Hugh Hefner's seats are always front and center at the Playboy Jazz Festival, placed in a kind of royal box directly facing the stage, visible to the performers as well as to the 18,000 or so music fans who turn out every year for the two-day event.
"I'll be there again, for at least part of the programs," he says, "with the girlfriends, all seven of them."
That should be good news to the festival regulars who tend to keep an eye out for the arrival of Hefner and his--shall we say spectacular?--entourage.
The real business of the festival, however, which takes place Saturday and Sunday from the early afternoon into the late evening, is jazz. And Hefner, Playboy and the music have had a long and happy history.
"My passion for jazz comes right out of my childhood," he says. "It fed my romantic dreams. I hit my teens during the big-band era. And of course, during that period, jazz and swing were the pop music of America, something unparalleled. You could turn on live radio remotes from anywhere in the country and hear all this marvelous music. It's almost impossible to describe what the music was like at that time, how its impact was rooted not only in the quality of the music itself, but in the quality of its romantic connections and its sentimentality. It really was the stuff that dreams were made of."
Hefner, who turned 75 in April, is particularly drawn to big-band music, Dixieland and, especially, to the lyrical playing of cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, he says. And when he decided to celebrate the fifth anniversary of Playboy in 1959 with a jazz festival, the event turned out to be a definitive presentation of the music in all its myriad forms.
"It was truly historical," he recalls. "Everybody was there: Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, the big bands of Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Stan Kenton. How's that for a lineup? But we also had Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck with Paul Desmond and the Modern Jazz Quartet." Twenty years later, the 25th anniversary of Playboy was celebrated in similar fashion at the Hollywood Bowl. The programming once again was impressive, with a string of talent that included Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Joe Williams, Lionel Hampton, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie and Gerry Mulligan.
The Chicago festival in 1959 and the Hollywood Bowl event in 1979 were initially viewed as one-shot celebrations.
"We weren't planning follow-ups," says Hefner. "What I didn't know at the time was the fact that nobody had successfully mounted jazz at the Bowl prior to that. George Wein had tried and been unsuccessful. But the combination of Playboy's attraction ... with the programming we were able to put together obviously attracted the public's fancy."
And then some. The annual weekend now is a kind of unofficial kickoff for a summer West Coast jazz season reaching from the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Summer Jazz series to major festivals in Monterey, San Jose and San Francisco.
This year's Playboy Jazz Festival--now in its 23rd year--comes at a time when Hefner and Playboy are showing increased signs of involvement with the music. Earlier this year, Playboy Enterprises and Concord Records formed an alliance embracing the formation of a new record label, Playboy Jazz.
The first release from Playboy Jazz was "Blonde," the soundtrack from the recent CBS miniseries based on the life of Marilyn Monroe, featuring such artists as Kenny Burrell, Ray Brown, Roy Hargrove and James Moody playing arrangements by Patrick Williams.
The choice was a logical one, given that Monroe was the first Playboy magazine centerfold and that 2001 is the 75th birthday year for both Hefner and Monroe (as well as for Miles Davis, the subject of the first Playboy interview, and John Coltrane).
"I've actually been celebrating my own birthday for a couple of months," says Hefner, "since the actual date, April 9. We had a pajama and lingerie party here on that weekend to celebrate, and then I took the girlfriends off to Europe for two weeks. After all, the 75th is kind of special. But I had to get back in time for the festival."
And that's where he'll be this weekend, grooving to the music of such special favorites as Max Roach, Nancy Wilson and Keely Smith. "We won't be sitting still," says Hefner, "since all seven of the girls are dancers. I take them out to the club scene two or three days a week, because that's the music we all like to dance to. But when I'm at home, the music I sit and listen to is jazz, and almost always to Bix Beiderbecke."