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Hef Keeps Swinging as Playboy Jazz Fest Marks 30th Anniversary


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Hugh Hefner couldn't think of a better way to celebrate Playboy magazine's 25th anniversary than by throwing a big bash at the Hollywood Bowl featuring his favourite performers who knew how to swing while keeping their clothes on.

To produce the event he turned to jazz impresario George Wein, who had created the first outdoor jazz festival in Newport, R.I., in 1954, the same year Hefner launched his culture-changing men's lifestyle magazine.

The inaugural 1979 Playboy Jazz Festival packed the Hollywood Bowl for both days with a lineup that featured some of Hefner's favourite artists such as Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton and Count Basie as well as contemporary jazz stars like Weather Report, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. Hefner took the stage on opening night to announce that what had been planned as a one-time anniversary celebration would become an annual event.

“The response to it was so phenomenal that here we are 30 years later," said the 82-year-old Hefner, speaking by telephone from the Playboy Mansion in Holmby Hills, Calif., in advance of this year's event Saturday and Sunday. “I've had a lot of things to be proud of in my life but nothing more quite frankly than the jazz festival."

“It speaks to the best of who we are - a community coming together without questions in terms of ethnicity or race in a joyous way to celebrate being alive."

Hefner's passion for jazz goes back to his high school years in Chicago in the 1940s when under the name “Hep Hef," he wrote a column for the school paper reviewing the latest big band swing records. From Playboy's first issue, jazz was written about and treated with a respect not found in other non-music publications.

Hefner, with the help of his young assistant Richard Rosenzweig, now president of Playboy Jazz Festivals, Inc., promoted the magazine's fifth anniversary in 1959 by putting on the nation's first indoor jazz festival which drew about 70,000 people over three days to the Chicago Stadium.

That event brought together a who's who of jazz history with Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Coleman Hawkins, Ella Fitzgerald, Ahmad Jamal, and the big bands of Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Stan Kenton, among others.

“I felt that this would give us a more mainstream presence," said Hefner. “The magazine was hugely successful in terms of circulation, but because of the nudity, the pinup pictures, we were having advertising problems. We managed to put together something ... that (critic) Leonard Feather called the greatest single weekend in the history of jazz."

Hefner was too busy with his magazine to repeat the festival back then. But after relocating to Los Angeles, the memories inspired him to hold another festival to mark Playboy's 25th anniversary. He chose the Hollywood Bowl because the venue “had a tremendous glamour cachet ... for a kid who grew up on the movies."

Hefner's longtime friend Bill Cosby, who once had notions of becoming a jazz drummer, needed little persuading to MC the festival provided he wouldn't be expected to do any comedy routines.

“I'm a superfan and for me to be given the opportunity ... to stand there for two days and announce my heroes and my sheroes on a weekend that is Father's Day weekend - nobody in my family has to offer me a Father's Day present," said Cosby, who will be returning as master of ceremonies for the 27th time this weekend.

Among those appearing on opening night in 1979 was Hancock, who this year will be setting a festival record with his 11th appearance. That night Hancock performed publicly for the first time with Joni Mitchell after recording the singer-songwriter's album “Mingus" that blurred the boundaries between jazz and pop.

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