Playboy Swings: How Hugh Hefner and Playboy Changed the Face of Music, by Patty Farmer

Playboy impresario Hugh Hefner, an important advocate for jazz through his magazine, festival, nightclubs, TV show, compilations and books, died on Sept. 27 at his iconic home, the Playboy Mansion, at age 91. A terrific account of Hefner’s contributions to jazz culture can be found in Patty Farmer’s 2015 book, Playboy Swings, the JT review of which, by Jeff Tamarkin, we’re reposting here. Also check out the JT review of the most recent Playboy Jazz Festival.  

For Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner, music, specifically the jazz that he adored, was always part of a greater game plan. From the start “Hef” envisioned his venture defining a total lifestyle, of which the flagship magazine and its nothing-to-the-imagination centerfolds were never the whole story. Playboy, since its 1953 inception, published quality prose, and music journalism and jazz-focused readers’ polls were part of the mix. The very first issue — the one offering then-scandalous, now-epochal nude photos of Marilyn Monroe — included a feature article on the Dorsey brothers, and in subsequent issues writers and critics regularly weighed in on the pros and cons of current jazz, recommending with authority the LPs that every hip Playboy reader should spin at his next cocktail party.

The 320-page Playboy Swings, by Patty Farmer with contributions from jazz writer Will Friedwald and an introduction by Newport festival impresario George Wein, tells the story of the Playboy enterprise’s love affair with jazz, and explores the idea of the music as an integral component of a swanky branded lifestyle. Monty Alexander, the Jamaican-born pianist who found lucrative work at the New York Playboy Club, one of many Hefner would open up as his empire expanded, immediately understood what Hef and his associates were after: “The message was, if you’re a playboy, you’ve got to have a beautiful motor car, a convertible with the top down; you’ve got to smoke the best pipe; and you’ve got to have a good jazz album collection.”

Hugh Hefner at the 2011 Playboy Jazz Festival

It wasn’t long after Playboy magazine took off that jazz artists and their handlers caught on to the gift Hefner had handed them. (Tony Bennett was an early fan and became a close friend.) By 1959, Hefner was ready to test out the idea of a Playboy Jazz Festival, staging the initial event in Chicago, the company’s first home base. It would be another two decades — by which time the now-massive Playboy brand had long since expanded to television and other media — before he’d give it another shot, moving it to the Hollywood Bowl. This time it took, and the Playboy Jazz Festival has been held there annually ever since.

Farmer’s exhaustively researched and breezily voiced volume leaves no doubt that Hefner and the Playboy crew took their commitment to the music seriously. In addition to the annual festival, Hefner’s clubs, beginning in 1960, provided quality bookings for musicians, treating them with a level of respect they didn’t always find elsewhere, in venues that trumped the dives many were accustomed to.

None of this occurred in a vacuum, of course, and Farmer deftly weaves in the role of the Bunnies (and the de rigueur sexism to which they were exposed); the comedians, actors and other celebrities who populated the Playboy world; the utter surrealism of it all (imagine, if you will, Ravi Shankar playing a Playboy Club — it happened); and issues related to race. The author, whose previous book was The Persian Room Presents, details the opening of the New Orleans Playboy Club in 1961, where “Black Bunnies were out of the question, as were black entertainers, no matter how talented or well known. … The application process was designed to discourage black members, and those who showed up with a key were refused admission.” But elsewhere the company broke racial barriers. At the Chicago club, also in ’61, Hefner requested that comedian Dick Gregory perform as a replacement for Professor Irwin Corey. The evening led to a lengthy and successful stand, exceedingly rare for an African-American performer at a predominantly white nightclub.

One more note: It would be negligent not to at least mention Bill Cosby, who hosted the Playboy Jazz Festival from 1979 through 2012. There is no reportage in the book of recent allegations against Cosby — his accusers include a former Bunny — nor does this reviewer believe there should be. (Farmer has said that Cosby declined to be interviewed, and one former Playboy employee is quoted as saying the comedian “worked for the clubs out of loyalty to Hef,” forgoing his usual fee.) The book was likely completed prior to the recent media explosion, but either way, Cosby had left his emcee position before most of the allegations became public, and his history with the festival was an important factor in its success.