Kool & the Gang, Sheila E., Angelique Kidjo and More Heat Up 2019 Playboy Jazz Festival's Opening Day

Craig T. Mathew and Greg Grudt/Mathew Imaging.
Kool & the Gang perform at the 2019 Playboy Jazz Festival on June 8, 2019.

Terence Blanchard and Terrace Martin also reveal upcoming projects

Under a blazing Los Angeles sun, the Playboy Jazz Festival kicked off its 41st year in equally hot fashion at the Hollywood Bowl yesterday (June 8).

Helming the 3 p.m. opening slot with major aplomb beyond their teenage years was the Valencia Vikings High School Two N’ Four Vocal Jazz Ensemble, showing off their vocal artistry through such numbers as the jazz/pop standard “Sweet Georgia Brown.” Next up, the female collective Jazz in Pink demonstrated why its individual members have been tapped to collaborate with top creatives including Quincy Jones, Kirk Franklin and the Wu-Tang Clan. Member Karen Briggs turned out the proceedings with her fierce violin on a funked-up version of Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusherman.” And by way of vibrant interpretations of songs like “Always There,” “Boogie Nights” and Chaka Khan’s fitting anthem “I’m Every Woman,” Jazz in Pink had the packed Bowl up on its feet and dancing early into the day’s festivities.

One of the heavily anticipated performances was the celebration of life for late drummer extraordinaire Leon “Ndugu” Chancler, whose scope ranged from the unforgettable beat on Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” to playing with Miles Davis, Weather Report and Santana. Paying homage to Chancler’s play-anything versatility were Grammy Award-winning keyboardist Patrice Rushen, saxophonist Ernie Watts, bassist Alphonso Johnson, Grammy-winning drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, guitarist Doc Powell, bassist Byron Miller, percussionist Munyungo Jackson and drummer Rayford Griffin.

The all-star band delivered a rousing tribute to the man Rushen described as “a great teacher and drummer, whose illustrious career covered all kinds of artists and music.” Cases in point: the group ripped through a cover of the Dazz Band R&B hit “Let It Whip” (co-written by Chancler), a taste of Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and the George Duke classic “Reach for It” with special guest percussionist Sheila E. and vocalists Josie James and T.C. Carson.

Standing in a class by herself was the effervescent Angélique Kidjo. The Grammy-winning African singer/songwriter had Playboy attendees literally salsa-ing up and down the aisles as she performed songs from her latest album Celia -- a tribute to Celia Cruz, one of Kidjo’s lifelong music inspirations. A whirling spiral of color as she danced energetically across the stage, the gold-costumed Kidjo revisited her 2018 reinterpretation of the Talking Heads’ acclaimed 1980 album Remain in Light with a spirited take on “Once in a Lifetime” before closing her set with the Miriam Makeba sing-along classic “Pata Pata.”

Just before Kool & the Gang closed out the proceedings, Sheila E. returned to the Bowl stage for her own lively set. Sans her signature stilettos, the barefoot percussionist commanded the stage from start to finish, strutting onstage playing a white guitar as her band and backing vocalists Lynn Mabry and Rebecca Jade launched into her searing take on “National Anthem,” a track from her 2017 album Iconic: Message 4 America. In addition to other tracks from the album, including “One Nation/Mothership” and “America,” Sheila E. fired up a birthday salute to Prince, who would have turned 61 on June 7. Between an emotional turn on “Purple Rain” and an exhilarating rendition of “Baby I’m a Star” (that drew festival host George Lopez and actor Anthony Anderson onstage), the percussionist further revved up the audience with her own “A Love Bizarre” and “The Glamourous Life,” capping her fierce drum work by throwing her cymbal stand down to the stage floor.

Rounding out the first-day lineup: living history by way of hard-bop saxophonist/jazz legend Benny Golson, leading his eponymous 90th Birthday Quartet, and Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, celebrating more than 30 years of the genre-defying fusion of jazz, bluegrass, folk, blues, country and classical.

Three more of the day’s memorable performers also sat down with Billboard to chat about playing the festival and upcoming projects.

