By Jenny Peters and Andy J. Gordon
The 41st Annual Playboy Jazz Festival rolled into California’s gorgeous Hollywood Bowl, with greats from funk, jazz and soul taking center stage for two full days of music, with a lot of partying thrown in for good measure.
It can be something of a struggle to actually get to your seats at the Hollywood Bowl, located as it is at the intersection of one of Los Angeles’ busiest freeways (the 101) and the heart of Hollywood. But fans of this popular festival make the trek every year; and most come for the full two weekend days, too. This year’s 2019 fest happened on June 8 and 9; and festgoers couldn’t have dialed up better weather anywhere in SoCal. Warm, lovely days rolled into perfect evenings, as the festival began each day at 3 p.m. and went until 10:30 p.m. every night.
Playboy Jazz Fest Day One on Saturday June 8 was a lively 10-band mix of traditional jazz that rolled into an African-Cuban groove and eventually ended up with a wild funk-disco-R&B finish that had everyone in the famed outdoor venue up and dancing.
Day One began as two-day host George Lopez brought out the Valencia Vikings High School Two N’ Four Vocal Jazz Ensemble, giving some talented teens a chance to play on the big stage. And while the full audience of 17,500 filtered in for the next few hours, the headliners came and went on a revolving stage, which meant the music truly never stopped.
And neither did the party, as revelers rolled in, wearing light-up bunny ears and toting coolers full of wine, whiskey and Jell-O shots – those shots flew through the air along with the Mardi Gras beads that are always a part of this scene, as friends and strangers shared the wealth. Jazz in Pink brought their all-female smooth groove, led by Gail Jhonson on keyboards and vocals, then Terrace Martin and his band mixed it up with EDM and hip-hop overlaid on jazz sounds.
Saxophonist Benny Golson brought his quartet (Ray McCurdy, Mike Gurrola and Tamir Hendelman) in celebration of his 90th birthday. He’s still going strong and put on a mellow set. Next up was the 12-piece band put together to Celebrate Ndugu Chancler, the famed drummer/composer who passed away last year. Led by Patrice Rushin on keyboards, the talented group hit all of Chancler’s high notes, including “Let It Whip,” his Grammy nominated composition, and “Billie Jean,” his famed collaboration with Michael Jackson and got the whole place dancing in the aisles.
Oscar nominee (for Blakkklansman) Terence Blanchard brought things to a quieter place with his set of traditional jazz tunes, along with The E Collective and special guest vocalist Quiana Lynell. Angelique Kidjo was an afternoon highlight, as she and her tight band mixed things up with Afropop (she’s from Benin) songs, Cuban salsa beats (in a tribute to Celia Cruz) and even an inspired cover of the Talking Heads classic “Remain in Light.”
Next up, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones added banjo licks as the day turned into night and all those bunny ears started blinking across the rapt audience as Fleck made his instrument bring sounds ranging from bluegrass to rock to electric jazz. Backed by Victor and Roy Wooten and Howard Levy, Fleck’s set was an eclectic mix during the dinner hour.
Day One culminated with two classic funk bands, as Sheila E. rolled in with eight band members to tear down the Bowl with wild renditions of her past collaborations with Prince, including “Glamorous Life,” “Love Bizarre” and “Baby I’m a Star.” She hit the drums hard and also took up a guitar for a few songs, but ended her set with the shout of, “Who says women can’t play drums?” Not us!
Finally, as the cool sea breezes came across the Hollywood Hills, Kool & The Gang grabbed center stage and set it on fire, as the 50-year-old band led by brothers Robert (“Kool”) and Ronald Bell proved they haven’t lost a step (or a note) over the years. From “Fresh” to “Jungle Boogie” and on to “Hollywood Swinging” and “Ladies Night” (complete with six female go-go dancers), they had the whole place dancing and singing along. And as they closed the seven-hour, music-filled day with “Celebration,” everyone did just that.
Day Two of Playboy Jazz Festival dawned hotter, as Sunday’s temperatures soared and a huge crowd gathered again at the Hollywood Bowl to experience 10 more bands. The party picked up where it left off the night before as The LAUSD Beyond the Bell All-Star City Jazz Band kicked things off with a stage filled with instruments played by L.A.’s young student stars. Vocalist Michael Mayo then brought an R&B tinged jazz sound into the bright day, followed by the Afro-Cuban sounds of the Harold Lopez-Nussa Quintet.
Donny McCaslin Blow, the group featured on David Bowie’s final album Blackstar, treated the ever-growing crowd to a set of jazz-electronic fusion; then Gambia’s Sona Jobarteh introduced many of us to the kora, a 21-stringed African harp-like instrument. Her set got people boogeying, which The Cookers then kept going as they took the stage, playing their jazzy be-bop sounds.
We knew that when New Orleans’ Dirty Dozen Brass Band arrived, there was bound to be a Dr. John tribute, and we were right, as they launched right into a memorial with a dirge in his honor. That flowed into a rollicking second-line celebration, complete with white hankies and napkins waving across the crowd and weaving lines of dancers as they played “Stay Right Here (in the Groove).” A less-expected tribute followed, to Fats Domino, who as saxophonist and singer Roger Lewis reminded us, “is another New Orleans great that we lost last year.” “I’m Walking” brought Domino’s spirit back to the Bowl in the band’s excellent version.
Maceo Parker followed, along with his Maceo Parker Big Band, and he, too, was doing some serious channeling of the dead, as his whole set was a tribute to Ray Charles. Beginning with “Let the Good Times Roll” and rolling through Charles’ greatest tunes, Parker made us believe in reincarnation. And it was no surprise in the final reveal, that his big band is actually the Ray Charles Big Band, complete with the Raelettes singing backup.
Boz Scaggs is alive and well, which the 74-year-old singer-songwriter-guitarist proved with a wonderful set of his best, created over the past 56 years of his career. From “Lowdown” to the “Lido Shuffle,” Scaggs had everybody singing and dancing to his music.
Finally, the two-day extravaganza closed out with The Family Stone, who proved that even without Sly Stone as a frontman, their music still endures. Original band member Jerry Martini leads this tight band, with Sly’s daughter Phunne Stone ably taking on the lead vocals on their anthem-like hits, including “Everyday People,” “Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Again),” “Stand!” and (of course) “Dance to the Music.” It was an exhilarating end to two top-notch days of music and fun in SoCal’s best venue – there’s nothing quite like the winning combo of the Hollywood Bowl and the Playboy Jazz Festival.