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Playboy Jazz Festival tries to broaden its appeal

The 2012 Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl will feature classic styles, jazz-rock fusions and genre pushers. Bill Cosby is the emcee.

June 13, 2012|By Scott Timberg, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • The Cookers will perform at the Playboy Jazz Festival.
The Cookers will perform at the Playboy Jazz Festival. (Playboy Jazz Festival )

Like jazz itself, the drummer Lumar LeBlanc was born in the city of New Orleans. And like a lot of musicians there, he played in the traditional brass-band style that originated in the 1920s and '30s, favoring familiar marches and ballads.

"Like 'When the Saints Go Marching In' and '(What a) Wonderful World,'" LeBlanc says now. "But being young, we heard things on the radio, like Public Enemy and other rap music. We would sneak in some of these tunes. We found audiences were captivated by these funky beats and these newer sounds … played on a snare drum, a bass drum, a sousaphone, two trumpets, a saxophone and two trombones."

And the Soul Rebels were born.

The field of jazz, in a sense, has gone in the same direction, trying to maintain roots in a tradition while being alert to "things on the radio" — and one's taste in jazz is often defined by just what radio station you mean. In any case, the Soul Rebels' mix of old and new is typical of a lot of what shows up at the 2012 Playboy Jazz Festival.

PHOTOS: Playboy Jazz Festival at Hollywood Festival

How successfully the festival manages to balance the past and future won't be clear until Saturday and Sunday, when more than a dozen bands, longtime emcee Bill Cosby, and thousands of fans show up at the Hollywood Bowl. But it won't be for lack of trying.

Like the majority of American jazz festivals these days, Playboy includes a number of acts that are undeniably descended from classic styles like New Orleans, swing, bebop and post-bop (the Christian McBride Big Band, Preservation Hall Jazz Band) as well as jazz-rock fusions (the all-star group Spectrum Road, which includes Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid) and music that is hard to fit into even an expansive definition of jazz. (In what way is smooth R&B singer Robin Thicke jazz? Do the horns in Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings — who rocked the Bowl a few summers ago — make them a jazz band?)

Other acts on the roster this year include Prince's old drummer Sheila E., Keb' Mo', Ozomatli and high school jazz bands from Calabasas and LAUSD. Pianist Ramsey Lewis will appear, but not leading the kind of acoustic trio that recorded songs such as "The In Crowd" in the 1960s, but with his Electric Band.

Even some of the more traditional-seeming groups are seeking the kind of old-new hybrid the Soul Rebels trade in. The ensemble of veterans calling itself the Cookers, for instance, started out as a tribute to a classic live record, "Night of the Cookers," by hard-bop trumpeters Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan. The revival band not only played songs from that 1965 album, it was made up heavily of the date's original members.

"After a while it hit a brick wall," says a trumpeter-producer David Weiss, who helped organize the original concert. "It was a fun gig, but that didn't give it life. We needed original tunes, and a more solidified band."

Current Cookers shows, says pianist George Cables, also draws from many of its players' roots in the 1970s, sometimes considered a lost decade for jazz. "We wondered where we were going," he says. "The music, like society in general, has gotten more conservative."

But Cables and the other players find that sense of disorientation and eclecticism energizing. "We like the feeling that you could go other places, that you were not locked in, that you could take someone on a trip."

The direction and tempo of Playboy Jazz's trip has changed over the years. But musicians who've played the festival mostly remember good vibes.

"Whenever you get a potpourri of musicians and thoughtful performances, it's fun," says Terri Lyne Carrington, the jazz drummer who leads an all-female group this year, the Mosaic Project, and several special guests. "Sitting outside, listening to jazz in nice weather … it's fun."

It's not always an easy place to perform, though.

"The Playboy Festival is unique in that it's nonstop music," says Carrington, referring to the Bowl's rotating stage. "I've never seen that anywhere. It's stressful for me, to get all the artists in in time. It's right on schedule — they will just turn you and turn your sound off. That's part of the fun — to get it all in in the right amount of time."


Playboy Jazz Festival

Where: Hollywood Bowl

When: Begins at 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Tickets: Start at $26

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