A few years ago I was talking to veteran L.A. tenormen Teddy Edwards and Harold Land while preparing to host a "Jazz Talk" show at Lincoln Center. Teddy, the elder statesman, was referencing old time musicians who worked in the clubs along L.A.'s Central Avenue and Harold mentioned that he had never heard of them. I chimed in that, of course, if Harold had not heard of these players than I certainly hadn't. Teddy looked at us and smiled. "There's no mystery here," he said. "The reason why you haven't heard about these musicians is because in the old days in the Central Avenue clubs there simply were no jazz writers."
Much of this mystery is rapidly disappearing due to the enormous scholarship and research going into the productions of Jazz at Lincoln Center. This week's program"Central Avenue Breakdown"uncovered music, musicians and delicious anecdotal morsels that constituted the essence of L.A.'s Central Avenue scene.
The opening number "Jack the Bellboy"a composition of the L.A. drummer Lionel Hampton (Wynton Marsalis noted that Hamp wrote this tune before he began playing vibes) was an exciting jumper rendered brilliantly by the Lincoln Center Jazz orchestra. Personnel changes in the band are more frequent these days (saxophonist Sherman Irby, trombonist Andre Hayward, and trumpeter Sean Jones are new additions) but the fluidity and repertorial versatility of the band continues to improve.
Next up was a tune dubbed Ory's Creole Trombone hailing from ancient times when the great Kid Ory and Freddie Keppard spent several years in L.A. In this context Marsalis told stories of Keppard's paranoia as he covered his fingers with a handkerchief rather than let musicians steal his technique.
Marsalis then pattered on the relationship between jazz and the Hollywood film scene (a topic that needs further examination) and in this connection introduced the wonderful studio tenor legend Plas Johnson (he was the soloist in the unforgettable theme from the original Pink Panther movie). Johnson's soloing alongside the orchestra was a special treat and had me yearning to hear more from this unsung L.A. sideman. Ted Nash's new composition "Sisters"an intriguing tour de force followed. Hailing from a 3 generation L.A. musical family Nash's career is soaring. Stan Kenton's classic "Concerto to End All Concertos" got inspired interpretation but Ryan Kisor's solo had me wishing for a visit from Maynard Ferguson.
The band swung mightily through two compositions from the L.A. researchCharles Mingus' elegy for Lester Young dubbed "Goodbye Porkpie Hat" and Terry Gibbs' piece "Fatman". I don't think I've ever been as impressed with a first-half program since the band moved to Fredrick Rose Hall.
One of the truly immortal figures of the west coast tradition is Gerald Wilson who was introduced as the show's featured guest to start the second half. At 87, Wilson continues his prolific recording and writing career with unbounded energy as his new releases Gerald Wilson, New York Sound, and In My Time verify. Ever since he replaced Sy Oliver as a trumpeter in the Jimmy Lunceford band in 1939 and had his first compositon recorded by the band in 1940, Wilson has established himself as one of the premier composer/arrangers in jazz history. When he left the Lunceford band in the early 40's he moved to L.A. and after studying classical music, playing in a band with Clark Terry, writing for Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Ray Charles, he began a historic career as a movie writer. By the time he'd written the score for Where the Boys Are he had become one of the most strategic music figures in L.A.
Wilson conducted the Lincoln Center Jazz orchestra with charming aplomb as he wove a tapestry of his unique style. From his heralded "Monterey Suite" to his recent triumph "Blues for Manhattan" Fredrick Rose echoed with Wilsonian magic.