It was an outrageously confident promise: “See and hear more great stars in one weekend than most people see in a lifetime,” declared ads for the first ever Playboy Jazz Festival. But the three-day August 1959 event more than delivered.
But the festival faced a crisis before it was even under way, recalls Dick Rosenzweig, who in 1958 had begun what was to be a nearly 60-year career with Playboy: “We got a call from the mayor’s office. They informed us that they were sorry, but we could no longer hold the festival outside at Soldier Field.” Moving quickly, the Playboy team secured the Chicago Stadium, an enclosed, air-conditioned arena. “It rained like hell that weekend,” Rosenzweig says. “So thank you, Mayor Daley.”
For almost 40 years the festival has presided over rain-free weekends at the Bowl, with Chan working behind the scenes every year. It has become the unofficial start of summer in L.A., a weekend when the hardest part can be trying to keep up with the rest of the attendees. A vast range of jazz acts (Tony Bennett, Ornette Coleman, Dianne Reeves), world music artists (Hugh Masekela, King Sunny Ade) and pop outfits (the Roots, Common, Ozomatli, Sheila E) have all performed tight 50-minute sets. The crowds are huge and energetic, often enlivened by the contents of their picnic baskets—one perk of the Bowl is that patrons can bring their own food and drink. Across its hardwood benches, stadium chairs and intimate box seats, the Bowl can accommodate 17,500 revelers. The summer sun slowly works its way to the back of the amphitheater, a peak glow nestling into the dinner hour.
Ten-time Grammy-winning guitarist and vocalist George Benson has been a frequent performer, occupying that perfect position between instrumental virtuosity and tender R&B suavity. A natural and engaging frontman, Benson knows how to entertain both the champagne sippers in the front and the Jell-O shot pounders in the back of the house.
“In a large place like the Bowl, you’re trying to reach that person way out in the last row,” Benson says. “In a little room, they hear you and feel what you’re doing. To get that sound out to the last row in the Hollywood Bowl, that’s difficult. It’s not just the sound system; it’s how you play what you play and the selection of the materials. You have to find the spot.”
The festival has grown into an institution, showcasing some of the most significant jazz musicians of the past half-century. It also fosters up-and-coming talent. Inviting young performers to fill the opening time slots has become an enduring tradition. And as L.A.’s largest jazz fest, playing it serves as a measure of success for local artists.
Bassist and singer Miles Mosley, a member of the trailblazing West Coast Get Down collective, first played the festival with his high school band in the late 1990s. Last year Mosley had his own festival berth, leading his chameleonic soul band through a set of songs indebted to the City of Angels. For him, it was the fulfillment of a childhood dream. “The Playboy Jazz Festival is the pinnacle of what you seek to attain as a kid looking at your musical heroes,” he says. “The first time that stage turns around and you see that crowd, man, it’s an experience.”
From three o’clock in the afternoon until 11 o’clock at night, the live music plays practically nonstop, facilitated by an innovation made possible by Playboy: A large center-stage circular platform, bisected by a partition, ensures the continuous soundtrack. As one band plays on the audience-facing side of the platform, the other is a whirl of stagehands and musicians quickly loading out one band and setting up another. When one set ends, it fades into the next as the circle slowly revolves to reveal the upcoming act. It is unlike any other festival in its efficiency.
“We’re blessed to have that turntable,” says Chan. “It’s what makes our festival a little different.” When the Bowl was remodeled, Playboy paid to have the platform installed permanently. The old equipment required workers to rotate the stage manually. “Now I just press a button,” says Chan.
Nearly 60 years after its debut, the festival is still carrying on Hefner’s mission of bringing a lifetime’s worth of music to a single weekend. (This year’s all-star lineup includes Charles Lloyd and Lucinda Williams.) The only thing the listener has to do is remember to bring a corkscrew.
- Event Name
- The 40th Annual Playboy Jazz Festival
- All Ages
- June 9 - June 10, 2018
- 3 p.m. - 10:30 p.m.
- $22 - $181
- Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles