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

Karl Ackermann By

Sign in to view read count
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.


Under the Radar Karl Ackermann Benny Moten Count Basie Joe Turner Charlie Parker Sonny Stitt Dexter Gordon Miles Davis benny golson Walter Dickerson McCoy Tyner Marilyn Crispell Marc Copland Joe Chambers Uri Caine Charles Fambrough Stanley Clarke Melody Gardot Jimmy Heath John Coltrane Albert Heath Percy Heath Kenny Barron Bill Barron Michael Brecker randy brecker duke ellington Dizzy Gillespie Benny Goodman Tommy Dorsey Glen Miller Billie Holiday Art Blakey Cannonball Adderly Philly Joe Jones Thelonius Monk Nina Simone Yusef Lateef Nat King Cole Lester Young Ray Bryant Red Garland Paul Chambers Terell Stafford Orrin Evans Cecil Payne Sonny Rollins Frank Morgan Chick Corea Chuck Mangione Gerald Veasley Charlie Hunter Jelly Roll Morton Kid Ory Lionel Hampton Wardell Gray Art Pepper Charles Mingus Ella Fitzgerald Cab Calloway Louis Armstrong Lena Horne Billy Eckstein wynton marsalis Modern Jazz Quartet Shelly Manne oscar peterson Herb Ellis Lennie Tristano Gerry Mulligan Dave Brubeck Chet Baker John LaPorta Serge Chaloff Herb Pomeroy Les McCann Milt Jackson Cannonball Adderley Keith Jarrett The Jazz Crusaders Joe Henderson Elvin Jones Alex Cline Nels Cline Monty Alexander Diane Schuur ernie watts Bill Frisell Kurt Rosenwinkel Scott Colley Brian Blade Edward Simon Randy Weston Herb Alpert Artie Shaw Johnny Hodges Harry Carney Roy Haynes Sidney Bechet Charlie Mariano Jaki Byard Nat Pierce Mingus Big Band David Sanborn arturo sandoval Frank Foster Roland Hanna Donald Byrd Alice Coltrane James Carter Geri Allen Kenny Garrett Betty Carter Dewey Redman Joshua Redman George Shearing Joe Williams Woody Herman Jessica Williams abdullah ibrahim Terence Blanchard Chuck Israels Larry Bunker

Shop for Music

Start your music shopping from All About Jazz and you'll support us in the process. Learn how.

Related Articles