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Great Encounters #32: The night Bill Cosby and John Coltrane played Birdland together

Great Encounters

Book excerpts that chronicle famous encounters among twentieth-century cultural icons

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This edition:

The night Bill Cosby and John Coltrane played Birdland together

As told by J.C. Thomas in Coltrane:  Chasin’ the Trane

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  Bill Cosby used to hang out at Birdland in the days when he was known as the young black comic who didn’t tell racial jokes and specialized in comedy sermons such as his hilarious, poignant version of Noah.

  When Cosby walked into the club, he’d often joke with manager Johnnie Gary; sometimes the two of them would still be talking when Coltrane arrived. The saxophonist then pulled out peanuts from his pocket, still in their shells, and offered them to both. Then Coltrane would continue on to the dressing room, where he’d check on the latest baseball scores with the attendant, who usually had a transistor radio tuned in to a game.

  Birdland, so called in honor of Charlie Parker’s nickname, was located on Broadway at Fifty-third Street. It was a basement club holding four hundred, charged $2.00 admission, and, like the Jazz Gallery, offered a bleachers where one could simply sit and listen and not be obliged to buy even a soft drink.

  Coltrane knew Cosby; once, he’d invited him to the bandstand during a set and said, “Bill, entertain the people while I take a walk.”

  Cosby had been secretly practicing a Coltrane imitation, a complex mimicry involving himself assuming the position of Trane playing tenor and making strange, scat-singing sounds in his throat that were a chillingly close approximation of the way Coltrane played tenor. The moment seemed appropriate, so the comedian went into his Coltrane bit, and the audience (including Coltrane) enjoyed it.

  Cosby stopped by Birdland whenever he was in town; if Coltrane was playing there, the comedian would usually be invited to portray the saxophonist. Cosby used the rhythm section in his act, and they’d propel him into some startling pyrotechnics that sometimes sounded like yodeling.

  One evening, Cosby came in earlier than expected and found Coltrane’s rhythm section on the bandstand but no saxophonist in sight. He was feeling in the mood to do his Coltrane imitation, so he asked Elvin [Jones], who just grinned as he glanced at the other musicians and said, “Think we should audition this cat as Trane’s replacement?” The others agreed, so the comedian climbed on the bandstand. Pee Wee Marquette, the diminutive emcee whose raucous falsetto was powerful and penetrating enough to crack the walls of the Brill Building, crooned into the microphone, “And now…ladies and gentlemen…Birdland, the Jazz Corner of the World…proudly presents” – pause – “The Bill Cosby Quartet!”

  Cosby went into “Out of This World.” He had the Coltrane stance, the Coltrane sound down; he was standing straight up with arms out front as if fondling a tenor sax, fingers flicking over imaginary keys, eyes closed and teeth biting over nonexistent mouthpiece, as his voice was wailing, note for note, the exact Coltrane recording with even the most minor nuances duplicated.

  Two minutes passed.

  Cosby was bending down in a crouch, his expression dissolving into an ecstatic, sweating semblance of Trane’s transcendent mannerisms. The audience was with him, all the way.

  Four minute passed. Then, with Cosby reaching grand, exuberant climax, from backstage came…

  The sound of a tenor saxophone, playing in perfect unison with whatever sounds Cosby was creating.

  Cosby stopped, standing stiffly as if captured on fast film, the saxophone in his ears stopped simultaneously. He started again, picking up the solo where he’d broken it off; the saxophone came on again, matching him note for note.

  And Coltrane, as if himself mimicking the well-known Sonny Rollins grand entrance, walked on the bandstand while still playing, his real sound blending perfectly with Cosby’s imitation of that sound. He got close to the comedian, his tenor only inches away. They continued their duet while the audience, mesmerized as if Trane were twins, burst into loud, spontaneous applause.

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Book excerpt from Coltrane: Chasin’ the Trane, by J.C. Thomas

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John Coltrane plays “Alabama,” from Live at Birdland

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Bill Cosby’s famous “Noah” routine