Playboy and music – most frequently jazz – have been “going steady” together almost since the magazine and the company were founded in 1953.
Playboy’s involvement with music goes well beyond the famous clubs. In 1959, Hugh Hefner and his colleague Victor Lownes produced what critic Leonard Feather deemed the greatest weekend of jazz in the history of the music, the first ever Playboy Jazz Festival, a massive three-night event involved virtually every major player then involved in the music, from Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald to Sonny Rollins and Dave Brubeck, as well as not less than the three greatest big bands of the era, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Stan Kenton. Twenty years later, as the clubs were entering their final phase, Hefner returned to the jazz festival idea, this time partnering with George Wein, the man who perfected the concept to begin with. Since 1979, the Playboy Jazz Festival has been an annual event at the Hollywood Bowl that never fails to pack the 18,000-seat venue to its utmost capacity, and involves every headliner of the jazz world, touching on much other music as well.
One of the greatest benefits that Hugh Hefner gave the world of music was his rather astonishing TV series of 1959-1961, Playboy’s Penthouse. Easily one of the most important presentations of music – any kind of music – on television, this show featured the greats of many genres, from pop stars to jazz and cabaret singers to major pianists and other instrumentalists. It presented them straightforwardly, playing as they did in clubs, in a relaxed and intimate party setting. The shows, which still survive (several have been issued commercially on DVD) feature priceless footage of such musical icons as Mabel Mercer, Bobby Short, Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Williams, Earl Hines, the young Tony Bennett, and the greatest jazz vocal group ever, Lambert, Hendricks, & Ross. Ironically, it was Hugh Hefner’s own forward thinking that put the kibosh on the program: he insisted on treating African-American stars like Nat King Cole and Sammy Davis Jr as equals, having them interact with white party guests as well as the host himself. This was more than Southern TV stations were willing to put on the air, and as a result, Playboy’s Penthouse did not get the full national support that it needed to stay on the air. The show returned under a slightly different title, Playboy After Dark, from 1968 to 1970, this time with the addition of full color as well as superstar rock & roll bands.
This is only the beginning of the story of Playboy’s involvement with jazz and other kinds of music, which goes back well before the creation of the magazine – “Hep Hef” as he called himself as a teenager, was always a rabid jazz buff. He covered jazz in Playboy magazine from the beginning, and for 16 years, Playboy ran the most high-profile jazz poll in the world. In addition, the Playboy Interview series, which began in 1962, has included no shortage of prominent musical figures over the years, starting with Miles Davis and also famously including Frank Sinatra, Quincy Jones, The Beatles, as well as John Lennon and Paul McCartney individually.
So stay tuned…
You can read more stories in my books Playboy Swings and The Persian Room Presents