Top 50 JAzz Blog

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Playboy Swings

I just read an advanced copy of Playboy Swings by Patty Farmer. There's a quality of flackdom about the book-lots of exclamation marks and boosting going on here by Ms. Farmer, but while it reads almost like an in-house publication, there is enough solid information in the book to make a person seriously evaluate the relationship between the Playboy empire and jazz between 1955-1975.

Hefner was a jazz fan, as were the other hipster-swinger-ad-men who shaped Playboy. This meant that they would use jazz-and not rock and roll or pop music-as sound track for the lifestyle mythology they were creating first in the magazine and later, on television, in the clubs and resorts. The first interviewer for the magazine was Alex Haley and his first subject was Miles Davis. The Playboy Jazz Poll started in 1957 and their first Jazz Festival was in 1959. They would soon team up with George Wein for future festivals. For many years, these festivals and venues provided nice gigs for the upper echelon of jazz musicians.
The book places a lot of emphasis on the matrix of clubs as a training ground for future stars, which it was-singers and comedians, primarily. What was interesting to me, though, was that the clubs and resorts were a tremendous source of employment for thousands of non-star musicians and comics who did not become household names, but were able to earn a good living; first doing the Playboy circuit, then playing larger rooms as a result of their experience on that circuit. Many of these guys (yes, the musicians and comedians were almost all guys) were playing in strip clubs and other assorted dives when they got the call from Playboy. That's where they would probably have remained had they not been hired for the clubs, where they enjoyed a significant upgrade in quality of venue and in pay. At its height, Playboy was the largest employer of talent in the country.

Hefner seemed to have a passion for details and the ability to surround himself with competent people, and his clubs, festivals, etc, were run with precision. Artists, at least those interviewed for this book, said that Playboy events ran smoothly and that they were well treated. 

Hefner's commitment to civil rights came as something of a surprise to me. He made sure his events and clubs were always integrated. When he made the mistake of treating some clubs in the South as franchises, thereby ceding control, some local owners began instituting segregated policies. Hefner bought back the franchises, taking steep financial losses in the process. He and Norman Grantz deserve much credit for making sure that black musicians were treated as first class citizens.
Hef with The Elf

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