Days of Wine and Jazz

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.

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."

5:15 p.m.: The festival's initial Latin dish (and the first of several) is trumpeter Arturo Sandoval's Hot House Tour Big Band. Spicy Afro-Cuban rhythms combine with spunky, big-band jazz to produce one of the day's most savory treats.

6:10 p.m.: The exotic portion of the menu continues with King Sunny Ade, the Nigerian King of JuJu, and his rhythmically stimulating African Beats Band.

7 p.m.: An interlude of classic, New Orleans-style jazz cuisine shows up in the playing of trumpeter Nicholas Payton. Still in his early 20s, he has been compared favorably to Louis Armstrong. Payton's latest album, "Payton's Place" (Verve), was released this week.

7:50 p.m.: Saturday's principal main course is a rare appearance of the Wynton Marsalis Septet. Preoccupied by his roles as composer, educator, bandleader and director of the Jazz at Lincoln Center program, Marsalis takes a break to explore solid, New Orleans-tinged, straight-ahead jazz with a stellar septet that includes pianist Eric Reed, alto saxophonist Wes Anderson, woodwind player Victor Goines, trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, bassist Reginald Veal and drummer Herlin Riley.

8:50 p.m.: Another sample of spicy Latin rhythms with the Poncho Sanchez Latin Jazz Band, one of L.A.'s most consistent purveyors of salsa-tinged jazz rhythms. Expect to hear some numbers from Sanchez's latest album, "Freedom Sound," a tribute to the Jazz Crusaders.

9:40 p.m.: The last course of the day serves up the stirring music of singer Al Jarreau. On a menu filled with far-ranging musical delights, Jarreau's mixture of jazz, pop and R&B; is the ultimate blending of styles. After 20 years of hits, he's still raring to go. "It's half-time for me," he says. "I'm coming out for the second half smoking."

The climax of Saturday's program will be smoking as well, when Jarreau concludes with his hit "Roof Garden," which will be accompanied by a special fireworks display--the first time a jazz number at the festival has been choreographed to pyrotechnics.

The second day of the Playboy Festival presents a similarly varied set of choices.

Sunday's Menu

2 p.m.: The day opens with a toast from pianist Silvano Masterios, winner of the 12th annual Cognac Hennessy Jazz Search.

2:25 p.m.: Sheila E's brisk, Latin-pop rhythms provide an appealing first musical course from a performer who has just become the first female bandleader on late-night television via her role on the new "Magic Hour."

3:15 p.m.: It's time for one of the festival's more unusual sidebar servings, Howard Johnson and Gravity--a surprisingly swinging ensemble of tuba players. Also featured: the singing debut of local bassist Nedra Wheeler.

4:05 p.m.: Saxophonist Kenny Garrett provides the afternoon's initial main course. His debut performance as a bandleader showcases a style that moves easily from bebop and avant-garde to electric funk.

4:55 p.m.: Sunday's vocal serving is provided by Dee Dee Bridgewater. One of the rare singers who can deal with the Ella Fitzgerald approach to jazz, Bridgewater will undoubtedly do numbers from her "Dear Ella" album. "Ella," Bridgewater says, "is the person who made it possible for me to do what I do."

5:40 p.m.: The big-band serving of the day comes from Louis Bellson, described by Duke Ellington as "the world's greatest drummer." The six-time Grammy nominee makes his third Playboy Festival appearance, and his first leading his own big band.

6:35 p.m.: No jazz repast is complete without another taste of New Orleans, this time provided in traditional style by clarinetist Pete Fountain.

7:25 p.m.: Sunday night's main course is a simmering blend of Cuban jazz and dance music by Los Van Van, the band that stole the show at last year's festival. There will undoubtedly be some serious dancing in the aisles. (Although Los Van Van will not repeat last year's heated performance at the Palladium, the band will make an appearance for Orange County fans on Monday at the Galaxy Theatre.)

8:20 p.m.: Contemporary jazz followers finally get the treat they've been waiting for--a performance by the all-star group Fourplay. This year the band, making its second Playboy appearance, will have a different sound, as founding member Lee Ritenour is replaced on guitar by the blues-driven playing of Larry Carlton.

9:20 p.m.: The festival's final aperitif is also its least jazz-associated group--the pop band Little Feat. But blues fans will undoubtedly revel in the "Dixie Chicken" music of the veteran ensemble, while the jazzers in the crowd can take advantage of the opportunity to head for the parking lot.

BE THERE

The Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl, Saturday and Sunday. Saturday sold out. Some tickets available for Sunday. $25. Festival hotline: (310) 449-4070. Park & Ride lots are located at Westwood, Canoga Park, Pasadena, Fullerton-Anaheim and Torrance; tickets are $5 round-trip. Information: (213) 480-3232. Shuttle lots are located at 10801 Ventura Blvd., 1626 N. La Brea Ave., 5333 Zoo Drive and 3700 Barham Blvd. Parking is free and shuttle to the Bowl is $2 round-trip, with departures every 10 minutes from 1:30 to 7 p.m. No advance purchase required. Information about limited on-site parking, (213) 850-2000.

* MUSICAL TASTES: What to take along for that picnic at the Bowl. Page 45. A feast of Cuban music in L.A. this month. Page 50.

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.
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