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Jazz Lovers Series: Hugh Hefner

Jazz Lovers Series: Hugh Hefner
Jeff Fitzgerald, Genius By

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It could be said that the Playboy Empire is as well-known for the furtherance of Jazz as it is for the depiction of young ladies in various states of undress.
If, for some reason, one were to make a list of the most famous and influential lovers of Our Music, one would find it a Sisyphean task. Jazz lovers come in all shapes and sizes, and from all walks of life. One would find us well represented across the entire spectrum of society, from sports to entertainment to politics and then back to sports because frankly, I've had enough politics for one lifetime lately.

But then.

While there are a myriad of Jazz fans represented all across our culture, some names stand out. As previously profiled here, there is Academy Award winning director and actor Clint Eastwood. There is NBA all-time scoring leader Kareen Abdul Jabbar. And most people don't know that Santa Claus (Father Christmas, to our British friends) routinely delivers presents all over the world to the soundtrack of Coltrane's Live At the Village Vanguard CD box set. Then, there is the inestimable Hugh Hefner.

Best known as the founder of Playboy magazine, Hefner has espoused Our Music as the soundtrack of the Good Life since the 1950s. It could be said that the Playboy Empire is as well-known for the furtherance of Jazz as it is for the depiction of young ladies in various states of undress. It certainly has been said, and by no less than Your Own Personal Genius, so there.

Hugh Marston Hefner was born on April 9*, 1926, in Chicago, Illinois, to a couple of teachers. He was raised in a conservative Midwest Methodist household, which is a fancy way of saying boring. It is little wonder he sought out a livelier life filled with kicks later on, after serving as a writer for an Army newspaper during World War II. Once out of the Army, Hefner went to work for Esquire magazine as a copywriter, leaving in 1952 after a dispute over a $5 raise (which was good money in those days).

Raising $8,000 from investors (including $1,000 from his mother), Hefner started Playboy magazine. The original name of the magazine was supposed to be Stag Party, but Hefner decided against that after learning that this was also the original title of National Geographic magazine**. The premier issue sold over 50,000 copies and featured nude pictures from Marilyn Monroe's 1949 calendar as the first of what would become an iconic centerfold.

Right from the beginning, Hefner envisioned Playboy as a lifestyle magazine for the American male in a prosperous nation that had just come out of a long Depression and a massive world war. Playboy's readers would be tuned in to all aspects of the Good Life at the dawn of the Golden Age of American Culture. The playboy of the title would be a man of refined and discerning tastes, and one who enjoyed looking at women who themselves enjoyed being looked at. By modern standards, the nudes of Playboy are almost quaint. But they represented a considerable departure from the pre-war attitudes towards sex and nudity. Pornography certainly existed before the war—the first pornographic film was made in 1915—but Playboy strove to take the female nude out of the realm of the brown- paper-wrapper crowd and return it, if not to the place of great art where it had existed in Europe for centuries, a place in society more befitting natural beauty.

Playboy's models were fresh-faced girl next door types, not the kind of women normally associated with posing nude. And that's one of the things that made Hef's magazine stand out. Sex was supposed to be fun, to be normal, natural, and celebrated, and the female form with it. Playboy was, in many ways, the shot across the bow at the beginning of the sexual revolution. Playboy was not just about the nudes, though they were what came to most strongly identify with the magazine. There was also the quality of the writing, featuring serious prose, in-depth interviews with important figures of the day, and top flight fiction from the start. The old joke about Playboy, "I only read it for the articles," wasn't necessarily just an excuse.

But what the hell does all this have to do with Jazz?

I'm glad you asked. In this invented lifestyle for the modern age, Hef decided that Jazz was the go-to soundtrack. Jazz was the hippest music around, and had been for decades. It is not a far reach to think that Hef may have been exposed to Jazz in his early upbringing, as Chicago was once briefly the epicenter of Our Music. Though Bix Beiderbecke and the vaunted Wolverines were gone by the time Hef was a child, there was still enough Jazz in the air to enliven even a young Hef's drab, sepia-toned world.

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