Bill Cosby delivered a surprise performance at a Germantown jazz club on Monday night, the first time Cosby has performed publicly since 2015, when numerous accusations of sexual misconduct began to build against the entertainer.
At the LaRose Jazz Club before a mostly African-American crowd of about 50, Cosby wore a gray hoodie with the “HELLO FRIEND” written in colorful letters. The freewheeling performance had him scat-singing with upright bass accompaniment. He jammed with the jazz band on drums. And he told stories while sitting on a wooden stool.
He spun tales about his quiet Uncle William who loved to drink. The birth of his younger brother when he was a kid growing up in public housing. And he riffed on the themes of aging and his struggle with blindness.
“You laugh when blind people walk into things. And guess what? Blind people laugh when sighted people fall down,” Cosby said. “Ha-ha-ha-ha.”
Cosby’s representatives invited the media to the performance just two hours before it started.
“Be-dee-bum. Ba-de-do-wee. We-bum. Ve-vo. Dee,” Cosby scatted.
“That’s it,” he said, as the bass line mimicked his direction. “Just round it out. Round it out. Not too many notes. Just keep it there.”
The room lit up with laughter after this exchange with Mekhi Boone, an 11-year-old drummer who relieved Cosby from his drumming duties.
“Who am I?” Cosby said.
“Bill Cosby,” Mekhi replied.
“And what do I do?” he said.
“A comedian,” Mekhi answered.
“I used to be a comedian?”
“Used to” is the operative phrase. Cosby’s comedy career was shaken following the accusations of dozens of women who claim sexual assault or misconduct stretching decades. His comedy tours were cancelled. Networks yanked reruns of “The Cosby Show.” Prestigious universities stripped him of honorary degrees.
Then there was the 80-year-old’s two-week criminal trial last year in Montgomery County. It ended in a hung jury when the panel could not reach a consensus on Cosby’s fate after 52 hours of tense deliberations.
Cosby’s second trial is set to start in April on the same charges — three counts of aggravated indecent assault — stemming from the claim that in 2004 he drugged and molested a woman at his suburban Philadelphia mansion.
Prosecutors have asked the presiding judge to allow testimony from 19 additional women who say Cosby drugged and molested them, hoping to illustrate to the jury an alleged pattern of behavior.
Yet Cosby’s avuncular spirit at the club Monday flew in the face of that dark cloud. Not one word about his accusers or his new trial made it into his routine.
“He’s reintroducing himself as that old comedian, that funny guy. He is that hometown person who we all knew and loved, and that’s how he wants to be thought of now,” said David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh.
Before Cosby’s first trial, the entertainer kept a low profile; this time around, Cosby is leaning into the limelight. He had dinner at an Italian restaurant in Center City and brought along reporters. He has made publicized stops at barbershops and bakeries.
Harris said the charm campaign Cosby is waging is likely an attempt to remind the public of the old Bill Cosby to win the hearts and minds of jurors at a time when sexual harassment and assault have become far more prominent in public discussions.
“What with the #MeToo movement very strong out there, he needs all the help he can get in terms of public sympathy from any person who might sit on the jury,” Harris said.
Back at the jazz club in Germantown, where most gave Cosby a warm and welcome reception, views on Cosby’s retrial varied.
Jazz drummer Craig McIver, 58, a longtime friend of Cosby’s, said he thinks a new jury will acquit him. McIver said he does not believe the accusations.
“I’ve been around a lot of famous people as a professional drummer, and I can tell you, people throw themselves at these people. They really do,” McIver said.
Sitting not far from McIver was Julia Conway who offered a different opinion.
“I do believe the women. I really do,” said Conway, 85. “I feel as though it’s too many women for them to make up similar stories. If there were a few, I think it would be different.”
Conway said she is glad prosecutors in Pennsylvania decided to refile charges against Cosby because of the message it sends.
“A lot of people in show business feel as though they can get away with anything they want,” Conway said.
Before Cosby was escorted out of the club by his publicists, I approached him. I asked if he was ready for his second trial and he didn’t respond, just stared at me blankly. I then asked how he thinks the #MeToo movement might affect jurors. He shrugged, put on an animated goofy frown and said, “I don’t know!”