|The review included below was originally written for the Los Angeles Jazz Scene back in 1985 but was never published.
It is an interesting time capsule that covers one of the very best Playboy Jazz Festivals. Some of the comments are a bit
dated (Monterey has greatly improved in the years since then), but I think it has its interesting moments and the
atmosphere at the Playboy Festival has not changed in the years since. It includes a review of a performance I still
consider the most exciting I've ever seen; a set by the vocal quartet Sing Sing Sing. Of course I was only three years old
at the time of this festival. Or, as I sometimes tell people when they ask my age, I'm just 23 but I've had an awful hard life!
THE 1985 PLAYBOY JAZZ FESTIVAL
No jazz concert in Los Angeles compares to the Playboy Jazz Festival. Founded in 1979, this 2-day 17-hour weekend marathon at the
Hollywood Bowl is remarkable not only for its quantity of music (18 groups this year) but for the many diverse styles of jazz represented.
Unlike New York's Kool Festival, where one has to spend many hours commuting from place to place, or the five-concert three-day
Monterey tradition which specializes in bop and the blues, the Playboy Jazz Festival offers a tremendous variety of styles and sounds in
one place. A party atmosphere pervades the Bowl during this special weekend. Fellow ticket holders become neighbors and friends, food
and drink (and artificial substances) are shared openly, and the music at times seems relegated to being a special attraction or a
distraction. The constant din from the audience poses a challenge to the musicians, who must first get the attention of the crowd before
working on obtaining their approval. The advantage is naturally with larger groups but even a solo pianist, if he shows creativity and a
certain amount of showmanship, can emerge as a hit.
It is advisable for ticket holders to bring their own supplies since the concessions (the unfortunate new Coke, bits of junk food, T-shirts,
etc.) are vastly overpriced. The $5 program has a schedule and a few interesting if irrelevant jazz articles but it lacks the most important
information it could supply: a complete listing of personnel.
Happily Steve Allen was the emcee this year. His often-hilarious commentary on the proceedings kept the show moving (along with
Playboy's revolving stage) and was in striking contrast to Bill Cosby in previous years. Cosby, whose idea of ad-libbing is to announce
"and now Weather Report," would disappear for hours and repeat the same joke eight times over a weekend; no exaggeration. Steve
Allen, on the other hand, was prepared. "I could tell this is a jazz audience, you're so much better behaved than a rock crowd. Not that all
rock is bad. In fact, there are some members of a famous rock group here today. Take a bow, Scum of the Earth!" He then pointed at
some innocent bystanders and had them acknowledge the applause. Later when the crowd was getting rowdier, he said, "I was wrong, this
is a rock audience. I can tell by the smell of the smoke. There's a fellow smoking a Camel in the 4th row. Not a cigarette; a real Camel
that he roasted in the pit." After Miles Davis finished a set in which he mostly faced his drummer, Allen commented, "That last song was
from the new Miles Davis album, Pardon My Back."
Here's what you probably missed, in chronological order:
The Saturday concert (June 15) started a few minutes before 2:30 with Ann Patterson's Maiden Voyage Orchestra playing a modernized
version of "In The Mood." Then out came the vocal trio "Full Swing" (Lorraine Feather, Bruce Scott and Charlotte Crossley), an excellent
unit in the vein of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross although not yet of that stature. They sounded fine on songs like "The Right Idea," "Bijou"
and a Basie tribute but there was little for the orchestra to do. Worse yet, Full Swing brought along their own electric rhythm section
which proceeded to play every possible cliche since they did not understand this idiom of music. At one point on "Creole Love Call,"
Bubber Miley's famous 1927 trumpet solo was played on a synthesizer. Why not use one of the trumpeters instead?
After the vocalists left, the all-female big band Maiden Voyage got to cut loose. A Hank Levy arrangement of "There'll Never Be Another
You," Stacy Rowles' trumpet feature on "Blue" (for Blue Mitchell) and an uptempo blues original were quite good. In addition to Rowles,
the standout soloists were altoist Ann Patterson and Betty O'Hara on trumpet, valve trombone and double-belled euphonium.
