As satisfying as an old-fashioned double feature, Bill Cosby held court Monday night at the SFJazz Center. It was a gentle session: two solid hours of stories -- charming, dead-on, unrushed, frequently a crack-up. At 76, still, "Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow," to quote the title of one of his hit albums -- released (gulp) 50 years ago.

His night of stand-up was a benefit for SFJazz and the kick-off event for that organization's fall season.

So one might have expected jazz stories from Cosby, who grew up among musicians in Philadelphia and used to feature famous friends (Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie) on "The Cosby Show." Yet aside from a couple of Miles Davis references -- one involved the Venus-like Bernadette Johnson, an unattainable teenage crush, who loved the trumpeter far more than the bumbling future comedian -- Monday's session was jazz-free.

Bill Cosby in Monday’s solo comedy benefit at the SFJazz Center. Photo by Ronald Davis/SFJazz.
Bill Cosby in Monday's solo comedy benefit at the SFJazz Center. Photo by Ronald Davis/SFJazz. ( Ronald Davis/SFJazz )

On the other hand, Cosby's stories -- several of which stretched on for about 30 minutes -- felt like jazz solos, expanding and detouring, skirting chaos and then, out of the blue, flying home to the punch line. Bada bing.

Like the best jazz musicians, Cosby has a "voice" that's his own. For one thing, he is a master of timing, the strategic pause. Then there are his crazily mumbled phrases (Clark Terry), his weird accelerations and oddly accented syllables (bebop, generally), not to mention that mischievous way he has of rolling his eyes (Gillespie). And after blowing his chances with Bernadette Johnson -- even six decades later, he's still got the blues over that episode.

Sitting in a chair at center stage, long legs planted, leaning back to gather memories, Cosby also was like your favorite uncle, the one with all the stories. Except this encounter wasn't as rambling as it seemed.

All about structure, it began with a prelude: recollections of the hungry i, the North Beach nightclub where Cosby performed in the early '60s, and where the white-jacketed parking attendant got drunk one rainy night and went home -- "with all the keys!" The police pursued him, kicked down the doors to his house and brought the keys back to the club, making for "one of the greatest Damon Runyon moments in San Francisco," Cosby said.

Act I of the monologue involved Cosby's visit to South Africa, where ("on cue") his wife Camille went to the bathroom at the very moment Nelson Mandela emerged to greet the family -- and embraced Cosby's mother-in-law, mistaking her for Camille. Somehow -- don't ask -- this segued into a riotous retelling of the Tarzan story, followed (Act II) by an anarchic recounting of the Book of Genesis, one in which, when Adam eats the apple, God pronounces: "Did-est Not-est I-est Tell-est Thou-est Not-est To-est Eat-est That-est Fruit-est?!!... Get-est Out-est!!!"

Lampooning these narratives, Cosby landed points about race, sex and blind faith, including that of his Bible-toting grandfather. Was Cosby offensive to anyone? It's hard to imagine; his touch is so deft, carried off with a wink.

Bill Cosby in Monday’s solo comedy benefit at SFJazz Center. Photo by Ronald Davis/SFJazz.
Bill Cosby in Monday's solo comedy benefit at SFJazz Center. Photo by Ronald Davis/SFJazz. ( Ronald Davis/SFJazz )

Act III was best: teenage love, terror of Spin the Bottle ("you could hear the teeth hit") -- and Bernadette Johnson. Preparing for his big date, Cosby took four baths on a 90-degree Saturday in Philadelphia, dumping his father's Canoe Cologne into the tub as the final touch. Of course, it all backfired, "because when you're 16, you have two things going for you: hope and stupidity."

Monday's crowd -- mostly old enough to have known "I Spy" -- was tuned into Cosby's era-specific references: i.e., taping a quarter to the tone arm of a hi-fi to keep the needle on track. Cosby has embraced old age -- and the fact that Camille, his wife of 49 years, grew tired of his stories some time ago.

It's why he still goes on the road, he said: "Because you listen to me!"

Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069, read his stories and reviews at www.mercurynews.com/richard-scheinin and follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/richardscheinin.

2013-14 SFJazz season

Next event: Trumpeter Terence Blanchard with Ravi Coltrane and Lionel Loueke
When: Sept. 5-9
Where: SFJazz Center, 201 Franklin St., San Francisco
Tickets: $25-$60; 1-866-920-5299, www.sfjazz.org