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Culture Clubs: A History of the U.S. Jazz Clubs, Part III: Kansas City, Philadelphia, Los Angeles & Beyond

Karl Ackermann By

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Ortlieb's Jazzhaus (also referred to as Ortlieb's Jazzhaus/Brewery) was a converted bowling alley on North Third Street, giving the club a distinctly long footprint. A brewery in its second life, it opened as a jazz venue in 1987. In addition to their "haus band," Ortlieb's was frequented by trumpeter Terell Stafford, pianist Orrin Evans, Farid Barron, Cecil Payne and one-time Gillespie drummer, Mickey Roker. On occasion, a marquee name such as Sonny Rollins or Frank Morgan would drop in for a one-off gig. Closed and demolished in 2010, it reopened at a different Philadelphia location under the name Ortlieb's Lounge in 2012 but jazz was relegated to Tuesday nights. Zanzibar Blue was first housed in a storefront on 11th Street, remaining at that location from 1990 to 1996 at which time it moved into the historic Bellevue Hotel on South Broad Street. In its eleven year run, Zanzibar Blue hosted notable names such as Chick Corea and Chuck Mangione, but more often featured local talent. The Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts originated in 1966 through the Musicians' Protective Union Local #274 which was chartered in 1935 and is the oldest Black Musicians' Union in the U.S. "Jazz" was not added to the name until the mid-1990s. By charter, the organization's objectives are largely educational but through workshops, jam sessions, and performances at their own Clef Club, they provide the area with a wealth of live jazz presentations.

The current crop of Philadelphia jazz clubs are often submerged in the broader category of "eateries with music" but that can often be stronger marketing strategy than placing jazz at the top of the bill. The South Kitchen & Jazz Parlor makes its initial gambit as "New takes on Southern fare & deep whiskey list..." but their jazz menu is also substantial. Recent calendar dates include Gerald Veasley, Kim Waters and Marcus Anderson. Chris' Jazz Café on Sansom Street and Paris Bistro & Jazz Café at Germantown Avenue typically offer local jazz talent but on a limited basis. Often, jazz performances are pop-ups in multi-use facilities such as the Ridge Avenue Methodist Church or suburban venues like The Kennett Flash, recently hosting the Charlie Hunter Trio, but the venue is about an hour west of downtown Philadelphia.

Central Avenue, Los Angeles

The rich, early history of the Los Angeles jazz scene is obscured by the city's later legacy, as the birthplace of Cool Jazz and West Coast Jazz but its roots date back to Jelly Roll Morton in 1917. The ragtime pianist's brother-in-law, William Manuel Johnson led The Original Creole Orchestra, the first band to leave New Orleans and tour the U.S. widely. Morton followed Johnson to Los Angeles where he recorded "The Crave," a tango that achieved some success in Hollywood. Similarly, Kid Ory left one of New Orleans' best known bands behind and formed a new group in Los Angeles in 1919.

Central Avenue was the heart of the black population in Los Angeles from 1910 forward. Running from downtown to the south, the district expanding its southern boundary from Watts to Compton as the population grew. The city was one of the most integrated urban centers in the U.S. at the start of the twentieth century but as the population grew, so did racial tensions and discrimination against blacks, Mexicans, Japanese, Indians, and Chinese. Property deeds for both residential and business lots were withheld from blacks outside the district. Despite the prejudicial strains, the Central Avenue corridor provided a well-established enclave for black businesses, residents and entertainment, at least for a time.

The heart of the Central Avenue jazz scene was the Dunbar Hotel. Originally the Hotel Somerville, it opened in 1928, providing the growing black middle class with quality lodging and dining. The hotel drew prominent blacks from all professions including Josephine Baker, Joe Louis, Langston Hughes, Thurgood Marshall and W.E.B. DuBois. James Nelson, a Chicago businessman bought the hotel in 1936 after it had already been renamed as the Dunbar. The best-known Central Avenue venue, Club Alabam stood adjacent to the hotel and another prominent club, the Last Word, was directly across the avenue. Within the confines of the Dunbar was another jazz club, the Showboat. In the peak years of jazz on Central Avenue the likes of Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Lionel Hampton, Dexter Gordon, Wardell Gray, Art Pepper and Charles Mingus provided an endless loop of entertainment. Regardless of the particular club musicians were playing, the Dunbar Hotel was typically where they stayed. Jelly Roll Morton, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Lena Horne, Billy Eckstine, and Count Basie were just sampling of those who had signed the guest register. The Dunbar was a popular spot for a sizable number of white Los Angelenos with an affinity for good music and the culture that surrounded it in the Central Avenue District. Wynton Marsalis had once referred to the area as the Los Angeles version of 52nd Street though it owed as much or more to Harlem. Even its prime, the white media all but ignored the phenomena that was taking place on Central Avenue.