Next up was the fascinating Dirty Dozen Brass Band. While the two drummers (snare and bass drum) swung parade rhythms, Joseph
Kirk's amazingly fluid tuba playing performed electric bass lines and the five horns combined equal mixtures of r&b, funk and bop. A
snappy staccato "Sidewinder" and a lowdown version of "Blue Monk" were unique. The group closed their set by marching offstage,
playing in the aisles for some dancers and continuing to jam into the parking lot. That's the true spirit of jazz.
Makoto Ozone emerged to play some romantic solo piano on "A Crystal Love" and to pay tribute to Chick Corea on "Coreaology." After
Michel Petruccianni explored "Someday My Prince Will Come," the two young piano masters joined forces for several selections, and
they blended together perfectly.
The obvious low point of the day was the lightweight pop/funk of Lee Ritenour, who does not belong at a jazz festival. Of more
significance to the audience was a sudden flood of beach balls (numbering 101) contributed by a mischievous ticket holder. The beach
balls, especially one huge one, created havoc and joy for hours; some lasted through the following day's concert. At one point you could
look in any direction at the crowd and see people trying desperately to eat while being bombarded by two dozen beach balls. It was a
rather unique and hilarious scene. It did succeed in making Ritenour's dull music more tolerable. Steve Allen followed "Captain Fingers"
by announcing that the first real rock musicians were the boogie-woogie pianists of the 1920s, and he demonstrated by playing some fine
boogie-woogie piano with a trio.
Beach balls weren't necessary to help the J.J. Johnson All-Stars. Each of the six musicians had their features. The immortal trombonist
J.J. played a delightful duet with bassist Richard Davis on "Bud's Blues." Nat Adderley cooked on "Misterioso," Harold Land was
explorative on "Invitation" and the Cedar Walton Trio (with very supportive drumming from Roy McCurdy) was brilliant on "Without A
Song." Luckily this was a fairly long set and the music was inspiring; some in the audience were even caught listening. Nancy Wilson
eventually joined the group, alternating some good jazz ("A Sleeping Bee") with some more mundane soul ballads.
J.J. Johnson's former employer Miles Davis emerged next, wearing the same black outfit and evil-looking black hat which he had used to
pose for his album You're Under Arrest (but sans machine gun). Many of his older fans have given up on Miles since he began using
electronics; they have missed quite a bit. As his excellent rhythm section hit various grooves, Miles Davis wandered around the stage, his
trumpet easily audible due to a cordless mike. He was in remarkable form, hitting high notes with ease, making every sound and
punctuation count. Whenever a groove reached a climax, Miles would play a few odd notes and suddenly the rhythm changed. Bob Berg
on tenor and soprano and guitarist John Scofield had a few excellent solos but Miles Davis was the main force. The music was much
closer to jazz than rock and, when Miles played a pure blues, it was like leaping back 30 years.
The next group figured to be anticlimatic but Joe Williams managed to win the audience over. He dedicated an odd rendition of "All
Blues" to Miles, singing the lyrics to "Everyday I Have The Blues" over the 6/4 rhythm. The risque "In The Evening" got a great deal of
applause as did a duet of "Alright OK You Win" with Nancy Wilson. Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson's alto and Red Holloway's tenor helped to
keep the place jumping. The final band of the day, Pieces Of A Dream, played some nice soul jazz, a bit reminiscent of the Ramsey Lewis
Trio of the 1960s. For many, it was perfect background music as they left the Bowl to rest up for part two.
Sunday's concert began at 2 p.m. with a pair of contest winners. The Timothy Horner Quintet, winner of the Hennessey Jazz Search over
400 other contestants, was superb. The music leaned towards the avant-garde and was quite driving. Horner's tenor was strong as was
pianist Ed Howard but it was the four-mallet vibes work of the young Joe Locke that stole the show. This group should be recorded;
there's lots of potential here.
Also quite worthy was the Fullerton College Jazz Band, winner of the J.P. Jazz Festival. A colorful and melodically distorting Lex Hooper
arrangement of "Sweet Georgia Brown," the superior tenor battle (Edmond Velasco and Doug Graydon) on another modernized version
of "In The Mood," and a guest appearance by the recently ill Ashley Alexander on his slide/valve superbone were the highpoints, as were
the solo work of altoist Sarah Underwood and Steve Page on baritone.
