The Playboy Jazz Festival: Hef Brings The Jazz Giants By
Hugh Hefner of Playboy
has always loved jazz. Those of you who buy Playboy for the articles have noticed
that Playboy has occasionally featured pieces on jazz artists (Alex Haley once
interviewed Miles Davis), and in the past Playboy had its own annual jazz poll.
In Chicago in 1959 there was a Playboy Jazz Festival that was quite successful,
but not repeated until 20 years later.
In 1979, Hefner indulged
himself and put on a two-day Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl that
took place on a Friday night in June and all day and night on the following Saturday.
It was such a hit that the Playboy Jazz Festival has taken place every year since,
but on a Saturday and Sunday. These two 8 1/2 hour concerts are rather unusual
in some respects. Rather than being a jazz party, they are really a party with
jazz in that the audience, sitting out in the sun all day, is far from quiet and
respectful. The music is secondary to the party and it is up to each group to
win the audiences attention. The danceable bands have it much easier than
the more esoteric jazz combos; but, with major effort, most groups can succeed
as long as they keep a sense of humor about it all.
Another unusual aspect to the event is its eclectic lineup. While jazz is the
foundation of the festival, there are also usually blues, R&B, smooth, World
Music, pop, and some unclassifiable acts. A typical day features 11 groups, seven
or eight of which are jazz. Due to the revolving stage, the music rarely ever
stops and the musical styles sometimes shift dramatically. I remember in the past
seeing Joni Mitchell followed by Benny Goodman and Dizzy Gillespie, who did not
stand a chance after Weather Report played Birdland, and the Modern
Jazz Quartet being completely ignored after following Spyro Gyra.
Having attended every Playboy Jazz Festival (though not the 1959 version), Ive
seen some real highlights and low points. The latter includes Jaco Pastorius having
a meltdown onstage, Nina Simone walking off after ten minutes due to the crowd
noise, and an unbearable Maynard Ferguson disco show. On the other hand, the Playboy
Jazz Festival gave fans a chance to see the Red Norvo-Tal Farlow-Red Mitchell
Trio, Wynton Marsalis getting the crowd to dance in hysterical style while playing
New Orleans jazz, and everyone from Wild Bill Davison and Sarah Vaughan to Ornette
Colemans Prime Time. The best set of music that Ive ever seen was
by a one-time group called Sing, Sing, Sing, featuring vocalists Jon Hendricks,
Bobby McFerrin, Janis Siegel, and Dianne Reeves. It was incredible and I hope
But what about the 2006 version of the Playboy Jazz Festival, which is taking
place June 17-18? Emceed by Bill Cosby as usual, it will feature 22 groups that
span a wide area of music. Here is a survey of who is appearing and what they
have been up to lately, starting with Saturdays lineup.
Tenor and soprano-saxophonist Branford Marsalis has had his regular quartet with
pianist Joey Calderazzo for quite a few years. Marsalis, who supervises and records
for the Marsalis Music label (his DVD of A Love Supreme is highly recommended)
tends to play lengthy solos inspired by John Coltrane although in his own sound.
His performance will definitely be burning.
Jamie Cullum has made a strong impression on the jazz and pop music worlds
with his singing. A modern-day crooner from England, Cullums Twentysomething
put him on the map on this continent, updating jazz vocalizing to include pop
music enjoyed by younger listeners along with some improvising and jazz phrasing.
In the late 1970s, the Stanley Clarke/George Duke Project gave keyboardist Duke
and electric bassist Clarke the opportunity to play high-powered R&B/funk.
Both used the group as their gradual escape from jazz into R&B. Decades have
passed and this pairing will be one of their first reunions since that era.
I would not be surprised if a new record by the group were in the near future.
Veteran tenor-saxophonist Benny Golson, the composer of Killer Joe
and Blues March, is still playing at his prime a half-century after
he toured the world with Dizzy Gillespies big band. He has the knack of
writing songs that are challenging for musicians to play, but featurie catchy
melodies that listeners remember. Golson, who appears briefly near the end
of the film The Terminal and recorded most recently with Concord, will be featured
with a quartet.
The Golden Striker Trio is an all-star group consisting of bassist Ron Carter,
pianist Mulgrew Miller, and guitarist Russell Malone, that plays modern hard bop.
Their CD for Blue Note (named The Golden Striker after a John Lewis composition)
is as one would expect: solid straight ahead jazz from a trio of jazz greats.
