Playboy Jazz Fest Grooves With James, Kidjo, Botti

Singers Etta James and Angelique Kidjo, bassist Marcus Miller and trumpeter Chris Botti stood out as crowd-pleasers at the 29th annual Playboy Jazz Festival.

Singers Etta James and Angelique Kidjo, bassist Marcus Miller and trumpeter Chris Botti stood out as crowd-pleasers at the 29th annual Playboy Jazz Festival. Holding court once again at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, the two-day festival (June 16-17) rolled out a diverse musical slate that not only encompassed straight-ahead and contemporary jazz, but also blues, big band, salsa and world music.

Back as host was Bill Cosby, who also welcomed to the stage blues pioneer Buddy Guy, trumpeter Terence Blanchard, jazz vocalist Dianne Reeves and Latin jazz virtuoso Arturo Sandoval, among others.

Making a grand entrance on Saturday with his female entourage in tow, festival principal Hugh Hefner later talked backstage about the cultural impact of jazz. "Jazz is America's first true art form and came from the black experience," said Hefner, nattily attired in a white captain's hat and a black and white shirt depicting various photo images of early playmate Betty Page. "It's a celebration of life; a melting pot that brings together many kinds of cultures."

Hefner also told Billboard that once clearance obstacles are hurdled, one of his goals is to make the first Playboy Jazz Festival, held in 1959 in Chicago, available on DVD. That festival showcased almost all the major jazz stars of the era, including Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Stan Kenton, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong.

Among other backstage tidbits:

Along with West African songstress Kidjo, Cosby kid Malcolm-Jamal Warner (Theo) made his festival debut to an enthusiastic audience. Over rhythms and beats supplied by his jazz/funk band Miles Long, the bass-playing Warner delivered self-penned spoken word commentaries about hip-hop to sexual politics.

Warner, who has opened for Earl Klugh and the late Luther Vandross, just self-released a new album, "Love & Other Social Issues." The title also doubles as the name of his one-man theatrical production. Now playing in L.A. until early July, Warner hopes to bring the show to New York. "I've always been focused on how to make poetry listenable," he said. "We may not be in the hip-hop demo, but we still want to bop our heads and listen to lyrical substance that will get you thinking as well -- the way hip-hop started out."

The now-svelte Etta James belted out a captivating set intertwining her classics ("At Last") with those of others (Al Green's "Love & Happiness," Johnny Guitar Watson's "I Want To Ta-Ta You Baby"). Alternately sitting down, strutting across the stage and suggestively shaking her tush, the black cowboy boots-clad diva demonstrated why she remains R&B royalty.

The performance was even more impressive given that she was suffering from bronchitis. Resting backstage, the nearly 70-year-old humorously bemoaned the fact that her weight loss stomach surgery caused her to lose her "t*tties and booty." For added emphasis, she revealed a peek of "some rubber ones I'm wearing." But she notes her new figure has given her more ambition to do what "I've always loved since I was five years old: sing." She'll be doing more of that come July 20 when she joins B.B. King and Al Green on a blues tour.