IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Hef keeps swinging at 30th Playboy Jazz Fest

Hugh Hefner's passion for jazz is what launched the Playboy Jazz Fest in 1979, and it's what keeps it alive today.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Hugh Hefner couldn't think of a better way to celebrate Playboy magazine's 25th anniversary than by throwing a big bash at the Hollywood Bowl featuring his favorite performers who knew how to swing while keeping their clothes on.

To produce the event he turned to jazz impresario George Wein, who had created the first outdoor jazz festival in Newport, R.I., in 1954, the same year Hefner launched his culture-changing men's lifestyle magazine.

The inaugural 1979 Playboy Jazz Festival packed the Hollywood Bowl for both days with a lineup that featured some of Hefner's favorite artists such as Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton and Count Basie as well as contemporary jazz stars like Weather Report, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. Hefner took the stage on opening night to announce that what had been planned as a one-time anniversary celebration would become an annual event.

"The response to it was so phenomenal that here we are 30 years later," said the 82-year-old Hefner, speaking by telephone from the Playboy Mansion in Holmby Hills, Calif., in advance of this year's event Saturday and Sunday. "I've had a lot of things to be proud of in my life but nothing more quite frankly than the jazz festival."

"It speaks to the best of who we are — a community coming together without questions in terms of ethnicity or race in a joyous way to celebrate being alive."

Hefner's passion for jazz goes back to his high school years in Chicago in the 1940s when under the name "Hep Hef," he wrote a column for the school paper reviewing the latest big band swing records. From Playboy's first issue, jazz was written about and treated with a respect not found in other non-music publications.

Hefner, with the help of his young assistant Richard Rosenzweig, now president of Playboy Jazz Festivals, Inc., promoted the magazine's fifth anniversary in 1959 by putting on the nation's first indoor jazz festival which drew about 70,000 people over three days to the Chicago Stadium.

That event brought together a who's who of jazz history with Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Coleman Hawkins, Ella Fitzgerald, Ahmad Jamal, and the big bands of Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Stan Kenton, among others.

"I felt that this would give us a more mainstream presence," said Hefner. "The magazine was hugely successful in terms of circulation, but because of the nudity, the pinup pictures, we were having advertising problems. We managed to put together something ... that (critic) Leonard Feather called the greatest single weekend in the history of jazz."

Hefner was too busy with his magazine to repeat the festival back then. But after relocating to Los Angeles, the memories inspired him to hold another festival to mark Playboy's 25th anniversary. He chose the Hollywood Bowl because the venue "had a tremendous glamor cachet ... for a kid who grew up on the movies."

Cosby a jazz superfan
Hefner's longtime friend Bill Cosby, who once had notions of becoming a jazz drummer, needed little persuading to emcee the festival provided he wouldn't be expected to do any comedy routines.

"I'm a superfan and for me to be given the opportunity ... to stand there for two days and announce my heroes and my sheroes on a weekend that is Father's Day weekend — nobody in my family has to offer me a Father's Day present," said Cosby, who will be returning as master of ceremonies for the 27th time this weekend.

Among those appearing on opening night in 1979 was Hancock, who this year will be setting a festival record with his 11th appearance. That night Hancock performed publicly for the first time with Joni Mitchell after recording the singer-songwriter's album "Mingus" that blurred the boundaries between jazz and pop.

This weekend the pianist will be headlining the festival, performing tunes from his Mitchell tribute CD, "River: The Joni Letters," which won the Grammy for album of the year.

Hancock says Playboy remains one of his favorite festivals because it's an all-day party with people bringing their picnic baskets and kids.

"It's a family outing and jazz festivals are not usually like that. ... There's more of a sense of togetherness at this festival than one normally feels," he said. "I also get a chance to hang out with other musicians I've worked with or admire. And Cosby makes it even more relaxed and comfortable like an old pair of shoes."

Cosby will be taking the stage himself as second drummer with Cos of Good Music, a band of top-rate jazz musicians that made its debut at the 1995 festival. Each year, Cosby chooses a repertoire of tunes by John Coltrane, Miles Davis and other jazz masters to perform at the festival.

Cosby says the festival's "most consistent but least acknowledged performer" is the Bowl's revolving stage which allows the music to run continuously for eight hours each day from early afternoon to late night.

"There's no waiting," said Cosby. "There's a band and when they finish their last number and people are applauding, the stage spins around, and then I say and now so forth and so on. ... We're better than the trains and certainly better than the airlines."

Darlene Chan, the festival's associate producer for all 30 years, says this year's event will once again offer an "eclectic" lineup intended to appeal to a diverse cross-section of Angelenos.

The lineup includes Hefner's personal favorite — big bands (Shari Maricle's all-female Diva Jazz Orchestra and the Roy Hargrove Big Band) — and mainstream jazz (Terence Blanchard with James Moody's Quartet). Others set to perform include Poncho Sanchez, Keb' Mo', Tower of Power, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Al Jarreau, and two festival newcomers, pianist Robert Glasper and R&B singer Ryan Shaw.

"I think what's kept us going is that we don't stay with just one kind of jazz," said Chan. "We try to cover all the bases and I'm proud of that. We're kind of open to everything but it all has to be good music."

Hefner continues to offer his input on festival bookings. In January, the anniversary celebrations continue with the first Playboy Jazz Cruise with bassist Marcus Miller serving as musical host and Hancock, Dianne Reeves and James Moody among the special guests.

Asked how he sees the festival's future, Hefner refers to Count Basie's famous coda at the end of "April in Paris": "More of the same. As Basie said, `One more time.'"