"

Since then, Cosby said, he has packed a box of chocolate chip cookies for her before each festival.

In the audience, three sections from center stage, actor Darryl M. Bell, who starred in the "Cosby Show" spinoff "A Different World," watched the jazz from a VIP box.

"He really makes this event special," Bell said, holding a cigar Cosby gave him. "I've got to come next year, just to see how it'll be different, how it'll go without him."

Cosby is a comic genius, Bell said, and he never runs out of fresh things to say on stage. Working with him on TV was four years of laughter in rehearsal, on the set, at the dinner parties Cosby threw every Thursday.

"His love of music, entertainment and education, his ability to incorporate humor into those disciplines," Bell said, "makes it accessible to everyone. He can reach everyone."

Sitting next to Bell, sipping red wine in plastic cups, was one of Cosby's former producers, Joanne Kerner, and her husband, Bruce. The pair, who have attended the festival together more than 20 times, flew from their vineyard in New Zealand to stay with friends in the Hollywood Hills and watch Cosby emcee one last time.

"It's fun," Joanne said, "because the same people come every single year to watch Cos and enjoy the wonderful jazz. He does the best act here, playing with his band. It's so spontaneous."

"He's family to a lot of people," Bruce said. "They come out to support him, make a weekend out of it."

On the paved area behind the venue's last row, Tina Amafa of Altadena sat in a fold-out chair watching the festival below. She and her husband, Godwin, come every year to share a picnic with friends and enjoy the beautiful view, complete with Hollywood sign.

Cosby has hosted every festival she has attended, and Amafa is sad to see him go.

"Not happy about him leaving, but I understand if it's time for change," she said, as Godwin danced to Chilean band Chico Trujillo. "We've have countless memories watching him, feeling the good vibes and laughing hysterically."

danielle.paquette@latimes.com

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