Central Avenue Sounds
by Clora Bryant, William Green, Buddy Collette
University of California Press (1998)
Almost any jazz fan points as his or her mecca New York or historically, Kansas City and New Orleans. There is a fourth locus of jazz, Central Avenue section of Los Angeles which was a jazz mecca from the 1920's to 1950's as well. It was a training ground for Lionel Hampton, Charles Brown, Buddy Collette, and Charles Mingus but also a drawing magnet for Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Charlie Parker, and Art Tatum, to name a few.
Central Avenue grew out of the racially restrictive covenants on real estate deeds. Because blacks were restricted where they could buy property, Central Avenue was the area where they were allowed to reside. Along with the homes and businesses there was proliferation of nightclubs, many within blocks of each other. For travelers, the Dunbar Hotel was regarded the best place to stay because of its high quality service and classy accommodations. Thus, any band on tour and playing in Central Avenue stayed at the Dunbar, and any aficionado knew this was the place to meet his or her favorite musician.
Originally, Steven Isoardi compiled the oral histories of the surviving musicians from that era for University of California at Los Angeles' archives. However upon completion, it was felt their stories deserved wider attention. An editorial committee comprised of some of the interviewees and Isoardi was formed, with their hard work resulting in this book published by the University of California Press. Organized into four parts, each is designated by a time period or district within Central Avenue. From there, each part is broken into several to half a dozen chapters, and each chapter is designated to the conversations of a musician.
Even though on the surface this is categorized under jazz history, it also could also be categorized as either local history or social history. Music is often shaped by the events of the day and such is the case here, when the musicians discussed the blighted relations between themselves and the police. Police raided clubs and places, particularly when the patronage was mixed, i.e., black men and white women. Just as devastating was why Watts was incorporated as part of Los Angeles. Originally Watts was a rural area whose dirt roads were frequently flooded. Quickly African-Americans moved there and with its explosive growth it was quoted at one time to be "the town ... regarded as likely to have a black mayor." Paranoia aroused by the Klu Klux Klan convinced Los Angeles to force incorporation of Watts.
It may seem at the offset one is reading incidents recalled over and over until noticing each musician giving different viewpoints of the same incident. For instance, Coney Woodman blamed himself for the breakup of the Woodman Brothers band, as he went to Chicago to avoid a shotgun wedding. However, brother William insisted when he got married that ended the band.
Clora Bryant gave an excellent account as one female working in the male dominated music arena. She praised her father for encouraging her musical career, who sacrificed by relocating his family to Los Angeles for that purpose. Especially memorable was her frequenting the jam sessions at the Downbeat. "Cherokee" was the musicians' favorite, and when Bryant performed it, colleagues were impressed, one of them being Dizzy Gillespie. Gillespie, too, was a mentor to Bryant, even allowing her to use his horn. Despite the fierce competition, she wanted equal treatment from her colleagues, without losing her femininity. On stage she made it clear her sexuality, as she said, "People thought you were playing trumpet because you had male tendencies, which I didn't have. She would let the audience know as she puts it, "never forget I was a female . . . I always dressed as a female." Because she had big legs she'd wear mesh stockings with a seam up the back to look sexy. Sometimes the problems were with jealous wives and girlfriends of the male musicians and she had to prove she was there to play music.
Another player who endured much was trombonist and arranger Melba Liston. The dangers of working in a big band proved brutal, as she was raped by fellow musicians. Rising above the tragedy, Liston continued to work and in later years, became a prominent New York studio musician, then was an instructor and director of popular music studies at several educational institutions in Jamaica.
Nearly every musician interviewed discussed his/her opinion of the integration of musicians' unions 767 (black) and 47 (white). Some like Buddy Collette and Marl Young, were strongly in favor of it, and were even the movers and shakers behind the amalgamation, whereas others were bitterly against it, claiming it increased competition, making less jobs available, and eliminating duplicated union management positions. Young's perspective differed from the other accounts represented as he was involved in the legal and business aspects of the amalgamation. Being a law school graduate, he carefully studied the by-laws of both unions, thereby insisting the two merge rather than consolidate, it means jobs are not lost or benefits weakened. One illustration was the death benefit. Under 47's rules, members' heirs were entitled to a $1,000 death benefit if they joined the union before he or she were 40. 767's provision was similar, but the benefit was $400. But with many of 767's members over 40, Young proposed during the first year if any former 767 members over 40 died, their survivors would receive $1400, but if the member died thereafter, survivors would receive the standard $1,000. Even more remarkable was the integration of the musicians' unions took place a year before the Supreme Court ruling of Brown v. Board of Education.
The downside of an oral history format is that the interviewees at times wandered off, and other times their words seem to lack coherency at the subject being discussed. But as a whole, Central Avenue Sounds presents a once maligned aspect of music and Los Angeles history that finally has seen the light. Although this is not the first book on an era of this area, it is the first book to present a cross section of those who influenced the course of American popular music, beyond Central Avenue stretching to the world.