Carter loves to stretch out so there are always a lot of bass solos during his
performances, but the presence of Miller and Malone should result in strong interplay
between the musicians.
A few years ago, Los Angeles Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra recorded a
classic album with the late vibraphonist Milt Jackson called Explosive. The big
band, co-led by arranger-bassist John Clayton, altoist Jeff Clayton, and drummer
Jeff Hamilton, has been together over 20 years and is one of the most swinging
ensembles in jazz. With guest vibraphonist Stefan Harris, they will be performing
a tribute to Jackson that will feature many of John Claytons charts from
that unique encounter.
Japanese pianist Hiromi, whose most recent recording for the Telarc label is Spiral,
brings new life to the piano trio. It will be interesting to see if she
can capture the partying crowd at Playboy. Bill Cosby usually heads a diverse
group of all-stars as the Cos Of Good Music. This years version
features trombonist Steve Turre, tenor-saxophonist Walter Blanding, guitarist
Kevin Eubanks, pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Dwayne Burno, drummer Ndugu Chancler,
and Cosby himself on percussion. Cosbys music is always very spontaneous
bop and his conducting of the band is certainly individual.
The first days festivities will begin with the Los Angeles County High School
For The Arts under the direction of Jason Goldman. In addition, there will be
two non-jazz groups heard on Saturday. The Spanish Harlem Orchestra plays spirited
salsa with plenty of Afro-Cuban rhythms. And Baaba Maal, one of Africas
top singers, will perform his brand of Afro-pop and reggae with his
group Daande Lenol (The voice of the people).
As Strong as Saturday looks, Sunday will be far from anti-climatic. The great
pianist McCoy Tyner and his trio will be collaborating with the Lula Washington
Dance Theatre in what will most likely be one of the high points. Tyners
percussive style and powerful playing will certainly inspire the dancers, and
vice versa in what should be a very colorful set.
The late saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr. was a hit at Playboy on several occasions.
Mister Magics soulful brand of rhythm & jazz will
be celebrated by Groovin For Grover, a group featuring saxophonists Gerald
Albright and Kirk Whalum plus keyboardist Jeff Lorber that has been heard at several
smooth jazz festivals in recent times. Another big name who has never
been at Playboy before is Chuck Mangione. Still playing in the familiar style
that made Feels So Good a major hit in the 1970s, Mangione is a fine
flugelhornist inspired initially by Dizzy Gillespie, whose melodic playing made
him a household name far beyond the jazz world. He has not recorded in far
Youth is celebrated in the booking of two groups. Pianist Eldar Djangirov, who
is just 18 but has been playing professionally since before he was a teenager,
is a remarkable player with impressive technique who also displays sensitivity
on ballads. He records for Sony Classical while trumpeter Christian Scott, one
of several young talents recently signed by Concord, is 23 and has loads of potential.
Scott will be leading his own combo at Playboy in what could be a major step forward
in his career.
Pianist Eddie Palmieri has performed stirring music ever since he emerged as a
Latin Jazz innovator in the early 1960s. His Afro-Caribbean Jazz All-Stars will
feature the avant-Latin tenor-saxophonist David Sanchez and jazzs top violinist,
the always-exciting Regina Carter. Carter was recently featured on the title cut
of Palmieris Concord release, Listen Here, one of Palmieris strongest
recordings in years.
New Orleans will be paid tribute to in a pair of very different sets. The Preservation
Hall Jazz Band has been revitalized in recent times with the infusion of new blood,
playing spirited versions of Dixieland and New Orleans jazz standards. In what
promises to be an unusual match-up, as part of The River In Reverse Tour, Elvis
Costello teams up with New Orleans R&B pianist Allen Toussaint for a program
of Toussaints songs.
Violinist Lesa Terry will be leading the Womens Jazz Orchestra of Los Angeles
through some straight-ahead jazz and newer originals. Much further afield will
be Ozomatli, a group who perform urban music and R&B, recording for Concord.
Also outside of jazz but certainly stirring is the gospel music of Elder Edward
Babb and the McCollough Sons Of Thunder.
During the weekend of June 17-18, the Hollywood Bowl will be transformed into
Jazzland, a wondrous place where 18,000 diverse people blend together to form
Los Angeles top annual party. Although quiet ballad vocals and piano solos
will be drowned out by the audience, who are busy eating, drinking, socializing,
throwing beach balls around, and engaged in other activities, it gives one the
opportunity to see a wide variety of intriguing music in a brief period of time.
It is a party that I never want to miss.