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Ulysses Bella of East Los Angeles was one of those hard-partying music fans way up in the back of the 18,000-seat Hollywood Bowl the first few times he attended the annual Playboy Jazz Festival there, a couple decades ago.
On Saturday, June 16, the tenor sax player makes his fifth appearance as a performer on the Hollywood Bowl's stage, in Ozomatli, the celebrated genre-mashing multi-cultural septet that Santa Clarita Valley music fans turned out in healthy numbers to see at the Performing Arts Center on Jan. 15.
How Bella got from the least expensive seats to the Bowl's storied revolving stage is a tale of musical inspiration, dedication and achievement.
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He'd be partying up there in the nosebleed seats, where the artists onstage look minuscule and the audience watches the big screens and grooves with the sounds, as a fan, thinking, "'I gotta work that gig, 'cause I just want to experience all the bands and see the music,'" Bella told me at this year's pre-festival press conference at the Playboy Mansion .
"So I used to volunteer as an usher just to be able to see shows for free. I remember Santana was a big deal to work on. In every single lineup, there were always at least three or four artists who were game-changers for me."
The view from the toppermost of the Hollywood Bowl. Big-screen displays and sound towers do make the sights and sounds pretty good even up here, where groups of people pack huge picnic lunches and dinners, and share food, drink, herb, stogies and good times to a non-stop soundtrack of stellar live music. So who cares if they can't see the performers onstage? Photo: Stephen K. Peeples.
Bella drew much musical inspiration from the festival's diverse lineups, which have traditionally mixed up jazz, blues, Latin, fusion and myriad subgenres, as he became a musician and wen ton to achieve world recognition with Ozomatli, whose members also bring deep and wide musical backgrounds to the group's all-inclusive sound.
In a colorful 15-year career, "Ozo" (as fans call it for short) has taken its uplifting multi-genre music and messages of personal and political diplomacy to venues worldwide, from elementary schools to the Hollywood Bowl.
When Ozomatli was invited to play their first Playboy Jazz Festival a decade ago, Bella's journey from the back of the Bowl as a fan to the stage as a performer was complete. Then, he not only got to stand in the wings offstage to see and hear the artists who inspired him play literally right in front of him, but he also got to meet them.
"I remember one time I met Keely Smith, and that blew my mind," Bella said. "It was just like, wow! Or, one time Wayne Shorter played right after us. Are you kidding me? Part of me felt weird, being a tenor player myself — like, I can't be opening up for this guy. I've got to go home." (laughs) But you keep going, you do your thing, find a different approach. So, it's a big deal for me, and for us as a band, to be involved in this festival."
Ulysses Bella of Ozomatli speaks with the author on the back porch of the Playboy Mansion. Photo: Peter B. Sherman/Getty Images.
At post time, we hear Ozomatli's set may include a special guest or two. Just speculating, but Corey Glover of celebrated rock band Living Colour joined Ozo on vocals in New Orleans last month, and Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid's a member of the much-anticipated new fusion band Spectrum Road, on the PBJ bill Sunday, so I'm going to take a guess it'll be Glover or Reid or both.
Bella had good things to say when this reporter mentioned the East L.A.-based group's January gig at the Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center.
"Oh, it's cool. It's a great room, sounded great," he said. "It's always a challenge for us to be in a place where there's seats, but I think by the time the show started rolling, people started getting up on their seats, were dancing and having a great time. It's a win-win for us...it's really convenient for people in Camarillo, Oxnard, Ventura, all that area, to come down and not have to make that whole drive to L.A. It's great."
Ozomatli and Sheila E., another favorite among SCV fans, are among the headliners at Playboy's 34th Hollywood Bowl get-together on Father's Day weekend, Saturday and Sunday, June 16-17.
Famous for stints with others including Prince, Jennifer Lopez, Ringo Starr and Beyonce, Escovedo was a favorite performer at the last two Loose Goose Wine Festivals as well as a recent Playboy Jazz Festival with the Pete Escovedo Orchestra, led by her legendary father and co-starring Sheila and her two brothers.
