Revisiting the 1964 Playboy panel “Jazz — Today and Tomorrow”

January 28th, 2015

playboy

The February, 1964 issue of Playboy magazine, in which the discussion “The Playboy Panel: Jazz — Today and Tomorrow” appears

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     For those of us who bought it “for the articles,” it was easy to see that few publications supported and promoted jazz music during the 50’s and 60s quite like Playboy magazine.  Among its many endeavors involving jazz, Playboy, Inc. produced festivals and concerts, featured artists on its late-night television programs, invited readers to vote for their favorite performers by instrument, and released record albums.  The music was a passion of founder Hugh Hefner,who found that its aesthetic fit in well with those of other “products” pitched to the sophisticated and elite male of the era.  Jazz conversations were often found within the pages — the first of the now famous Playboy interviews featured Miles Davis in a 1962 conversation with a young Alex Haley. 

     In February, 1964, Playboy published a remarkable conversation on jazz.  Hosted by journalist Nat Hentoff, “The Playboy Panel: Jazz — Today and Tomorrow” included the musicians Cannonball Adderley, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, Stan Kenton, Charles Mingus, Gerry Mulligan, George Russell, Gunther Schuller, as well as the journalist Ralph J. Gleason.  Hentoff initiated a discussion featuring a wide range of topics, including the difficulty of finding work in jazz, race relations, changing venues, jazz ambassadorship, and, interestingly, the future of jazz.

     The entire discussion is very lengthy, and is absolutely worth finding and reading in its entirety.  What follows is an interesting excerpt from the piece where the participants are asked to contribute their opinion concerning how audiences of the time were changing now that jazz — as the French critic Andre Hodeir claimed at the time — was becoming an “art” music.  What comes out of this question is speculation about where jazz was headed, how the audience will respond to its changes, and ultimately how to remain relevant. Because this is a topic of conversation that has been ongoing in the 51 years since this piece was published, it is an interesting read, particularly given the time, place, and participants…

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PLAYBOY (Hentoff): In some of your statements so far, the term “art music” has been used in connection with jazz. The French critic Andre Hodeir would agree that jazz is becoming more and more of an art music. He also says, however, that jazz was never really a popular music anyway – although jazz-influenced bands did draw large audiences in the 1930s. In any case, he claims that now, as jazz is inevitably evolving into an art music, its audiences are going to be small and select – similar, in a way, to the audiences for chamber music and poetry. Do you agree?

KENTON: Yes. Jazz, to start with, is not a popular music at all. It’s true that a lot of the bands in the Golden Era of band were kind of jazz oriented and did quite well playing dance music and swing, but real jazz has no greater following throughout the world today than has classical music. I think we might as well make up our minds that that’s the way it’s going to be.

GLEASON: I don’t agree that jazz audiences are going to become smaller and more select. If Count Basie’s band and Duke Ellington’s band weren’t jazz bands, and aren’t jazz bands, then I don’t know what are. Woody Herman’s also. And these bands at various times have had very large audiences. Benny Goodman’s biggest successes were scored with bands that were really jazz bands, not just jazz-influenced bands.

BRUBECK: That’s right. In the late 1930s and the beginning of the 1940s, I saw some tremendous jazz bands with some very large audiences in the interior of California, a place called Stockton, where I was going to college. It’s pretty much off the beaten path, so if you could draw large audiences there at that time, you could draw large audiences anyplace in the United States. Duke Ellington was there for a week and he had a full house every night. Jimmie Lunceford was there. Stan Kenton came through. Woody Herman. Count Basie. Now, I wouldn’t call those bands jazz influenced. They were influencing jazz. I think Hodeir is referring to some other bands that may have been more popular, but I hardly think they were that much more popular. The bands then were set up to be more entertaining than we are today – but they were also playing great music. I do agree with Hodeir that jazz is becoming much more of an art music. In other words, we aren’t putting on a show and good jazz at the same time. We’re each of us putting on our own individual brand of jazz, and it’s not meant to be entertaining in the sense that it’s a show. But it’s entertaining in the sense that it’s good music, sincere music that we hope reaches an audience. Maybe this absence of a “show” does put jazz into the art-music category, but I for one wouldn’t mind seeing jazz go back to the days of the 1930s when you had more entertaining bands, such as Ellington’s. And don’t forget that Ellington, while he was entertaining, was also able to create a Black, Brown and Beige.

SCHULLER: But jazz is not going to go back to the 1930s. And I maintain that, to the extent that jazz ever has been a really popular music, it has been the result of a certain commercialization of jazz elements. Even with the best of the jazz bands, like Fletcher Henderson’s, their style wasn’t popular. What became popular was a certain simplification of that style as it was used by Benny Goodman.

ADDERLEY: I don’t agree with Hodeir. I don’t think jazz ever will cease to be important to the layman, simply because the layman has always looked to jazz for some kind of escape from the crap in popular culture. Anybody who ever heard the original form of Stardust can hardly believe what has happened to it through the efforts primarily of jazz musicians. Listen to the music on television. Even guys who think in terms of Delius and Ravel and orchestrate for television shows draw from jazz. The jazz audience has always existed, and it always will.

RUSSELL: I think there’ll be a schism in the forms of jazz. There definitely will be an art jazz and a popular jazz. As a matter of fact, that situation exists today.

GILLESPIE: I’m optimistic. Yes, the audience will become select, but it won’t be small. Let me put it another way: The audience will become larger but it will be more selective in what it likes.

SCHULLER: I don’t see how. The people who are going to become involved with jazz, as it’s developing now, are going to become very much involved. You just can’t take it passively as you could, for instance, the dance music of the bands in the 1930s. You could be comparatively passive about them. But if you’re going to be involved with Ornette Coleman at all, you’ve got to be involved very deeply, or else it goes right past you.

We must expect a smaller audience from now on, and there’s nothing wrong in that. A sensitive audience is a good audience. Because of what’s happened to the music, we can no longer expect the kind of mass appeal that certain very simplified traditions of jazz were able to garner for a while.

MINGUS: None of you has dealt with another aspect of this. This talk of small, select audiences will just continue the brainwashing of jazz musicians. I think of Cecil Taylor, who is a great musician. He told me one time, “Charlie, I don’t want to make any money. I don’t expect to. I’m an artist.” Who told people that artists aren’t supposed to feed their families beans and greens? I mean, just because somebody didn’t make money hundreds of years ago because he was an artist doesn’t mean that a musician should not be able to make money today and still be an artist. Sure, when you sell yourself as a whore in your music you can make a lot of money. But there are some honest ears left out there. If musicians could get some economic power, they could make money and be artists at the same time.

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You may enjoy reading my conversation with Nat Hentoff…Civil Liberties and Jazz:  Past, Present, and Future

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One comments on “Revisiting the 1964 Playboy panel “Jazz — Today and Tomorrow””

  1. They had their own opinions: each of them. Today, the old Jazz is considered to be classical music. I love it, but I am in the minority. So what?

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