Review | Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles (1921-1956), various artists

Various Artists, Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles (1921-1956). Rhino 75872.

During the years that the box set, Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles (1921 – 1956), surveys, Eastern musicians and critics erroneously claimed that there were no music or musicians of any consequence in the city. This attitude took root early and, by the nineteen fifties, Los Angeles wore the bitter sobriquet of the place where “musicians go to die.” This collection firmly, if belatedly, rebuts this entrenched critical prejudice by presenting the breadth and depth of some of the most important of Los Angeles’ ignored or forgotten musical heritage. Inspired by the fine UC Press book of musicians’ oral histories with the same title makes it necessary to understand the encoded meaning in the term “West Coast Jazz.” “West Coast Jazz” does not, as it would seem, describe all jazz produced on the west coast. Rather, it refers specifically to the 1950’s movement of “cool” cerebral jazz that followed the success of the Stan Kenton Orchestra and which was primarily played by white musicians, often Kenton sidemen. While a Stan Getz or an Art Pepper may have played in clubs on Central Avenue, the cultural center of black Los Angeles, this was the exception rather than the rule. The box set Central Avenue Sounds explores another form of Southern Californian jazz, one that African-Americans created in the city during the first half of the twentieth century.

This collection provides an intelligent, well-chosen overview of African-American musical activities in Los Angeles, presenting many key recordings and groupings assembled from commercial recordings, live transcriptions and rare 78 r.p.m. releases. American enthusiasts have had to dig through rare record shops or swap meets to find old LP’s and 78’s that contain this sadly neglected wealth of music, as European imports previously provided Americans with the best sources of available recordings. Domestically, Savoy’s Black California,Vols. 1 & 2 on LP and Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic series contained valuable documents of the postwar period. Only recently has Fantasy Records released the period Specialty, Contemporary and Prestige catalogs. Central Avenue Sounds’ greatest strength thus comes from gathering so much important and disparate material together for the first time.

The music in this set is more a survey of the production of a specific place and time than of any one particular musical style. The city of Los Angeles had a deserved reputation of being rigidly segregated: restrictive housing covenants were enforced until they were declared unconstitutional in 1948. African-American citizens had no choice but to settle within the narrow corridor situated just to the south and east of the city’s downtown. Traversing this corridor and “the Main Stem”, the community’s commercial and entertainment heart grew up along Central Avenue. While African-American musicians could take work outside of their own tightly restricted district, audiences of color were barred from attending theaters and clubs in other parts of the city. Unless nationally famous touring bands or developing local players appeared in Central Avenue venues, African-American audiences could at best only hear them over live nightly radio broadcasts from white-only clubs. Practically no work existed for African-American musicians in the city’s recording and film studios until Lee Young (Lester’s brother) and Buddy Collette broke the ban in the forties. There were also separate Musicians’ Union locals, one white and one black, that did not amalgamate until 1953. The bulk of the selections in this set were created and recorded in this atmosphere of near total de facto segregation.

During World War II, the population of South Central swelled to bursting due to a tremendous influx of African-Americans seeking defense industry work, providing the financial impetus for both the resuscitation and opening of clubs that featured all kinds of musical entertainment. During and after the war, “breakfast” clubs (after-hours, quasi-legal, establishments) opened to keep the action of the regular club scene going around the clock. In these years, Central Avenue was a wide open and swinging place that provided plenty of work for musicians. With the concomitant rise of postwar independent record companies, Los Angeles quickly became a magnet for young African-American musical talents.

Some listeners may quibble about how broadly the anthologizers have defined the term “jazz.” However, reed player Buddy Collette, perennial Los Angeles session man and “keeper of the flame” for the city’s African-American musical history, remembers that as late as the mid-forties musicians hadn’t begun to place their music into categories. Since working musicians could play whatever was required within the various group settings they found themselves, Collette claims that they would simply emphasize the particular style that the job required. There was no sense that they were playing “different” types of music. Because of this outlook and the plentitude of work, Los Angeles musicians were open to the hybridization of styles that allowed for the kind of uninhibited experimentation that gave rise to west coast rhythm and blues. Collette states that the strict compartmentalization of musical styles (bop, rhythm and blues, swing) that appeared during the postwar period came more from the pressure of record company executives to produce what they felt were commercially marketable recordings than from any impulse on the part of musicians themselves. (Collette 1992). Like the Avenue’s original players, the Rhino staff has defined “jazz” very broadly and thereby has come up with many diverse treasures.

