By Don Heckman
The ramping up to the 35th annual Playboy Jazz Festival in mid-June got under way with a high spirited kick-off Sunday afternoon at the Beverly Hills Civic Center. The event, the first of two Playboy free community concerts, featured performances by Antonio Fargas and the New Jump Blues Band and the Beverly Hills High School Jazz Band.
The far-reaching range of music was characteristic of the sort of diversity we have come to expect from Playboy jazz programs.
Fargas, who may be best known from his long run as the character “Huggy Bear” in the ‘70s television series Starsky and Hutch, is also an engagingly dynamic music performer, the sparkplug energizing each of the set’s tunes.
Fargas and the New Jump Blues Band, with three electrifying singer/dancers — Adrian Battle, Airreal Watkins and Malakhi Eason — three horns and a four piece rhythm section, are reviving the urban blues styles of such ‘40s artists as Louis Jordan, T-Bone Walker, Jack McVea, Earl Bostic and others. Rooted in the Swing bands of the thirties, enlivened by the blues, it evolved into one of the great pop music styles.
And in the voices, feet and hands of the New Jump Blues Band, it came vividly to life. Their opening number immediately showcased the essence of their art with fast-stepping choreography and rapid-fire vocals. The songs were classics from the jump blues era: “All She Wants To Do Is Mambo,” “Cow Cow Boogie,” “One Mint Julip,” “Rum and Coca-Cola,” “Good Rockin’ Daddy,” “Sugar Bum Bum” and more.
Each piece was presented as a choreographed musical story, sometimes – as on “Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean” — with back and forth dialogue interspersed with a song. And at other times – as on the lyrical “Since I Fell For You” — with dance moves illuminating a song’s inner story.
By the time the New Jump Blues Band polished off their set, one couldn’t help but wonder why they haven’t been booked for the Playboy Jazz Festival itself. Their irresistible rhythmic charge and all-encompassing musical excitement seemed precisely tuned to the conga-line, dance-in-the-aisles excitement that always seems to surface at the Festival around the six o’clock hour.
But if it’s too late in the scheduling process for the New Jump Blues Band to be included on the 2013 program, they should be added to the list now for next year’s Festival.
The opening set by the young players of the Beverly Hills High School Jazz Band, led by Bob Bradbury, was delivered with enthusiasm and a real love of jazz. At its best, it offered convincing evidence of the value flowing from Playboy’s continuing presentation of high school bands at every Festival program.
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Photos by Faith Frenz.