There’s a small readership sub-set who might enjoy Playboy Swings. And it’s not exactly fans of Playboy. In fact, if you’re looking to find out what Playboy Mansion guests might encounter in the waters of the famous “Grotto,” you’ve come to the wrong place.
Playboy Swings is about the symbiotic relationship the “Mens Magazine” has always had with jazz. Or at least that was the pitch that sophomore “journalist” Patty Farmer used to get the book greenlit. For the uninitiated, Publisher Hugh Hefner, the cat in the ubiquitous robe and pajamas, designed Playboy to not just make-over the American Male, but himself simultaneously. Hefner was a Middle American kid who dreamed of the limousine and the hot blonde on his arm, but never felt he had what it took to get the girl. No matter, after launching the ground-breaking mag with all the nudes, he went about changing his own image to match the type of subscriber he hoped Playboy would lasso; on-the-rise corporate executive types who had post WWII disposable income and the right combination of confidence, knowledge of art and alcohol, and a passing love of jazz.
And so, right from the start, the publisher, and by extension, the magazine, brought all races together for a hip and happening “conversation” on music. From his primetime 50s and 60s TV shows Playboy’s Penthouse and Playboy After Dark to the infamous Playboy Jazz Festivals, Hefner sought out jazz and cabaret performers that reflected both the origins and the ever-evolving face of Jazz. He was a trend-setter, an unwitting integrator of races and cultures, and a mid-century man who was completely out of step by the time the 20th Century drew to a close.
This is all excellent material for a book; or actually, several books. Unfortunately, Farmer’s tome is as flat and sheen-less as a dusty Guy Lombardo 78. Purported to be an “insider’s guide” to the Magazine’s affinity for jazz, it’s more than anything a transcription of digressive interviews that meander thoughtlessly, exhaustively listed and categorized “Jazz Polls’ for every single year of the magazine’s publication, descriptive renderings of almost every episode of the TV shows, and a confused narrative that repeats the same passages ad infinitum. The book, feeling overly long at 320 pages flat out “bores” the reader with micro-info that only those obsessed with mostly minor artists would find compelling.
It’s really too bad, because the real inside story about Hefner, his obsessive-compulsive chase for the perfect girl, his fanatical attention to detail on one hand, and then his casual indifference later on to all things Playboy would seem a necessary addition to the story of journalism in 20th Century America. The real behind-the-scenes of the inner workings of the Playboy Clubs, the Jazz Festivals and the way Hefner ingratiated himself into and around these constructs could expand to several volumes. Instead, this uninspired rendering of listicles tells none of those tidbits. To earmark a book to be about Playboy’s connection to music, then spend half of it chronicling the opening and closing of various Playboy clubs and the listing of who performed when and on what night, is an infuriating bait and switch. And while Farmer claims continuously throughout to have unfettered access to Playboy’s movers and shakers, she seems no more than a PR mouthpiece for the organization, leaving the reader with no real takeaway or insight.
Playboy Swings is more of a slow-shuffle than a hip and happening snapshot of an exciting time in music and entertainment. Hopefully, someday a writer will come to the fore that is up to the challenge of telling the real story.