*Hugh Hefner has had his hands in many things over the years; television shows, cable specials, publishing and even did his part during the civil rights movement. But he has gone on record to say that the Playboy Jazz Festival is his baby. It’s been 33 years of some of the most talented individuals one can think of wowing audiences at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, California (this Sat./Sun., June 11 & 12). Most EURweb.com staffers have gone at one time or another. Recently Lee Bailey had the opportunity to speak with some of this year’s headliners about what the festival means to them, and what audiences can expect.
Saxman Pee Wee Ellis
First up is Pee Wee Ellis with his “Still Black, Still Proud: A Tribute to James Brown.” We can see the look on your face through the monitor, “Pee Wee who?” Well, if you don’t know, then you don’t know. Ellis can break it down in his own words.
“James Brown and I wrote a song called ‘Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.’ Do you remember that?” joked Ellis. (So now you know.)
Mr. Ellis continued to break it down:
“The African tribute is based on the fact that I work with a lot of African artists and we felt like we wanted to put some of that funk into play because James Brown was very, very influential over in Africa,” said Ellis. “A lot of artist grew up on James Brown and were very influenced by him. Artists worldwide, but specifically African artists. They always talk about how influential James Brown was to them.”
James Brown being an influence on African artists should come as no surprise to purveyors of Afro-Funk, Afrobeat and Afro-jazz, but here’s something I bet you didn’t know. Funk has it’s origins in Africa! There you go with that face again! Not only in regards to its musical lineage, but actual funk. But when it comes to modern day funk, who influenced who the most? Africans or African Americans?
“That’s a hard question because if you listen to some of the African music before funk came to be – it was very similar,” Ellis explained. “I think it influenced us all. James Brown put his spin on it, I put my spin on it and we kind of tidied it up a bit. It was just an evolutionary thing.”
Apparently the currency of music flowed both ways across the Atlantic. Just as James Brown was influenced by earlier forms of what could be called funk music, Brown influenced an African genius who in turn put his own spin on it. His name was Fela Kuti. The horns, the drums, the bassline? Pure funk, pure James Brown.
“It was definitely James Brown influenced,” said Ellis of Kuti’s work. “If you go back to 1964, what James Brown was doing then, Fela Kuti did later. I’m not a historian, I don’t know much about when Fela let loose on that. But I thought Fela was definitely influenced by James Brown.”
Ellis now calls Great Britain his home. His band consists of Fred Wesley, Vusi Mahlasela and Meklit Hadero, all of whom hail from the other side of the pond. Ellis tells EURweb.com that African musicians revel in the opportunity to put their spin on American originals.
Pee Wee Ellis and James Brown
“Some of the things that I came up with when I was recording with some of the African artists I was just amazed at the spin they put on it. It was like multi rhythms and a continuation of pure funk. Just amazing,” said Ellis of the concoctions that he has been privy to hearing. Ellis says he has also had the chance to perform in Africa on several occasions. Their movements to the music, though just as soulful as their American cousins, are taken to the next level. So much so that he is sometimes thrown for a loop, especially by the women.
“You can hardly help it, but it’s inspiring. They do it for real. It ain’t no faking the funk with them.”
So, you might ask, who exactly is this man who dares speak on the works of the Godfather of Soul? How did he contribute? We’re glad you asked. Back in the day he was JB’s main collaborator on a bunch of hits.
“We wrote about 26 of them if I remember. ‘Cold Sweat’, ‘Licking Stick’, ‘Buttered Popcorn’,” he told EURweb.com. “It was a machine. A well oiled machine. He would come to me with a basic idea and I would take it on the bus and write the song. I wrote the music, he wrote the words.”
“He wasn’t what you call a musician,” he continued. “He was a phenomenon. He had more funk in his little finger than you have in your whole body.”
“He would come in after I had got something started and would tweak things here and there. He would add stuff. He had a ear for what was funky. He had a feeling for things. He made me unlearn stuff I had learned and relearn it the way he wanted me to learn it. From a musical standpoint I would say you can’t put a minor third on a major cord, and he would say ‘why not? Why the hell not? It sounds good.’ I had no idea 40 years later this music would still stand out.”
No only does that music still sound good, it’s better than ever. Ellis and the band are slated to hit the stage on Sunday, June 12th.
The second interviewee of the day in the interview merry-go-round was with jazz singer Dianne Reeves. She is quite possibly the best jazz singer in the modern era. Though accolades can’t measure talent, she does have 4 Grammys and, for the most part, they don’t just give those to any ol’ body.
This year marks her 8th appearance at the Playboy Jazz Festival, but who’s counting?
“I’ve done the Playboy Jazz Festival many times and I love it,” said Reeves. “It’s a big celebration. I tell people that I love coming out in front, but I come early so I can hang out in the back. It’s a lot of friends there and I enjoy hanging out with them. The first time that I was there I performed with Tito Puente.”
