Central Avenue Jazz Festival
Any jazz fan is familiar of the influence of the Harlem Renaissance of the 20's, as it was a cultural center for intellectual thought, art, and music. That too, occurred in Central Avenue in Los Angeles, from the 20's to the 50's. The Central Avenue scene was created from laws restricting African-Americans where they could live or run businesses. Despite the hardships, it was a robust community, and the area's most well known venue was the Hotel Dunbar considered top notch with travelers for their attentive service and luxurious accommodations. Because of this, all knew this was the place to spot Jimmie Lunceford, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, or Louie Armstrong when they came here to perform.
Because of its historical significance, the city of Los Angeles celebrates by hosting the Central Avenue Jazz Festival, now in its third year. The Festival takes place on the street right next to the famed hotel. Noble as it is, logistically there are foreseen difficulties as the event grows in popularity. The tent pavilion is restricted to 2/3 width of the street to accommodate emergency vehicles. Even if more tent pavilions were added, it will be hard to see the artists perform. Mother Nature awarded the overflowing crowd with weather hot enough to fry eggs on the sidewalk, causing them to stand withering on the street and sidewalks. Solutions are limited, as there is not any nearby venue to accommodate all.
Starting the festivities was a panel discussion by some of the musicians who were part of that scene and were the subject of oral historian Steve Isoardi's book, "Central Avenue Sounds: A History of Jazz in Los Angeles." Buddy Collette, Gerald Wilson, Clora Bryant, Big Jay McNeeley, and Clifford Solomon expanded their discussion beyond experiences playing on the Avenue, whether it'd be police harrassment and still on-going discrimination within the musician's union.
Recognizing the ever-changing cultural landscape within the community, several Latin style bands were among the performers, the first being Son Major, a salsa band. Their enthusiastic sounds emphasized music as a bridge towards friendship among cultures.
Former proprietor of the nearby Pioneer Club, blues guitarist Smokey Wilson came out blazing, as one of his albums is titled, like "Smoke and Fire." He pumped electrifying energy out as he put it, singing songs about "myself and you!"
Coming from another rich American musical landscape, Kansas City, was jazz and blues singer Sweet Baby J'ai. J'ai mentioned that her hometown's musical heroes like Jimmy Rushing, Charlie Parker, and Count Basie patronized Central Avenue,. Not bound to tradition, her originals spoke of current issues, whether it'd be the abundance of TV violence or how the spread of AIDS affects society. Her instrument, is a washboard that is traditionally associated with Cajun or zydeco music. Here, J'ai calls it her "jazzboard."
One of many graduates of Jefferson High who went onto musical fame and a W.C. Handy winner, Floyd Dixon, poured over the ivories. As he played a hipster brand of boogie woogie, he recalled his youthful days and fun with his pals.
Frank Capp and his band band, the Juggernaut should be an enshrined institution set in bronze on Central Avenue. As co-promoter bubba Jackson said, "they hurt so good." So good that the horn section sounded they could have nearly blown the roof off! Halfway through their set they were joined by singer Ernie Andrews. With his tasteful vocals and the band'a artful arrangements that they took a 70's pop tune, "Tie a Yellow Ribbon," transforming it into a Louie Armstrong-style jazz piece. Andrews' most poignant moment was when he spoke fondly of his departed wife, of whom he met on Central Avenue.
Finishing Saturday's festivities was Weather Report alumni, Alex Acuna, presenting a postfusion Latin groove. Known for his higher than exceptional percussive skills, he took a wooden box and without accompaniment, pounded out a intricative melody.
The second day opened with Dove nominee singer-songwriter, Ellis Hall with a blend of gospel and pop. His original, "Closer to Joy to Life," was an uplifting anthem that shed some tears.
Bringing Afro-Cuban percussion to the Angelano masses was Francisco Aguabella, a mentor of the Mongo Santamaria. It is surprising that it's taken this long for him to receive recognition. A case in point when was the bassist played meadering intro to "Night in Tunsia," and Aguabella's leadership and mastery brought the rest of the band in quickly and rescued it.
It was a homecoming for the Avenue's crooner, O.C. Smith, known for his 60's hit, "Little Green Apples." Swooning to the appeal mostly female fans, afterwards he was the only artist to have difficulty leaving the stage.
The surprise of the festival was previously unknown pianist, Olivia Reuveltas, working in a trio setting. She is well known in her native Mexico, and once hosted a jazz radio show. Don't be fooled by her small stature her intensity on the ivories is a powerhouse! At times it seemed as if the keys would be caught in a whirlpool, all the while holding the reins tightly in control. Although this was her first tour to Southern California, already her reputation is receiving notice from high profiled jazz artists.
A giant of the local scene and recognized internationally was Gerald Wilson's Big Band, catering to the large group of fans in the house, performing fan favorites such as "Yum Yum." Even more impressive with their rendition of "Sketches of Spain." Though disciplined, the musicians splashed the composition with color and faithfully the trumpet soloist rendered the staccato solo. Refusing to remain stagnant, Wilson presented two pieces from his latest CD, "Romance" and "Lion's Roars," which were part of a commissioned work commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Monterey Jazz Festival.
Penland Polygon Quintet led by Ralph Penland played easy listening, modern 90's jazz. Despite selecting Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter pieces, their presentation lacked dynamics.
Besides the main stage, OASIS, a community organization, sponsored senior citizen and student performances and activities. This included musical presentations of jazz figures, panel discussions, gallery exhibitations, old photos of the Dunbar Hotel, and performances by NWWISHN and Cal State University Dominguez Hills' choir. To keep children busy, there were craft and face painting activities.
Besides the past legacy, the Central Avenue Jazz Festivl servies as a small window of Los Angeles' continuing musical history.