There are two historical markers, partially hidden in the overgrown brush in front of the former Dunbar Hotel. It is one of very few vestiges of the district's past. In the 1950s California began developing an extensive network of freeways taking businesses further away from the center of Los Angeles. Consequently, money began drying up for the Central Avenue District as the black population outgrew and left the district, to the extent that they were allowed. In 1964, South Central exploded. Race riots were triggered by the arrest of a black motorist in an incident that would be famously mimicked in the 1990s with the beating of Rodney King. When the rioting ended, Central Avenue resembled a war scene. In six days of rampaging, more than four-thousand troops and two-thousand police were called in; dozens of people were killed and almost one-thousand buildings—businesses and residences—were destroyed. The clubs whose structures physically survived were eventually repurposed but none as jazz venues. In less than a week, almost forty years of jazz had been wiped away.

Cool Jazz & West Coast Jazz in LA

The legacy of Birth of the Cool (Capital, 1957) implies that Miles Davis' 1949 and 1950 sessions were the incubator for "cool," and the recording did popularized the sub-genre among a wider audience. But it was Lester Young's detached, melodic approach, that most influenced the style from his time with Count Basie in the early 1940s. While Davis immediately moved on to hard bop, and later, modal jazz, Young became part of the Norman Granz Los Angeles-based Jazz at the Philharmonic, along with Cool Jazz and West Coast Jazz artists such as the Modern Jazz Quartet, Shelly Manne, Oscar Peterson and Herb Ellis. Despite the links with Young, Davis and a few others, Cool Jazz and West Coast Jazz had a distinctly white profile; Lennie Tristano, Gerry Mulligan, Dave Brubeck and Chet Baker were among the top West Coast Jazz players and were given the greatest access to recording contracts and club dates. With the exception of Brubeck, none were from the west coast, but then the LA link itself was a misnomer. One was just as likely to hear this style of understated jazz being played by reedist John LaPorta, baritone saxophonist Serge Chaloff or trumpeter Herb Pomeroy, all in Boston during the same time period.

A commemorative "manhole" decorates the sidewalk on North Cahuenga, in Hollywood. Here, Shelly's Manne Hole was opened by the drummer in 1960, far from Central Avenue in location and spirit. Shelly Manne's club was the setting for a prominent series of live recordings that included sessions from Bill Evans, Les McCann, Milt Jackson, Cannonball Adderley, Keith Jarrett and others including Manne's own group. The club closed in 1972. The Lighthouse Café on the pier at Hermosa Beach opened to jazz performances in 1949 and was a landmark venue for West Coast jazz through the 1970s. The site of dozens of live recordings, it attracted top-tier artists such as Stan Getz, Chet Baker, The Jazz Crusaders, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Lee Morgan, Joe Henderson and Elvin Jones, all of whom recorded live albums at the club. The Lighthouse Café remains open in 2017 but with jazz sharing the bill with many other genres.

The current jazz scene in Los Angeles may not come close to the city's great jazz years, but the music can be found with some searching. The Jazz Bakery is actually eleven different locations hosting the non-profit's impressive schedule of events. Every day of the week, top artists perform as part of the organization's mission to bring high quality jazz to new audiences in the Los Angeles area. Founded in 1992 by jazz vocalist and educator Ruth Price, who serves as artistic director, a recent stretch of two months featured shows from Alex Cline, Nels Cline, Monty Alexander, Diane Schuur, Ernie Watts, Bill Frisell, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Scott Colley, Brian Blade, Edward Simon and Randy Weston. Herb Alpert's Vibrato Grill, Jazz, & Etc. doesn't have quite the star power of The Jazz Bakery but it offers a steady flow of solid local talent. Victorio's is an Italian restaurant in the San Fernando Valley. It occasionally features jazz artists but does not post an active calendar of events. Casey's Tavern in Canoga Park presents live jazz every Tuesday in the form of a house band that plays swing, bebop, and other traditional jazz. Perch Los Angeles is a fifteenth floor bistro with unobstructed views of downtown Los Angeles. They offer a full calendar of jazz, typically local musicians. The Federal in North Hollywood offers infrequent jazz performances in a calendar that runs the gamut from comedy to performance art.

Boston

Boston had the homegrown potential to be a great jazz city; it was the city that influenced its native sons Nat Hentoff and George Wein to dedicate their lives to jazz but its proximity to New York was a double-edged sword. What New York took in local talent rarely returned to Boston though the New England city benefitted through regular appearances from their New York colleagues. Jazz in Boston came into its own later than some other cities but in the 1940s, Massachusetts Avenue between Huntington and Columbus was a neighborhood of thriving jazz venues. Billie Holiday departed Count Basie's band in 1938, and joined the Artie Shaw Orchestra in Boston weeks later, remaining with Shaw for eight months. Shaw's group played the recently opened Roseland-State Ballroom on Mass Avenue two days each week for an extended period of time and CBS Radio broadcast the live performances throughout New England. Sabby Lewis, Jimmie Lunceford and Duke Ellington played Roseland frequently; Ellington's band featuring top saxophonists Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney. In 1958, with big band music's popularity already well past its prime, Roseland was sold and the venue sharply veered away from jazz.

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