“My band knows all my music so I have the freedom to where I know what I’m going to do to open with but I don’t know how I’m going to end.”
Though there are obviously some big time jazz festivals in the United States, their numbers have dwindled over the years.
“There are a few,” said Reeves. “One of the things that I love is it’s very reminiscent of a West Coast Newport Jazz Festival. All of that I love. There are actually a few really, really good jazz festivals happening in the United States.”
Though talented and critically acclaimed, there are those that wonder what appeal, if any, do other genres have for her.
“Jazz is my foundation, but I just love music. When I grew up, that’s when they started putting people into compartments, but most artists I grew up with could do everything. They would listen to and talk about one another. You would hear Smokey Robinson talking about Sarah Vaughn and vice versa. I don’t look at music in terms of this genre, or that genre. I just sing. I love jazz music because jazz has the ability to allow you to be free. It’s different from night to night and I love that.”
Often times we hear of jazz being a freestyle music genre, if you will. It allows certain freedoms that other singing styles lack. We asked Ms. Reeves to elaborate.
“Being able to speak from the heart,” she explained. “Being able to say things and have people feel you. You’re speaking from the heart and have it come out through the mouth. It’s not something you’re going to say every night because it’s not something you feel every night. That’s the freedom of it that I like. During the course of the day different things can affect you. You can be inspired by certain things.”
Legacies are peculiar things that are often reflected upon when one no longer cares about it, or is dead. Reeves is still putting in major work over at Blue Note/EMI and says she’s taking lessons learned from the jazz greats of the past and applying them everyday.
“I’m still working on it. One of the things that I learned from the great singers is they created their own universe. They defined their own voices and that’s what I continue to do. One day somebody can study and discover how I got to my truth.”
If you want to hear a little bit of what her “truth” is all about then you need to be at the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl this weekend.
Hip-Hop fans, real Hip-Hop fans, are aware of the Roots’ overwhelming talent and genre spanning sensibilities. We had the chance to speak with ?uestlove recently and, while the purpose was to get the word out about the jazz festival, we couldn’t get ?uestlove, aka Ahmir Thompson, to stop gushing about, whodathunkit, Lee Bailey?! Well get the heck out of here! And how long has he been a fan?
“I’m talking about way back when people were complaining about Larry Blackmon from Cameo having white women in his videos. And when you did a story on Prince being in Amsterdam for the Sign of the Times Tour, I recorded it. I think I have six 90 minute cassettes of nothing but RadioScope. It used to come on WDAS around 10:50 pm and I would record it religiously, including the weekend wrap up on Sunday. I’ve gotta say, I’ve talked to many journalists, but this is probably my favorite moment right now.”
If you ever wanted to hear a grown man studder and mumble then you should have heard our normally quick-witted publisher/producer struggle to maintain his composure. But finally it was down to business. The first thing we wanted to know is why the Playboy Jazz Festival? The Roots style encompasses elements of jazz, as well as soul, R&B and Hip-Hop, of course. But this might come out of left field for some concertgoers.
“There’s no situation in life that I love more than being underestimated,” said Thompson. “I know that we will rise to the occasion. That’s been the story with the Roots. I feel like we’re ubiquitous and still unknown at the same time. It’s based on the fact that, in order to survive, we might have done gigs in places you might not expect us to. I think it’s now to the point where we’ve made such a mark in the rock arena and the jazz arena, primarily doing hip-hop and our brand of soul in these (musically) foreign arenas, I’m almost more used to being in environments in which it might be a little head scratching as opposed to us being in environments that you might expect us to.”
“If you were say there’s going to be Jill Scott, Erykah Badu and Maxwell then I’d be a little nervous. We’ve been working on Plan B for so long, opening for the Sound Gardens of the world. Our lives have been so divided between opening for Sound Garden and the Duke Ellington Orchestra and all stops in between. But to do something normal like that would almost feel foreign to us.”
Being the intelligent brother he is, ?uestlove is aware of the history of the Playboy Jazz Festival and hopes to add a little of his own this weekend as well.
“I’m a pop culture collector and I’ve seen where some of the greatest moments in Stevie Wonders career, in James Brown’s career, in Sly and the Family Stone’s career, were all at the Playboy Jazz Festival. All the performances they gave in the late 60s, early 70s. I think we have a good quality show. We’re 18 years deep in entertainment. We know how to entertain and I think that people will be somewhat open to our performance.”
The 33rd Annual Playboy Jazz Festival is slated to jump off on Saturday, June 11 and Sunday, June 12. Master of Ceremony Bill Cosby is certain to keep things interesting. Other acts slated to appear are Ambrose Akinmusire, Eddie Palmieri, Geri Allen, Lee Konitz, Naturally 7, Fourplay, SF Music Collective, Buddy Guy and many more. For additional information log on to www.playboyjazzfestival.com.