2003 - Boz Scaggs L.A. Times Interview

(Boz at the Playboy Jazz Festival)

June 2003

[By Don Heckman, Special to The Times]

Boz Scaggs as a Playboy Jazz Festival headliner? That should come as somewhat of a surprise to jazz aficionados at Saturday's opening event in the annual two-day celebration at the Hollywood Bowl.

What, they may wonder, is the veteran pop star of the '70s and '80s doing on the same stage that will showcase the likes of Dave Brubeck, Al Jarreau and Dave Holland?

Scaggs' presence isn't as unexpected as it might seem. This year's 25th anniversary event is offering one of the most musically eclectic programs in memory, ranging freely from pop to jazz to blues to world music.

In addition, Scaggs, 59, has his own special connections with the world of jazz. The first is his latest album, "But Beautiful," in which he takes on the classic jazz-associated songs in the Great American Songbook, an outing that adds him to a growing list of rock and pop artists -- from Willie Nelson and Linda Ronstadt to Rod Stewart and Steve Tyrell -- who have found inspiration in the songs of Rodgers & Hart, Ellington, Gershwin, etc.

Still, why was the blues-based singer-songwriter of such pop hits as "Lowdown" and "Lido Shuffle" motivated to join the trend and devote an entire album to this repertoire?

"Because it's there," he says, in characteristically epigrammatic fashion. "It's harmonically rich, and it's been more challenging than anything I've ever done.

"Not that it was something I expected to do," he says. "It began a few years ago, when I sang 'My Funny Valentine' as part of an acoustic set I was asked to do for a benefit. When I saw the reception I got, it piqued my imagination to look further into standards."

Scaggs was encouraged to take a jazz-framed view of those standards as the result of his close musical association with pianist Paul Nagel (whose quartet, featuring saxophonist Eric Crystal, performed on the album and will back Scaggs at the festival).

The result is a collection of laid-back ballads in which his sparse vocal style fits smoothly into an engaging jazz setting. His association with jazz did not, however, begin with "But Beautiful," which recently topped Billboard's Jazz Album chart.

In oddly synchronistic fashion, Scaggs recalls that it dates back to a Playboy-sponsored program.

"My first jazz album," he says, "was the 'Playboy Jazz [Allstars Album, Vol. 2]' of 1958. I guess I was in the seventh or eighth grade at that time. I don't know where I got the record, but it had the winners and the runners-up. Gerry Mulligan, can't remember who else, but I could probably still hum every solo from every winner in every category."

All of which may not exactly place Scaggs in the top category of jazz vocalists. But it does provide an intriguing subtext to this 25th Playboy festival.

What better evidence of the long linkage between jazz and the festival than the fact that a teenager from a small Texas town can discover the music from a Playboy all-star recording and then, more than four decades later, become a headliner at the festival.

Scaggs is upbeat about his new linkage with jazz.

"I'm going to be around this music for a while," he says. "I love its melodic and harmonic qualities, and it's going to impact what I sing and what I write. The door's been opened."

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