'Playboy Swings' reflects Hefner empire's involvement with jazz
By Jon M. Gilbertson, Special to the Journal Sentinel
Despite its subtitle, "Playboy Swings" is not exclusively or even principally about what Hugh Hefner and Playboy — the magazine Hefner founded, the company he headed and the brand he grew to represent — did for music, and mainly for jazz music.
Instead, it is a book that, not unlike the magazine in its ring-a-ding heyday, slips jazz into the overall story of the Playboy lifestyle. Sometimes, the bebop is integral to the story and to the lifestyle; other times, it is a background murmur or less.
Those other times, "Playboy Swings" delves into subjects that could and probably should have made separate volumes, from ventures into television such as "Playboy's Penthouse" to the working-stiff dues a woman paid in order to project ornamental glamour while serving drinks and food as a Playboy Bunny at a Playboy Club.
A former model, Patty Farmer understands the effort that goes into looking "effortlessly" pretty and poised, so she tells many a Bunny's story with sympathy.
An author of 2013's "The Persian Room Presents," an oral history of a fabled New York City nightspot that ran from 1934 to 1975, Farmer has the experience to be an excitable, knowledgeable guide through the Playboy Club circuit, which swung the best during the 1960s.
However, because "Playboy Swings" often swings away from those subjects as well as from music, Farmer is obviously as easily distracted as a first-time visitor to the Playboy Mansion, although the early sections of the book show that she doesn't lack the ability to focus.
The second chapter jumps past the unpromising title of "All That Jazz" to expound upon the point that "in 1957"—four years after the first issue of "Playboy"— the magazine "was one of the primary proponents of jazz."
The same chapter notes that the first official "Playboy Interview," conducted by Alex Haley and published in September 1962, was with Miles Davis, the uber-legendary trumpeter; and that the magazine's annual jazz poll, introduced in the aforementioned 1957, and its "Jazz Hall of Fame," introduced in 1966, shored up jazz's increasing mainstream respectability.
The third chapter, "'The Greatest Three Days in the History of Jazz,'" shores up the book's own connection between Playboy and jazz via a solid recounting of the Playboy Jazz Festival, a three-day, sold-out event at Chicago Stadium in the summer of 1959.
With myriad significant details — a lineup including Miles, Dave Brubeck, Louis Armstrong and Sonny Rollins, the last of whom provides Farmer with warm, intelligent recollections — and technical facets — the bisected "turnabout" stage that cut waiting time between acts —the 1959 PJF chapter is a high point for the book, jazz and the Playboy name.
The high point of profitability or infamy came later: as Farmer records, by 1966 there were 14 Playboy Clubs across the United States, and in 1968 the Lake Geneva Playboy Club Hotel would open in the small Wisconsin town of, natch, Lake Geneva.
But that resort, like successors in Great Gorge (N.J.) and Miami, would be a money sink for Playboy Enterprises, and the onstage talent throughout the resorts and clubs would vary from the young-and-hungry Woody Allen, Lily Tomlin and Barbra Streisand to the older-and-gasping Larry Storch, Shelley Berman and Vic Damone.
Not enough jazz there. Nor is there much in "Playboy Rebooted," a final chapter in which Farmer tries to view the newer London Playboy Club as a revitalization of classic style rather than as a nostalgia-angled gambling locale where croupiers wear the Bunny costume and the most expensive cocktail costs, at current exchange rates, nearly $8,500.
By the end of "Playboy Swings," the music is all but inaudible.