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Days of Wine and Jazz

On its 20th birthday, Playboy Festival at Hollywood Bowl is striving to stay true to its roots--with some new touches.

June 11, 1998|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When the first strains of swinging rhythm come pouring out of the loudspeakers at the Playboy Jazz Festival on Saturday, the Hollywood Bowl will be filled to overflowing, the start of a full weekend of jazz partying.

The boxes will be bursting with the colorful, infinitely varied crowd that always shows up for jazz events, the wine will be flowing and picnic baskets will litter the aisles.

No surprise there. The Playboy festival--now celebrating its 20th anniversary at the Hollywood Bowl--has sold out virtually every year since the beginning.

That first festival, in 1979, initially conceived as a one-time event, included a spectacular lineup, ranging from Benny Goodman, Count Basie and Lionel Hampton to Chick Corea, Dizzy Gillespie, Gerry Mulligan, Stan Getz, Sarah Vaughan and many others.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 13, 1998 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 18 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Playboy Festival--A story on the Playboy Jazz Festival in Thursday's Calendar Weekend misidentified the singer with the group Gravity. The correct name is Nedra Johnson.

Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, who has said, "I still associate with jazz more than with any other form of popular music," decided to make the festival an annual event. And subsequent installments packed the Bowl via all-star performer lineups that included Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis, Mel Torme and repeat appearances by Basie, Gillespie, Mulligan, Corea and dozens of other jazz stars.

How does it happen? What is the recipe for assembling such a perpetually successful menu of music? And how did this year's return to a strongly jazz-oriented lineup--after several installments in which the festival was criticized for leaning too strongly in the direction of pop--come about? According festival producer Darlene Chan, it was a combination of luck and a lot of hard work.

"I began to work on this year's festival the day after last year's festival was over," she says. "There were a couple of acts we knew we wanted right away. One was Wynton Marsalis, and we knew we'd have to make an early offer because his schedule is so busy. The other was the Cuban band, Los Van Van, because they were such a hit [at last year's festival], and because the calls on the hotline kept asking us to bring them back."

The festival recipe began to simmer around August or September, when Playboy submitted a "wish list" to Chan, who produces the event for George Wein's Festival Productions.

"The 'wish list' always has more names than we can book on the festival," Chan says. "So we saw who was available and made our picks."

But other factors also affected the choices. The desire to be true to Playboy's historic involvement with jazz, for example, was ever present. And the annual directive that comes from Hefner is the request for a big band on each day of the festival.

"He's a big-band nut," says Chan, "and that's the only thing that he insists on every year."

"We always try to be as sensitive to the music, as close to jazz as we know it, as we can be," explains Dick Rosenzweig, the festival's president. "And this year I think we've been very successful at doing that, while also coming up with a program that delivers a little bit of everything."

The inclusion of "a little bit of everything" is an important factor for a production that has to sell nearly 18,000 seats for each day of the event.

"In order to do that," Rosenzweig says, "we include a lot of ingredients. We look to New Orleans for traditional groups like Pete Fountain. We include some contemporary jazz, like Fourplay. We try to be sensitive to how many women we have on the bill. We look at world music acts like King Sunny Ade, who has always done very well. And, of course, in Los Angeles the salsa sound is extremely important to us, which is why we have four Latin-oriented acts in this year's program. Finally, we sometimes look for a kind of novelty group like, say, a Bela Fleck. This year we have the tuba band Gravity."

The menu that results from this extensive recipe of preparation makes for a full course of musical riches. And the best way to view each day at the Playboy Festival may be as a jazz banquet with a range of flavors to satisfy every taste.

Saturday's Menu

2:30 p.m.: An opening musical appetizer featuring the talented young L.A. County for the Arts Jazz Band, this year's winner of the Monterey Jazz Festival High School Competition.

2:55 p.m.: Some tasty, bop-tinged mainstream jazz from an ensemble led by drummer Billy Higgins. With veteran saxophonists Harold Land and Charles McPherson, trumpeter Oscar Brashear and the piano-bass team of Billy Childs and Jeff Littleton in the lineup, the band fully deserves its "All Stars" label.

3:45 p.m.: A frothy, palate-clearing set by the swing-revivalist group the Royal Crown Revue. Dancers heading for the aisles are advised to know how to jitterbug and Lindy.

4:30 p.m.: A serving of basic hard-cooking arrives in the person of blues singer Ruth Brown. Moving comfortably between jazz and the blues, Brown is a nonstop proselytizer for both. "I don't know," she says, "what it is that makes us let this great music die, but it's not going to happen as long as I can holler and scream about it."

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