Among the many physical, spiritual, and institutional losses related to the still-ongoing pandemic is that of Los Angeles’ renowned Playboy Jazz Festival (PJF) at the iconic Hollywood Bowl. For four decades, it had a rich history of outstanding, groundbreaking, and sometimes legendary performances, featuring many of the top names and legends of jazz and jazz-related music. Debuting in 1979 to celebrate the notorious Playboy magazine’s 25th anniversary, it also doubled as the second coming of the magazine’s initial jazz festival, held in Chicago 20 years earlier.
Publisher/editor Hugh Hefner, a devout jazz lover, maintained the event and regularly attended as his health allowed up to his death in 2017, although the Los Angeles Philharmonic took over operations in 2014. PJF stalwartly continued, mostly in name only, up to the 2020 lockdown. In 2022 it resurfaced as the Hollywood Bowl Jazz Festival, an inevitable name change that completely severed ties with the now much-diminished Playboy brand.
Concert attendees seemed unfazed by and/or oblivious to the new name and, as would be expected, were much more interested in the biggest news: A festival was actually happening. Some women in the crowd still wore the traditional Playboy “bunny ears” that lit up at night, but the weather provided most of the heat, as temperatures soared into the low 90s during daylight hours. Former late-night TV host Arsenio Hall was the new MC, replacing comedian George Lopez, who’d been at the helm since Bill Cosby’s retirement in 2013.
Much like many other modern “jazz” festivals, HBJF puts less emphasis on jazz per se than it used to. Instead, it presented an upbeat party vibe that was definitely entertaining and danceable. Not exactly a new occurrence for the Hollywood Bowl, just more obvious for the first day (Saturday).
One of the few oases of actual jazz that day was pianist Gerald Clayton’s ensemble, featuring Marquis Hill on trumpet, Kendrick Scott on drums, Ben Williams on bass, and Logan Richardson on alto saxophone. They sad performed early as the crowd was still arriving, yet they maintained grace and soulfulness, going from cerebral postbop originals to jubilant gospel. Additionally, the LA County High School for the Arts Jazz Ensemble under director Michael Powers spotlighted some of the area’s upcoming gifted musicians.
The audience wasn’t quite ready for Veronica Swift, but that was more because of her flamboyant outfit and makeup than her undeniable talent. She sung intensely and was a juggernaut, jumping from Broadway, jazz, and blues to funk, R&B, and art rock (Dresden Dolls’ “Sing”) for probably the festival’s most unique segment. Afro-Cuban rhythms and textures sizzled through the sets of two Los Angeles-based groups, Jungle Fire and former McCoy Tyner saxophonist Azar Lawrence’s Experience. Contrarily, Fantastic Negrito gave R&B, reggae, blues, and rock tinges a Latin underbody.
Funk and contemporary jazz jamming intensified when guitarist Cory Wong took the stage. He wailed away on his wah-wah pedal, showing off his bluesy chops to the crowd’s delight, and closed his set by jamming with smooth-jazz star saxophonist Dave Koz. The Roots closed things out with a set the length of a normal concert, letting their signature mix of hip-hop, politics, social consciousness, rock, and R&B set the Bowl on fire.
In sharp contrast was Lean on Me: Jose James Celebrates Bill Withers. It encompassed light, gentle, and stretched-out renditions of Withers’ soulful and gospel-derived classics, including “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Grandma’s Hands,” “Lean on Me,” and the lesser-known “Kissing My Love.” .” As a surprise bonus, Withers’ daughter Kori joined James for “Just the Two of Us,” “Use Me,” and “Lovely Day.”
On Sunday, the jazz selections were more plentiful, headlined by velvet singer Gregory Porter and his quintet. He immediately charmed and caressed the audience with his warm personality and lush singing, working everyone up with “On My Way to Harlem” and “Liquid Spirit,” then relaxing them through “No Love Dying” and “Take Me to the Alley.” In essence, he was preaching to a pulsating backdrop, though his sermon was only asking for everyone to practice universal love and forgiveness.
Carmen Lundy—supported by Julius Rodriguez on piano, Kenny Davis on keyboards, Terreon Gully on drums, and Andrew Renfroe on guitar—didn’t deviate much from the mainstream. The Grammy-nominated singer mostly showcased songs from an upcoming recording, while also taking a slight detour to let her powerhouse players do some of the driving. Gordon Goodwin’s 18-person Big Phat Band put a contemporary spin with humor on big-band music, shining in particular on the bandleader’s Grammy-winning arrangement of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.
The Lao Tizer Band—Tizer on keyboards, Eric Marienthal on reeds, Munyungo Jackson on percussion, Cheikh Ndoye on bass, Gene Coye on drums, and Tita Hutchison on vocals—were a high-wire mix of fusion and funk, with touches of world music, getting the audience charged up at the beginning of the Sunday program.
Trumpeter Chief Adjuah (formerly Christian Scott) showed reverence for his grandfather (legendary Big Chief Donald Harrison, Sr.) and uncle (noted saxman and Big Chief Donald Harrison, Jr.) through a tribute to New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Indians. Using custom-made instruments, the bandleader explored the African diaspora with a contemporary edge, featuring Elena Pinderhughes on flute and vocals.
Nigerian Femi Kuti & the Positive Force also honored an elder, the bandleader’s legendary father, Afrobeat saxophonist/singer/activist Fela Kuti. His eight-person band, including son Made (pronounced “Mah-day,” also on reeds) plus three backup singer/dancers in native dress, lived up to its name. The younger Kuti showcased his talents with a circular-breathing solo to impress the audience (his father holds the world record for playing a wind instrument without taking a breath: 51 minutes 38 seconds). Powerhouse drummer Terri Lyne Carrington + Social Science brought political issues—racial rights injustice, LBGTQ, and income inequality—to the forefront. Their blistering jams and aggressive rapping could not be ignored, thanks to irresistible rhythms and riffs.
Show closer Tower of Power is currently celebrating 54 years as a band. Three original members, tenor saxophonist Emilio “Mimi” Castillo, baritone saxophonist Stephen “Doc” Kupka, and drummer David Garibaldi, are still going strong. All of the band members injected Oakland, CA rhythms and attitude into the Hollywood Bowl. Mike Jerel, the band’s lead vocalist who also plays keyboards and trumpet, kept the energy up through signature party songs such as the timely “Soul Vaccination,” “Don’t Change Horses,” and “You Ought to Be Havin’ Fun.” Ballads “So Very Hard to Go” and “You’re Still a Young Man” provided balance, and moments for slow dancing.
The last word goes to MC Hall, who proclaimed during the festival, “This is the best integrated picnic on the planet.”