Bill Cosby returns to the stage in front of small, appreciative crowd

Comedian Bill Cosby makes an appearance at the La Rose jazz club in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on Jan 22, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

PHILADELPHIA (AFP) - Disgraced American entertainer Bill Cosby returned to the stage Monday for the first time in nearly three years, telling jokes just months before his scheduled retrial for alleged sexual assault.

The 80-year-old pioneering African American actor and comedian spent around an hour performing at the LaRose Jazz Club in Philadelphia at an event honouring drummer and jazz great, Tony Williams.

He sat on a wooden chair, in front of the jazz quartet, dressed casually in dark pants and grey hoodie inscribed with the words "Hello Friend" spelled out in multicoloured capital letters.

There was no heckling and the audience was generally supportive, clapping and at times laughing, but the fewer than 50 people, filling only half a small venue underscored how far he has fallen from grace.

For a few minutes, he sat behind the drum kit and played some drums, before delivering a very short stand-up routine, joking about getting old and going blind, interacting with an older couple in the audience.

Announcing the event only shortly before it was due to begin, his spokesman said the intention was to "honour his fans with a historic performance" at what was a public event with tickets sold on the door.

It was the first time Cosby performed in public since May 2015, when CNN reported that he was interrupted twice in Atlanta after a string of women had already come forward to accuse him of sexual assault.

He was indicted in December 2015 and went on trial in June 2017, accused of drugging and molesting a former university basketball official at his Philadelphia home in 2004.

Jackson's lawyer

But the judge declared a mistrial when the jury failed to reach a unanimous verdict on three counts of aggravated indecent assault after more than 50 hours of deliberations in Norristown, Pennsylvania.

The deadlock was a victory of sorts for the comedian, now frail and isolated, who risked spending the rest of his life in prison if convicted.

But the trial irrevocably damaged the once towering icon of US popular culture, loved by millions as America's Da" and best known for his seminal role as a father and obstetrician on hit 1984-92 TV series The Cosby Show. In a rambling and at times confused interview with Sirius XM radio broadcast before the trial began, Cosby said he felt he had "an awful lot to offer" in terms of writing and performing.

Jury selection for the retrial is to begin March 29. Cosby's new defence lawyer is Tom Mesereau, the celebrity Los Angeles attorney who got Michael Jackson acquitted of child molestation in 2005.

Around 60 women have publicly accused the Emmy-winning actor of being a serial sexual predator, but most of the alleged abuse happened too long ago to prosecute, meaning that the trial last year concerned only one of the alleged victims.

The actor denies the charges, saying his relations with Canadian Andrea Constand were consensual.

She has said he gave her pills that left her semi-conscious, then made sexual advances - a story not unlike those recounted by many of the other accusers.

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