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Various: Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz In Los Angeles (1921-1956)

Mark Corroto By

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Face it—when it comes to stories, jazz beats all other genres, hands down. Whether real or semi-fictional, tales of jazzmen are superior to anything every told of aging Betty-Ford-Clinic-rehabbed rockers. Think about Jack Kerouac’s excitement facing the Buddha-like Charlie Parker in his novel On The Road, or Michael Ondaatje’s fictionalized account of the life of Buddy Bolden in Coming Through Slaughter. Jazzmen are fascinating REAL people, dedicated and driven to produce these truly American sounds. That’s why there is a Christian Church dedicated to Saint John Coltrane and people still whisper “Bird lives.” I’d lay odds against Ricky Martin and Backstreet Boys being anything more than a trivia question ten years from now.

Thanks to our friends at Rhino Records, more stories of jazz are revealed. Actually Rhino took inspiration from a 1998 University of California Press book, Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles for this project. The West Coast has, until lately, been neglected in the story of jazz. The standard tale goes something like this: Jazz was born in New Orleans, migrated to Chicago with Louis Armstrong, then over to Kansas City and New York. What we knew of The West Coast was that Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie delivered bebop to the uninformed in 1945 causing an exodus of homegrown talent to New York including Charles Mingus, Dexter Gordon, and Art Pepper.

You had to know there was more to this story. As the accompanying essays reveal in loving detail, Central Avenue from downtown Los Angeles to Watts was a thriving cultural center much like Harlem was to New York. I thought I’d never say this, but thanks to segregation and land use restrictions, African Americans moving to California to find work wound up on Central Avenue. Thus it became the social and cultural center of their community. Black owned clubs operated near the ‘whites only’ Cotton Clubs of their era. Not until after World War II did deed restrictions end; that, coupled with City Hall harassment, effectively ended this cultural cauldron scattering the African-American community throughout Los Angeles. During this 35-year period Hollywood stars rubbed elbows with local butchers and barbers as jazz flourished on Central Avenue.

Disc one opens with a completely restored version of the 1921 recording “Ory’s Creole Trombone.” Trumpeter Mutt Carey and trombonist Kid Ory’s move to Los Angeles, followed other New Orleans musicians looking for a better life. Their recording and those by Jelly Roll Morton, who spent the years 1917-1922 out West, hold up as well as any of their era. So does Satchmo Armstrong singing and swinging. Louis Armstrong was truly an ambassador of jazz, traveling everywhere to spread the word recorded here as early as 1930. So to are the bands of Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, and Art Tatum, all of which spent time on Central Avenue. The discovery on disc one is The Four Blackbirds, billed as “Three Boys, A Girl, and a Guitar” their vocal styling of “Dixie Rhythm” which included Ellington’s “Rockin’ In Rhythm” with odd harmony changes is mindful of the old black and white cartoons that featured jazz as the frenetic pace setter.

Disc Two finds the popular piano and vocals of Nat King Cole recorded for Capitol records. There’s also the bebop invasion documented on Dial records. Charlie Parker was left behind as Dizzy and Max Roach returned to New York. Bird was subsequently arrested and spent time in a psychiatric hospital, inspiration for the tune “Relaxin’ at Camarillo.” The box features Benny Carter with a young Miles Davis, bebop vocalist Slim Gaillard, Charles Mingus (then Baron Mingus), and Lester Young. The famous are present among the almost forgotten, Joe Liggins, Hadda Brooks, Johnny Otis, Lucky Thompson, and Roy Milton.

The fallacy that Disc Three dispels is that the West Coast had no bebop but for Charlie Parker’s presence. The boxset and the Pacific Jazz/Blue Note reissues of Howard McGhee, a superb trumpeter, begs to differ. Along with saxophonist Teddy Edwards, Wardell Gray and of course Dexter Gordon, bop flourished in Los Angeles. Heard also in 1945 as well as recording today (on MAMA records) is Gerald Wilson’s Orchestra, a top-flight big band. But Los Angeles wasn’t just about jazz. There was an abundance of styles including jump blues, boogie & blues, and the swing music we are seeing a revival of today. Popular artists included T-Bone Walker, Jimmy Witherspoon, and Jimmy Liggins. Certainly hipster Roy Milton was a popular R&B artist crooning “So Tired” over a wailing saxophone. Had to be a jukebox favorite.

Disc four includes Eric Dolphy as a member of Roy Porter’s 17 Beboppers along with Art Farmer and Jimmy Knepper. This large bop band little known today is an important ‘discovery.’ Not quite a discovery as much as a revelation is the tenor battle between Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon heard on “Move.” With Clark Terry on trumpet, the two tenors battled at the encouragement of the audience. Sprinkled in are also recordings by Joe Swanson’s Orchestra, the appearance of Frank Morgan, a Charlie Parker devotee who made critically acclaimed recordings in the late eighties and early nineties, and a return to California by pianist Art Tatum. Popular acts of the day included Charlie Brown, and the honking Big Jay McNeely. Sounds that almost foreshadowed rock and roll.

Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz In Los Angeles (1921-1956) doesn’t so much establish a West Coast Sound, that would come later with cool jazz, as much as it verifies a legitimate scene. The street that ran from Downtown to Watts was a viable setting for musical and artist expression.


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