Backbeat: Bill Cosby Helms His Last Playboy Jazz Festival
Backbeat: Bill Cosby Helms His Last Playboy Jazz Festival

hefner Hugh Hefner, who just celebrated his 86th birthday, answers questions backstage. (Photo: Gail Mitchell)

Wearing a white shirt emblazoned with the phrases "30 ½ years" on the back and "thank you" on the sleeves, comedian Bill Cosby took his final turn as host of the Playboy Jazz Festival. And he made the most of his emcee swan song at the Hollywood Bowl.

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On the opening day of the 34th annual festival (June 16-17), he hopped on the drums during the set helmed by his namesake group, Cos of Good Music, featuring Ndugu Chancler and others. Then as nightfall began settling in, he joined the Christian McBride Big Band in a spirited rendition of "Hikky Burr," the theme song from the comedian's 1969-1971 TV series "The Bill Cosby Show."

sharon Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings shift into overdrive. (Photo: Gail Mitchell)

Music fans at the sold-out venue were also treated to equally lively performances by the Soul Rebels (with Ivan Neville and other special guests), the Quincy Jones-created ensemble Global Gumbo All Stars, Boney James and Ozomatli. Arguably, the evening's highlights were Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings and Sheila E. Following an introductory number by the band itself, Jones sashayed onto the stage in a red- and black-fringed dress and proceeded to hold court as she sassed and boogied her way through a diverse set that included a snatch of "When the Saints Go Marching In" to funky, soulful takes on the Woody Guthrie classic "This Land Is Your Land" and one of the band's signature songs, "100 Days, 100 Nights."

In a stirring performance that elicited a Bowl-wide standing ovation, percussionist Sheila E. marked her festival debut as solo act. Fronting her own band that included saxophonist Jessy J and vocalist Sy Smith. Opening her set with a parade of colorfully dressed Brazilian dancers and drummers, Sheila E. alternated between singing and drumming herself while ripping off several hits ("The Belle of St. Mark," "A Love Bizarre" and "The Glamorous Life") as well as nods to Prince ("Erotic City") and her Oakland, California stomping grounds ("Oakland Stroke").

sheila Sheila E. is joined backstage by dad Pete Escovedo, who also performed during her segment. Sheila is shortly starting a tour in Europe during which she'll try out new songs being considered for her 2013 solo album. (Photo: Alexis Simpson)

While Cosby opted not to do interviews, festival founder Hugh Hefner seemed to leave the door open concerning the comedian's announced retirement as host. "Cosby and I go back a lot of years," said Hefner backstage. "I will understand if he decides to pack it in. Maybe it's adieu... we will see." He also noted that Playboy will be opening a club in Cologne, Germany within the next couple of months: "The bunnies are back big time."

bunnies The Bunnies Are Back: Sporting Nicki Minaj-pink wigs, a pair of bunnies added their own dash of color and fun at the 34th annual Playboy Jazz Festival. (Photo: Gail Mitchell)

On deck at the Bowl the next day -- Father's Day-was a lineup that included Terri Lyne Carrington's Mosiac Project (featuring Patrice Rushen and others), the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Keb' Mo', Ramsey Lewis Electric Band, Robin Thicke and Spectrum Road featuring Cindy Blackman Santana, Jack Bruce, John Medeski and Vernon Reid.