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

January 28th, 2014

Great Encounters

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


This edition:

The night Bill Cosby and John Coltrane played Birdland together

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

coltranecosby coltranecosby1

  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.


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



John Coltrane plays “Alabama,” from Live at Birdland


Bill Cosby’s famous “Noah” routine

Share this:

Comment on this article:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

In This Issue

Michael Cuscuna, Mosaic Records co-founder, is interviewed about his successful career as a jazz producer, discographer, and entrepreneur...Also in this issue, in celebration of Blue Note’s 80th year, we asked prominent writers and musicians the following question: “What are 4 or 5 of your all-time favorite Blue Note albums; a new collection of jazz poetry; “On the Turntable,” is a new playlist of 18 recently released jazz recordings from six artists – Joshua Redman, Joe Lovano, Matt Brewer, Tom Harrell, Zela Margossian and Aaron Burnett; two new podcasts by Bob Hecht; a new “Jazz History Quiz”; a new feature called “Pressed for All Time,”; a new photo-narrative by Charles Ingham; and…lots more.

On the Turntable

This month, a playlist of 18 recently released jazz recordings by six artists -- Joshua Redman, Joe Lovano. Matt Brewer, Tom Harrell, Zela Margossian, and Aaron Burnett


In this month’s collection, with great jazz artists at the core of their work, 16 poets remember, revere, ponder, laugh, dream, and listen

The Joys of Jazz

In this new volume of his podcasts, Bob presents two stories, one on Clifford Brown (featuring the trumpeter Charlie Porter) and the other is part two of his program on stride piano, including a conversation with Mike Lipskin

Short Fiction

Short Fiction Contest-winning story #51 — “Crossing the Ribbon,” by Linnea Kellar

“What are 4 or 5 of your all-time favorite Blue Note albums?”

Dianne Reeves, Nate Chinen, Gary Giddins, Michael Cuscuna, Eliane Elias and Ashley Kahn are among the 12 writers, musicians, and music executives who list and write about their favorite Blue Note albums

Pressed for All Time

In an excerpt from his book Pressed for All Time, Michael Jarrett interviews producer Creed Taylor about how he came to use tape overdubs during the 1957 Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross Sing a Song of Basie recording session


“Thinking about the Truesdells” — a photo-narrative by Charles Ingham

Jazz History Quiz #128

Although he was famous for modernizing the sound of the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra -- “On the Sunny Side of the Street” was his biggest hit while working for Dorsey (pictured) -- this arranger will forever be best-known for his work with the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra. Who is he?

Great Encounters

In this edition, Bob Dylan recalls what Thelonious Monk told him about music at New York’s Blue Note club in c. 1961.


Jerry Jazz Musician regularly publishes a series of posts featuring excerpts of the photography and stories/captions found in Jazz in Available Light by Veryl Oakland. In this edition, Mr. Oakland's photographs and stories feature Stan Getz, Sun Ra, and Carla Bley.


Maxine Gordon, author of Sophisticated Giant: The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon, discusses her late husband’s complex, fascinating life.

Cover Stories with Paul Morris

In this edition, Paul writes about jazz album covers that offer glimpses into intriguing corners of the culture of the 1950’s

Coming Soon

"The Photography Issue" will feature an interview with jazz photographer Carol Friedman (her photo of Wynton Marsalis is pictured), as well as with Michael Cuscuna on unreleased photos by Blue Note's Francis Wolff.

In the previous issue

Jeffrey Stewart, National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke, is interviewed about Locke (pictured), the father of the Harlem Renaissance. Also in this issue…A new collection of jazz poetry; "On the Turntable," a new playlist of 19 recommended recordings by five jazz artists; three new podcasts by Bob Hecht; a new “Great Encounters”; several short stories; the photography of Veryl Oakland and Charles Ingham; a new Jazz History Quiz; and lots more…

Contributing writers

Site Archive