Terence Blanchard: The Grammy winner and recent Academy Award nominee (BlacKkKlansman score) held court onstage with his E-Collective, performing tracks from their latest Blue Note album Live, which addresses the issue of gun violence, and special guest, singer Quiana Lynell. “Playing the festival is a great event because a lot of people come to hear music and have a communal experience with all of the musicians,” said Blanchard. “We come here to also have that communion. While talking to a sound check guy, I saw Patrice Rushen and Terri Lyne who talked about the Chancler tribute. It’s like a family kind of thing. Those kinds of moments are the things I cherish from events like this.”

Blanchard’s second opera, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, premieres June 15 for a six-performance run at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in St. Louis. Co-commissioned by Jazz St. Louis, the opera is based on New York Times columnist Charles Blow’s 2014 memoir of the same name and features a libretto written by film director Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou). “It’s a blessing to be able do something of this magnitude and do it with great people,” noted Blanchard. “I’ve been trying to figure out how do we do this in jazz; how do we find funders who have the belief in the music to be able to say let me write you a check? The jazz world needs to have something like this. Why hasn’t Benny Golson written an opera?”

Blanchard has also finished the music for Lemmons’ latest film project, Harriet. Centered around the life of abolitionist Harriet Tubman, the film stars Cynthia Ervio, Leslie Odom Jr. and Janelle Monaé.

Terrace Martin: Among the songs that Martin and his tight-knit band played during their festival performance was “Simply Wholesome,” a recently written song paying homage to a longstanding restaurant of the same name on Slauson Blvd. in Los Angeles. It’s a fitting subject for the L.A. native, as is his penchant for paying it forward: his set featured guest turns by emerging R&B singers Erin Ray and Alex Isley, the daughter of celebrated multi-instrumentalist Ernie Isley.

“These two are the future,” said Martin, “but R&B music is their thing. R&B is full-fledged coming back: we’ve got Kehlani out there, H.E.R., Ella Mai. It’s growing and coming back full circle. Alex is also an excellent record producer and [Martin band member] Elena Pinderhughes is a singer, songwriter, flautist and record producer. These are powerful people.”

Talk about coming full circle: Martin first played the Playboy Jazz Festival when he was 17 as a member of the L.A. multi-school jazz band along with Kamasi Washington, Thundercat and others. He recently dropped the song “Carrot Juice,” a cut from a project that he’s currently working on with Salaam Remi. In fact, Martin is in the middle of a self-described “studio season” now, also collaborating on projects for Travis Scott and Herbie Hancock as well as his own album. “This is the first time in a few years,” acknowledges Martin with a laugh, “that I’m not in Europe because I’m always on the road.”

Kool & the Gang: To coin the title of the venerable group’s 1980 hit, it was truly a “Celebration” last night as the band is commemorating its 50th anniversary this year. That track was just one of the many enduring hits --“Jungle Boogie,” “Fresh,” “Get Down on It,” “Ladies Night” and “Hollywood Swinging” -- that the indefatigable act unleashed on a dance-happy, bunny-earred Bowl crowd.

One of the band’s most mesmerizing performances was the instrumental gem “Summer Madness,” which was famously covered by DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince. It called to mind the band’s earlier iteration as The Jazziacs. “We’ve always been jazz musicians at heart,” Robert “Kool” Bell told Billboard. “I wanted to be John Coltrane at heart. I knew I couldn’t be,” he added with a laugh, “but I was chasing him like everyone else.”

Since crafting its unique fusion of jazz, R&B/soul, funk, rock and dance, however, Kool & the Gang have remained live performance mainstays. “There have been at least three generations of this band,” said Bell, “and the phone is still ringing, which feels great. So something went right. Like Whoopi Goldberg says, ‘Kool & the Gang bring the party.’”

The evening before its Bowl performance, the Grammy-winning band sat down for a Q&A session at the Grammy Museum in L.A. That followed other 50th anniversary accolades such as being inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame and a street in the band’s former Jersey City neighborhood being rechristened “Kool & the Gang Way.” In November, the group will be presented with the Marian Anderson Award in Philadelphia. Named for the trailblazing opera singer, the honor recognizes acclaimed artists that have positively impacted society. In the meantime, Kool & the Gang is developing a series of Boondock-like animated vignettes about their career, a documentary and a giant anthology of all of its recordings.

The two-day, 41st annual Playboy Jazz Festival wraps today (June 9) with a lineup including Boz Scaggs, The Family Stone, Maceo Parker and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.