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Scoring the Playboy Festival: Another Round of Jazz Lite : Commentary: The annual musical bash is an entertaining outing. But shouldn't we expect more from what is, after all, Los Angeles' only major jazz festival?

June 23, 1995|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

About halfway through Sunday afternoon's Playboy Jazz Festival program, one of the Hollywood Bowl's perennial inflated beach balls drifted down out of the sky bearing a poignant message. Emblazoned on its side in bold letters were the words "We Miss You, Ella."

The touching missive to Ella Fitzgerald, 77, who is struggling with the complications of diabetes, underscored the first deficiency in the otherwise entertaining Playboy musical gala: a minuscule representation of artists from the larger-than-life hierarchy of jazz greats.

Only Benny Carter and Doc Cheatham--gloriously creative at the ages of 87 and 90, respectively--were present to carry the banner for the departed Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan and Louis Armstrong, etc. Too many others are long gone, or, as in Fitzgerald's case, unavailable to perform.

But not all. At the very least, didn't the lineup have room for such surviving jazz greats as Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, Max Roach, Oscar Peterson and J.J. Johnson, to name only a few? Can it really be that no other players of this status were available?

Given the special qualities generally associated with the Playboy Jazz Festival--a late-spring opening, two-day, party-oriented get-together in the Hollywood Bowl--last weekend's program hit the mark as lightweight, easygoing entertainment.

Which perfectly defines the festival's second deficiency.

Is it really too much to expect more than easygoing entertainment from what is, after all, Los Angeles' only major jazz festival? Why not, for example, a wider representation of such gifted new young artists as Jacky Terrason, Stephen Scott, David Sanchez, Nicholas Payton, Roy Hargrove, Cassandra Wilson or Mark Whitfield? Why not at least one or two such cutting-edge performers as Henry Threadgill, Randy Weston or David Murray? Why not more creative mixtures of players similar to what Bill Cosby assembled Sunday afternoon with his Cos of Good Music, a challenging encounter between young saxophonists James Carter and Craig Handy and veterans Stanley Turrentine and Charles McPherson that provided the festival's most musically winning moments?

The desire to supply audience-gathering, accessible entertainment doesn't seem to similarly restrict the programming at other major-league jazz galas. The JVC Festival in New York this weekend, for example, manages to include Peterson, Mel Torme, Joe Henderson, Joshua Redman and both the Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center large jazz ensembles, along with the more commercial acts on its program. Interestingly, JVC, which generally meets with critical approval and enthusiastic audiences, is produced by George Wein, who also produces the Playboy Jazz Festival.

The Montreal Jazz Festival, which runs for 10 days, beginning Thursday, includes an enormous array of jazz--Peterson, Henderson and Redman, as well as Weston, Terrason, Threadgill, Billy Taylor, John Scofield, Kenny Barron and dozens of others, the world premieres of 14 compositions and performers from countries like Japan, England, Bulgaria, Haiti, France and Nigeria.

How does the Playboy Jazz Festival differ?

In its continuing determination--evident this year as it has been in past years--to provide a broad, eclectic program offering a mixture of sociable music, danceable rhythms and enough provocative jazz to contribute a taste of creative seasoning without distracting people from the business of partying.

Unlike Montreal, Playboy's goal appeared to be a desire to reach out to the audience, rather than to produce the kind of provocative programming that would draw the audience in. In that sense, each element on the bill seemed aimed toward a different audience segment. The lineup included groups that stretched across several generations--from the Carter/Cheatham group and the orchestras of Gerald Wilson and Cachao to Horace Silver and Herbie Mann's ensembles, the trios of Geri Allen and Herbie Hancock and the vocals of Ernestine Anderson. An effort was made to reach out to younger audiences via Donald Byrd's taste of the emerging blend of jazz and various street music rhythms, and the pop jazz sounds of Boney James and Hiroshima.

The final concession to audience appeal was the assigning of prime-time showcase positions to Joe Sample, Al Jarreau, Grover Washington Jr. and Los Lobos, all chart-oriented acts. (Of the prime-time performers, only the Brecker Brothers brought some jazz authenticity to their set.)

The justification for Playboy's programming has generally centered around the observation that an easily accessible lineup is what is required for the party-going, Hollywood Bowl atmosphere: Jazz Lite. But that's selling the Los Angeles jazz audience short.

Any number of individual programs around town in the last few months have indicated that Los Angeles has a potentially broad listener base--one receptive to a range of music reaching well beyond the carefully proscribed limits of Playboy's programming approach. More segments with the kind of built-in potential for catching musical lightning in a bottle that Cosby brought to his Cos of Good Music segment would have made a pleasantly engaging event into a far more invigorating weekend.

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