Chico Freeman followed with a solid set. His quartet included bassist Cecil McBee, drummer Freddie Waits and a fine pianist whose name
I missed. After playing originals such as "Each One, Teach One" and "Hisstory,' Freeman woke up the crowd with an emotional blues a la
Gene Ammons. When the revolving stage turned to make way for Horace Silver, Chico continued playing the blues, displaying true
showmanship as the crowd waved farewell. Silver's quintet, featuring trumpeter Brian Lynch and Ralph Moore's tenor, sounded a lot like
his 1960's group, swinging and funky. "Gregory Is Here" had a great trumpet solo, "Nutville" and "Senor Blues" were near-classic and
Horace Silver was in a happy mood. Unfortunately his set was cut short (the concert was behind schedule) so Silver's logical closer "Song
For My Father" (it was Father's Day) was not performed.
After four straight hits, it was time for a couple of misses. Stevie Ray Vaughan's Double Trouble rhythm section was strong and driving
but his own screaming wa-wa rock/blues guitar was monotonous after a chorus. He stuck to the blues but his unintelligible lyrics and lack
of dynamics were quite dull. And why was Ronnie Laws at this festival? His pleasant and unimaginative saxophone shared the spotlight
with his vocals and that of his sister Debra Laws. The music was soul rather than jazz and quite out-of-place. I'd rather have heard David
Sanborn or, better yet, the World Saxophone Quartet.
But then came the highpoint of the festival, the vocal quartet Sing Sing Sing. Imagine a group with the frontline consisting of the genius of
vocalese Jon Hendricks, the incredible Bobby McFerrin, Manhattan Transfer's Janis Siegel (what a range!) and Dianne Reeves, backed by
an excellent rhythm section. Every moment the singers shared on stage was magical. On "Jumpin' At The Woodside," they took solos
and traded two-bar phrases. Each singer began their individual features by singing a blues chorus and then a full song. Siegel's ballad
ended on a beautiful low note. McFerrin (unaccompanied) imitated an entire band, alternating 12 different sounds on an amazing "Night
In Tunisia." He also inspired and broke up Hendricks in their duet and shared the spotlight with Siegel on a tender "Easy Living," singing
the bass lines. Dianne Reeves performed a multi-tempoed "Love For Sale" (someone in the audience yelled out "How much?). The
Transfer's Tim Hauser joined Siegel and Hendricks for a recreation of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross' on "Come On Home." Siegel and
Reeves took turns belting out Helen Humes' hilarious "MiIlion Dollar Secret." And to finish off the set, the four singers jammed "It Don't
Mean A Thing," scatting furiously on a very long and exciting four-bar vamp. It was amazing music, rewarded by at least three standing
Following Sing Sing Sing was Spyro Gyra. In ways, Spyro Gyra is a fusion group for people who don't much like fusion for, although it has
catchy melodies and danceable rhythms, Spyro Gyra also features very strong jazz solos from Jay Beckenstein on saxophones and Dave
Samuels on vibes and marimba. Most of the playing throughout the fun set was quite virtuosic and jazz-oriented. Spyro Gyra is a rarity, a
group that is both very popular and quite good. Steve Allen played some solo piano while Spyro Gyra's equipment was taken down,
sounding a bit like Erroll Garner on "The Way You Look Tonight," a brief "Liza" and some boogie-woogie.
Sarah Vaughan tried her best to calm down the crowd, who was still recovering from Spyro Gyra. She sang an unaccompanied chorus of
"Summertime," excelled on the wordless "Chelsea Bridge" (utilizing her entire range) and cooked on "Just Friends." As usual she
performed "Send In The Clowns" as a religious dirge. Although Sarah Vaughan received enough applause to merit an encore, she decided
to skip it when she could not quiet down the audience.
The final set of the 1985 Playboy Jazz Festival featured the Buddy Rich Orchestra which Steve Allen introduced as "Ina Ray Hutton and
the Melodears." Rich was in superb form, playing drums like he was still 20 (which he was back in 1937). "Bugle Call Rag," "God Bless
The Child" and "Love For Sale" were strong but the concluding "Channel One Suite," featuring Steve Marcus' tenor, was the show
stopper. Rich soloed furiously and creatively for nearly ten minutes on that number, a perfect way to end the best Playboy Jazz Festival
Sure, the festival would have benefited from some more avant-garde jazz and I would have loved to have heard a couple of New Orleans
jazz bands. But overall, it was a great way to spend 17 hours.