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United States of Jazz

The always eclectic Playboy festival brings together all kinds of fun-loving music fans


It was June 1998--a warm, sunny day at the Hollywood Bowl--and New Orleans clarinetist Pete Fountain was knocking out a string of Dixieland licks at the annual Playboy Jazz Festival. The capacity crowd seemed to be digging the music. And Fountain, pleased, responded with even greater flights of musical fancy.

Suddenly, in the middle of his solo, virtually the entire crowd of 18,000 erupted in an enormous cheer. Fountain paused for a brief moment, then nodded his head and played on.

What he didn't know was that many in the crowd were also tuned to the final game of the National Basketball Assn. championship series. The burst of excitement? A reaction to Michael Jordan's final-second, championship-winning jump shot.

Variations on that scene are played out each year at the Playboy Festival, which is a mini world within a music festival. As the 24th annual installment kicks off Saturday, once again the promise of the festival, in addition to the jazz, is an all-day, foot-tapping, let's-all-groove party that manages to bring Los Angeles' multifaceted communities into more of an idealized, we-can-work-it-out coming together.

"In 1992, the year of the riots, the city was tense," recalls Dick Rosenzweig, festival president. "I really had to consider whether we should even go forward. But our history of bringing together almost 36,000 attendees of every race and ethnic character over the two days was so strong that I felt the festival might actually be a bonding experience. It went off perfectly."

A stroll around the grounds of the Bowl during one of the festivals provides an illuminating view of the sociology of the event. Up in the nosebleed section, the walkway that runs above the top level of seats is always filled. Picnic baskets, coolers, folding chairs, even large beach umbrellas line the upper side of the path. Strangers laugh and drink together as the music reverberates from the stage below.

Directly in front of that stage, in the high-priced boxes, somewhat more refined partying takes place, often with linen-covered tables, crystal wine glasses and catered meals. Despite the juxtaposition of styles--and difference in price: top-of-the-Bowl seats go for $15, upscale seats in the boxes for $95--there are striking similarities. "The top and the bottom seats sell out first," says festival producer Darlene Chan. "On the top, I think it's because some people feel that if they're not going to be down close, they might as well sit in the cheaper area, buy a couple of seats ... and have room to spread out and party.

"In the boxes near the stage, the goal is the same, even though they've paid considerably more to be up close while they're doing it."

In other parts of the Bowl, there are gatherings of jazz fans who arrive with their own themes. One group goes for a Hawaiian theme, according to Chan. "They come every year to have a sort of reunion with each other."

Other areas are filled with groups of employees who have taken advantage of company block purchases of tickets--FedEx and UPS, among others.

But no matter where they start out, virtually no one remains rooted in one place. The view from the stage usually reveals a panorama of movement. People heading for food, drink or, well, relief, fill the aisles. Clusters of fans hang out at one box or another, or gather in groups at the upper-level benches.

And from the top to bottom of the Bowl, race, ethnicity and economic status are blurred into a rainbow of blended colors with the mixture of jazz fans--African American, white, Asian, Latino, young, old--seemingly the same in the boxes as in the lofty aerie.

One particularly memorable moment a few years ago captured the combination of the music, the atmosphere and the communal interaction. It was late afternoon, Rosenzweig recalls, when there was a commotion near the top of the arena as the crowd spotted a couple on the grass making love.

"So maybe that's the basic statement of the Playboy Jazz Festival: Make love, not war."

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