She's also a noted solo artist who'll front her own band at this year's festival, on Saturday, too.
Sheila E. and the author at the Playboy Mansion. Photo: Peter B. Sherman/Getty Images.
"I play with about five different bands, so I'm going to put together something really special for the festival," Sheila said. Since she knows and has worked with many of the best musicians in the business, her band's lineup is another much-anticipated surprise.
Saturday's complete lineup, from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. (not in order of performance): the Christian McBride Big Band; Boney James; Ozomatli; Sheila E.; Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings; The Soul Rebels with special guests Leo Nocentelli, Zigaboo Modeliste and Ivan Neville; the Global Gumbo All-Stars featuring Richard Bona, Laurel Loueke, Francisco Mela and Alfredo Rodriguez; Cos of Good Music featuring Farid Barron, Dwayne Burno, Ndugu Chancler, Tia Fuller, Matthew Garrison, Ingrid Jensen, Babatunde Lea and Erena Terabuko; and the LAUSD/Beyond the Bell All-City Jazz Band under the direction of Tony White and J.B. Byas.
Sunday's full roster, playing out from 3 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. (ditto): The Ramsey Lewis Electric Band (check out Lewis's short YouTube invite ); Robin Thicke; the Preservation Hall Jazz Band; Keb' Mo'; Terri Lynne Carrington's Mosaic Project featuring Gretchen Parlato, Carmen Lundy, Tia Fuller, Ingrid Jensen, Helen Sung, Linda Taylor and Mimi Jones; The Cookers featuring Eddie Henderson, Billy Harper, Craig Handy, David Weiss, George Cables, Cecil McBee and Billy Hart; the aforementioned Spectrum Road; Chico Trujillo; KG Omulo; and the Calabasas High School Jazz "A" Band under the direction of Joshua Barroll.
Spectrum Road: John Medeski; Vernon Reid; Cindy Blackman; Jack Bruce. Courtesy photo. The group is on the cover of the July issue of downbeat, and will play material from its eponymous debut album, out June 5.
Dr. William H. Cosby , educator, comedian, Grammy-winning recording artist, author, philanthropist and community activist, will intro the artists for his 31st turn as Playboy Jazz emcee.
Playboy Jazz Festivals throw the annual two-day bash in cooperation with the L.A. Philharmonic Association. Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, who also founded the festival, is Executive Producer. Dick Rosenzweig is President Emeritus of Playboy Jazz Festivals; George Wein is Producer Emeritus; and Darlene Chan of Festival West Inc. books the talent.
Historically, both days have sold out before the weekend, drawing around 35,000 fans, and as of today, good seats are still available, according to Playboy Jazz spokesperson Nina Gordon.
The mailing list for box seats in the garden and terrace sections has been full and closed since 1987, so those longtime hardcore fans traditionally get the first shot. Single-day tickets in the rest of the house range from $170 "super seats" dead center behind the boxes to the $27.50 cheap seats way up at the top, and are available through Ticketmaster (ticketmaster.com  or 213-365-3500) and all Ticketmaster outlets.
In addition to his "Peeples Place at KHTS" blog, Stephen K. Peeples is a writer/reporter for KHTS News (www.hometownstation.com ) and SCVNews.com , and host, writer and co-producer of the weekly “House Blend" music and interview television show on SCVTV, community television for the Santa Clarita Valley (www.scvhouseblend.com ). A former SCV music and entertainment columnist for The Signal (2004-2011) and drummer with SCV jazz group RainTree (www.raintreejazz.com , 2010-2011), Peeples is a Grammy-nominated record producer (“Monterey International Pop Festival,” MIPF/Rhino, 1992), an award-winning radio producer (“The Lost Lennon Tapes,” Westwood One, 1988-1990) and an award-winning online editor (The Signal website, 2007-2011). For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org  or visit www.stephenkpeeples.com .