Bebop and Beyond
By Armand Lewis
Through the early and mid twentieth century, popular music may have become ubiquitous on radio and on 78rpm records, but there were few print publications that discussed music, the musicians who made it, or trends within genres of music itself. While Billboard magazine covered the music industry as a business the same way The Wall Street Journal covers the financial world, there were really no general interest publications that regularly included coverage of music written for the general public’s point of view.
Downbeat and Metronome magazines were read by the hip, devoted fans of both swing and modern jazz, but the general public, unaware of such specialty publications, would not be exposed to modern music in the general periodicals of the day. Time Magazine, Life Magazine and the rest may occasionally do stories on the biggest artist of the day (mostly classical composers and conductors), but popular music – including jazz – was rarely presented.
This would all change in the early 1950s, when a magazine editor named Hugh Hefner would start his own magazine aimed at not only the young educated, professional male, but also at what was to become an upscale lifestyle for the modern person.
Playboy Magazine’s reputation as a “skin magazine” belies its true nature and intent. From the very first issue, Hefners’ magazine espoused a world view of freedom, inclusion and a sophisticated good life that included political and social commentary, technology (from cars to stereo equipment), architecture and décor, the arts and music – especially jazz.
Hefner and his promotional director Victor Lownes were both jazz fans and viewed jazz and home audio equipment as integral parts of the good life. It was not long before the success of Playboy Magazine would lead them to promote jazz in both the magazine as well as the outside world.
The story of how Playboy utilized jazz in it’s growing entertainment empire from the 1950s “Mad Man” era forward to today is chronicled in Patty Farmers’ new book “Playboy Swings – How Hugh Hefner and Playboy Changed the Face of Music” (Beaufort Books ISBN: 9780825307881).
With each chapter tied to a specific Playboy presentation, (TV shows, nightclub or festival), the book compiles oral histories from many of the artists and employees who worked for the company’s entertainment venues. Many of the singers, from Marlena Shaw to Lainie Kazan, and even more of the stand-up comics, including Dick Gregory and Shecky Green, are interviewed extensively, weaving a tapestry of what it was like to work at Playboy’s nightclub circuit – probably the last nightclub circuit in the country before the rise of specifically themed clubs for comedy, jazz, etc… ended the nightclub era for good.
Sadly, with so many of the jazz greats who played both the clubs and early festivals no longer with us, the book is somewhat light on interviews with the musicians themselves. There are sections with saxophonist Al Belletto, who led the house band in the New Orleans Playboy club; also discussions with pianists Monty Alexander, who got his start at the Los Angeles club, which led to his first recordings for the Pacific Jazz label.
Armand Lewis buys and sells rare Jazz LPs worldwide. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org