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Jazz Lovers Series: Hugh Hefner

Jeff Fitzgerald, Genius By

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Playboy championed Jazz at a time when most music critics were looking in all the wrong places for a truly American art form. Even the most forward-thinking composers of the era, the Aaron Coplands and their ilk, were still just building upon the European tradition. Jazz was bursting at the seams of the staid and academic classical world, ripe with musical development rivalling the greatest of the old European masters. Mozart was known as a great improviser, though his inventions are lost to history because he existed over a century before the advent of recording technology and record company PR flacks.

In 1957, Playboy produced a two-record set of their Jazz All-Star series, featuring performers from Pops to Frank Sinatra to Dave Brubeck. They produced a second edition in 1958. Hefner then held the first Playboy Jazz Festival at Chicago Stadium in 1959. However, it would be another twenty years before the second Jazz festival, held this time at the Hollywood Bowl where it would remain to this day. While there is some debate over why it took two decades between festivals, the most likely reason is that good quality catering doesn't just happen.

Playboy produced two television shows, Playboy's Penthouse in 1959 and Playboy After Dark in 1969, which also featured performances from top-flight Jazz talent. Then, in 1960, the first of the legendary Playboy Clubs opened in Chicago, providing a constant venue for some of the biggest names in Our Music. Add to that the support for Jazz in the pages of the magazine itself, beginning with an article about the Dorsey brothers in the very first issue, and you can see how deep the commitment ran. Hefner was often quoted as saying that he associated with Jazz more than any other form of popular music.

Meanwhile, back in Chicago.

Hefner wasn't just about creating some prepackaged Playboy lifestyle to sell magazines, he set about earnestly living up to the standards he set in print. As his creation began to blossom into an empire, Hefner established the Playboy Mansion as a happening spot for the kinds of soirees most American males could only dream about. Clad in silk pajamas and smoking his trademark pipe, Hef presided over the proceedings like the grand master of ceremonies he was, provoking the envy of many and providing a vicarious thrill for every workaday guy trying to get through his day without strangling someone with his tie.

When Hefner moved the empire west to Los Angeles, vacating the original Playboy Mansion for new digs in 1974, his lavish lifestyle became the stuff of legend. Being invited to a party at Hef's place became a symbol of "making it" in the world for the select few. I'm going to consider the fact that Your Own Personal Genius has yet to be invited as a mere oversight.

Lest one think that Hefner was all about hedonism and dissipation, he has also been vocal in his support of First Amendment rights. So much so, in fact, that his daughter Christine (who succeeded him as publisher of Playboy) created the Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award in his honor. Hefner also champions other causes, from helping to restore the Hollywood sign to endowing a chair (and a modest desk) at USC's film school for the study of American film.

As for the personal experience of what Hefner created, I can say it was Playboy that hastened my coming of age in the mountains of Virginia back in the 1980s. The magazine showed me a life that lay just beyond the blue-collar existence waiting for me if I followed in the local tradition. By rights, I should have gone through school, got a job with the railroad, and married my high school sweetheart. I should have listened to country music and 70's rock and watched whatever films came to the local movie house each week. I should have drank canned American pale lagers and never expanded my palate beyond the Appalachian staple beans and cornbread of my youth.

More than anything else, Playboy served as an instruction manual and not just fuel for my raging teenaged hormones. It taught me about good music, food, and movies—all foreign and domestic. I also discovered literature that was not to be found at the city library. In Hugh Hefner, I found an aspirational figure. Maybe I couldn't live my life surrounded by beautiful women and A-list celebrities, dressed in silk pajamas and a bathrobe, cradling a rocks glass filled with Jack Daniel's in my manicured hand, but I could be more than was expected of me. I could develop a taste for Jazz and Kurosawa films and fine bourbon. I could appreciate a dry-aged T-bone cooked perfectly medium rare. I could believe that a woman like Sherry Arnett (Jan. 1986) would give a guy like me the time of day (1:21 PM).

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