Bill Cosby, the Max Roach of Comedy
New England Public Radio will enjoy the good fortune of Bill Cosby's performance at Springfield Symphony Hall on Saturday. The great comedian is appearing in a benefit for the station, which will be moving its operations to 1525 Main Street in Springfield in 2014.
(photo by Robert Corwin)
It’s been a wonderful honor for me to count Bill Cosby among the listeners to Jazz a la Mode over the past three decades, and to have talked with him on occasion about his passion for the music and his friendships with several of its greatest figures. I spent the better part of a day at Cosby’s home in Western Massachusetts several years ago and interviewed him for a Jazz a la Mode special. On that occasion, William H. Cosby, Jr., Ed.D, who holds a Doctorate in Education from the University of Massachusetts, recalled the rich musical scene in his hometown of Philadelphia in the ‘50’s, and the impact that jazz musicians had on personal style and manners during his youth. He spoke of his friendships with Miles Davis, Max Roach, Jimmy Heath, and Sonny Rollins; his role as emcee at the “Charles Mingus and Friends” concert in 1972, and his many years as the host of the Playboy Jazz Festival; and of the dinner parties he’s hosted for music legends appearing at UMass, among them Eubie Blake, Illinois Jacquet, Mary Lou Williams, and Jo Jones.
An aspiring drummer in his youth, Cosby has long told the story of how Max Roach’s brilliance dissuaded him from pursuing jazz as a career. When he eulogized Roach at the drummer’s funeral in 2007, Cos said that Max’s musicianship and sartorial elegance inspired awe in his friends in the Philly projects where they were raised. When they spotted him at the Showboat wearing a double-breasted blue blazer, one of them said, “Max must have a boat!”
In sweetly subdued terms, Cos told the congregation at Riverside Church that Max’s playing caused him to say to himself, “I’m going to go into comedy.” But he gave an uproarious account of what happened in this 1972 appearance on the Dick Cavett Show. The footage begins with a couple of wisecracks about Joe Frazier, then Cos launches into a hilarious replay of the humiliation he suffered at a jam session at the Showboat in which Max and Sonny Stitt played pivotal roles. This nine-minute tour de force displays not only Cosby’s comic genius, but in keeping with the moral lessons that lie at the heart of his routines, this most famous fan of jazz conveys in loving terms how the music taught him an essential life lesson, that acting "cool" is no substitute for preparation and mastery. Enjoy!