By Jenny Peters and Andy J. Gordon
The Hollywood Bowl celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Playboy Jazz Festival over the 2018 weekend of June 9 and 10. Two picture-perfect, sunny days that transitioned into cool, comfortable evenings made for all-day wide grins on the faces of everyone that was lucky enough to attend. The great weather and diverse mix of talented artists drew massive crowds on both days of the festival.
Playboy Jazz has always stretched the boundaries of what many consider jazz. Artists that represent blues, soul, funk, fusion and R&B are well represented, along with more traditional jazz performers. Both living legends and new artists get their chance to impress the audience every year.
Thousands seem to make the annual pilgrimage, to once again meet up with old friends and make new ones, too. The convivial, sharing atmosphere is all part of the fun, as everyone comes armed with wheeled coolers packed with their finest wine, beer and spirits, as well as gourmet feasts, and then offers a taste or a sip to complete strangers sitting nearby. That festive atmosphere seemed to inspire the musicians this year, as they looked out from the giant Bowl stage into the vast crowd of jazz lovers enjoying their picnics accompanied by the brilliant live music.
Well-known comic and actor George Lopez is the master of ceremonies; he provided brief introductions for each band as the efficient, rotating stage turntable brought the artists out for their performances without any set breaks. Lopez frequently mingled with the musicians onstage and with the fans while he walked the semi-circular barricade that separates the pool section closest to the stage from the terrace boxes. Performers frequently took this walk as well, instruments or microphones in hand, to be closer to the audience.
Saturday, June 9, at the festival offered a fine mix of classic jazz, blues, fusion and soul. Roy Gaines & His Orchestra Tuxedo Blues band had the crowd boogying to spirited blues songs. The Miles Electric Band, an 11-piece group loaded with Grammy winners, paid tribute to Miles Davis and played songs from his electric period.
Late in the Miles set, George Lopez came onstage and spoke about it being the fortieth anniversary of the Playboy Jazz Festival. He implored the audience to cheer for the memory of the late Hugh Hefner, who created the festival and brought live jazz music to multiple generations of fans. Lopez introduced one of Hefner’s sons, Cooper, who is Chief Creative Officer of Playboy Enterprises. Cooper Hefner spoke briefly about his father and the legacy he left with the festival.
While the Miles Electric Band played, a video montage showed old footage of Hugh Hefner and many historic live jazz performances at the Chicago Playboy club, at the New York club, at the Playboy mansion in Los Angeles and over the years at the Hollywood Bowl.
Lee Ritenour and Dave Grusin followed the Miles Electric Band. Ritenour’s scorching guitar complemented Grusin’s incredible piano work on several tunes. Some of the songs were from a few of the 75 films that Grusin has scored. Ritenour told a funny story about his first time playing at the Bowl over fifty years ago when he was sixteen – it was a battle of the bands where his group finished second to the Richard Carpenter Trio, predecessors of The Carpenters.
New York-based group Snarky Puppy hit the stage next. This collective of talented musicians blend jazz, funk, R&B, fusion and jam-band styles. They showed their technical expertise while keeping everyone tapping their feet and doing some dancing in the aisles. The dancing and excitement reached a crescendo for the last performer of the evening. Anthony Hamilton drew loud applause when he and his excellent band started their set.
Hamilton crooned, preached and belted out soulful tunes that had many of the bunny-ears wearing ladies in the audience swooning. His three backup singers joined Hamilton with sweet harmonies and tight dance arrangements. Late in the set, the band covered Prince’s “Adore” and ended the tune with Hamilton saying, “Rest in peace.”
They finished the show with a medley of James Brown’s “Get On Up” and Sly & the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).” George Lopez got in on the fun by joining Hamilton along the semi-circular barricade. They reached into the audience with their microphones to let fans sing along and slap hands with the artist.
Sunday, June 10, was the second and final day of the festival and more truly great music was on display. The Count Basie Orchestra, under the direction of Scotty Barnhart, showed the large crowd what the big-band swing era sounded like back in the 1930s. Richard Bona and Mandekan Cubano followed with an intense set of African- and Cuban-inspired music. Bona played bass and sang moving vocals while his amazing band played high-energy songs that had elements of jazz, pop and rock.
Bona was followed by The Hubtones: Freddie Hubbard’s 80th Birthday Celebration. The all-star lineup featured Nicholas Payton, Randy Brecker, Jeremy Pelt, David Weiss, Benny Green, Vicente Archer and Roy McCurdy. Hubbard was a bop trailblazer until his death in 2008 and the Hubtones honored his legacy on what would have been his 80th birthday. The stellar lineup of horn players took amazing solos while paying tribute to the legend.
Charles Lloyd & The Marvels came next and they were joined on vocals by special guest Lucinda Williams. Saxophonist Lloyd led the band through songs that spanned musical genres. Once Williams joined the band, she belted out heartfelt tunes that tied together country, folk and blues music.
Next came The Ramsey Lewis Quintet. The three-time Grammy winner is retiring in 2018 and it looks like he will go out with a bang. His expert quintet played a set of funky soul mixed with jazz and pop. All the while, Lewis’ piano playing was the centerpiece as he tickled the ivories to loud applause.
R&B chanteuse Jazmine Sullivan followed Ramsey Lewis. Sullivan has a thunderous voice and loves to play with it. She sang several passionate songs supported by two backup singers, that had many dancing at their seats and in the aisles.
The final act of the festival was Tower of Power, the soul powerhouse and horn-focused band that is celebrating their 50th anniversary. The incredible horn section still produces booming, tight arrangements and the band’s lead singer, Marcus Scott, continues to astound with his amazing voice.
They ran through a set of their soul classics like “You’re Still a Young Man,” “Soul with a Capitol ‘S'” and “You Got to Funkifize.” They closed out the weekend with another classic “What Is Hip?”; that got George Lopez up and into the crowd with Marcus Scott for a call-and-response session.
The fiftieth edition of the Hollywood Bowl Playboy Jazz Festival was a rousing success. About 17,000 strong came out each day to hear amazing performances by artists both young and old. Jazz may not be considered hip or cool by everyone in 2018, but for the faithful that came both days, the answer to the question “What is Hip?” was simple – it’s the Playboy Jazz Festival.