As the African-American community in Los Angeles began to grow in the first decades of the century, its “ears”, like those of other cities, turned eastward toward New Orleans, New York City, and Chicago for the nascent sounds of jazz. At first, transplanted Southern musicians gave the locals direction. Freddy Keppard was part of the group that formed the Creole Band in Los Angeles during 1914. In 1921 another group, centered around Kid Ory and Mutt Carey, locally recorded “Ory’s Creole Trombone,” the first release by a small black band, and the “Holy Grail” of west coast recordings. The set’s accompanying booklet provides a thorough overview of events and personalities from the entire era and gives considerable space to establishing this record’s provenance. Jelly Roll Morton lived off and on in Los Angeles between 1917 and 1923 and returned there to die in obscurity in 1941. He is represented in Central Avenue Sounds by four selections. However, except for Carey who remained in town as a bandleader, these famous musicians were essentially transients who moved on when their careers demanded. Lionel Hampton, Nat “King” Cole, in addition to less well-remembered musicians and leaders-Sonny Clay, Charlie Echols, Les Hite, Paul Howard, Curtis Mosby, Leon and Otis Rene, and Ben and Reb Spikes-all based their operations in Los Angeles. They were the earliest “movers and shakers” of twentieth century African-American popular music in Los Angeles.

The producers of this box set state that they sought to provide the best general evocation of the variety of African-American musical activity rather than making it a survey of interest only to collectors or completists. They have succeeded remarkably well. However, in its first disc, the collection occasionally succumbs to a problem that has plagued the reputation of Los Angeles’ music. Many of the early selections either feature touring stars who played in Los Angeles with their own discrete bands or feature local musicians as sidemen to an established (non Los Angeles-based) star like Louis Armstrong, thereby taking the focus away from the hometown players and putting it on the “star.” Certainly this is not an unusual practice in the music business, and one understands the compilers’ desire to include widely recognized names in their package. However, in this particular set, I missed hearing the Sonny Clay Orchestra, Curtis Mosby’s Blue Blowers and/or the Spikes Brothers Orchestra sides that demonstrate the state of early homegrown jazz, rather than the Morton and Armstrong selections that can be easily found in other collections. On balance, two Paul Howard’s Quality Serenaders recordings from 1930 and the famous Les Hite side with T-Bone Walker do appear. Later on, I would also have liked a track featuring Maxwell Davis as a leader and one by Wynonie Harris with the Johnny Otis Orchestra from their long Club Alabam stand during the final days of the war. What about Dootsie Williams when he was still a working musician? If Charles Brown’s Texas blues piano stylings make the cut, what about Amos Milburn? Where’s Pamla Watson’s “A Little Bird Told Me” or Mabel Scott, briefly Charles Brown’s bride, with “Elevator Boogie” or “Boogie Woogie Santa Claus”? Ah, well-this may just be the start of one completist’s wish list for a second volume of this collection.

Nit picking aside, Central Avenue Sounds documents several significant local developments in music, following young Cotton Club Orchestra drummer Lionel Hampton through his discovery of the vibraphone at one of Louis Armstrong’s west coast recording sessions and then on to the glories of “Flying Home.” It also charts the rise of the King Cole Trio from Hampton’s early patronage when it was only a local sensation to its work as a major performing and recording act in its own right. Central Avenue Sounds also contains important early works by Howard McGhee, Teddy Edwards, and Roy Porter, key West Coast bop musicians, whose already highly-developed sense of bop music took further flight from their association with Charlie Parker during his chaotic California stay. There are rare early singles from John Dolphin’s Recorded in Hollywood label that feature Charles Mingus, Buddy Collette, and many of their colleagues from the locally famous (but short-lived) “Stars of Swing” ensemble. Wardell Gray, whose mystique was enhanced by his untimely and mysterious death, appears both in his familiar Prestige sides and, to the credit of the set’s producers, in rare group performances which prominently feature him. West Coast rhythm & blues is well represented with notable work by Charles Brown, Pee Wee Crayton, Cecil Gant, Joe Liggins, Roy Milton, Johnny Otis, T-Bone Walker, and Jimmy Witherspoon. On the distaff side, female lounge singers like Nellie Lutcher and Hadda Brooks, a classically trained pianist who got her commercial push by adding a “boogie beat” to her material, are each showcased in two songs.

Now just stop and think about it for a moment: Cab, Count or Duke holding court in the cocktail lounge at the Dunbar Hotel; Art Tatum playing from midnight until noon at Lovejoy’s Breakfast Club; The King Cole Trio solidifying its new star status at the Last Word; Charles Brown noodling on the piano at Ivy’s Chicken Shack; Joe Liggins closing his nightly set at the Samba Club with “The Honeydripper”: Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon head cutting all comers in jams at Jack’s Basket Room; Howard McGhee and Teddy Edwards pushing bop’s envelope at the Finale Club; Gerald Wilson’s Orchestramesmerizing crowds at Shepp’s Playhouse; T-Bone Walker showboating for the folks at the Little Harlem Club; The Barrelhouse rocking with The Johnny Otis Review or simply all of the local and touring musicians hanging out together at the 59th Street Drug Store after their jobs were over for the night.

If this were the place where musicians went to die, then South Central was one hell of a graveyard. This set conjures up the best of the spirit of those times. Prepare to jump for joy!

Ralph Eastman
Mt. San Antonio College

SOURCES: Collette, Buddy. 1992. Interview with author. Los Angeles, Ca., December 21.