Thursday, February 01, 2018

Central Avenue Sounds - Jazz is Los Angeles

I discovered this book after it was referenced in Dominic Priore's book, Riot on Sunset Strip, and picked it up to learn more about the early jazz scene in my home for decades, Los Angeles. I freely admit that I am not well versed in jazz, but it is a scene that fascinates me and I appreciate its history and its sounds.

Charles Mingus (all kinds of great stories about him!), Dexter Gordon, Big Jay McNeely, Lester Young, Johnny Otis, Lionel Hampton and many, many other characters populate the "first hand experience" stories and interviews that comprise this tale of jazz in Los Angeles. Although New York is a more well known hot spot for jazz, LA was vitally important in its emergence as a popular art form in the United States and Central Avenue was the place to be in LA.

The first hand accounts quite naturally overlap, as the players are all from the same basic time period, so the same artists appear and are fleshed out as you go along. For example, there are three Woodman brothers who were local musicians but also had a studio/club/ hangout so their names come up regularly and are all interviewed separately.

The lives of these musicians are fascinating and they way they talk of Central Avenue and the areas that they lived in with so much fondness, despite the segregation, is truly interesting. Many of the schools were mixed, though, so different races did rub shoulders with each other, but they couldn't live together. One plus to that was that the upwardly mobile minorities were living side-by-side with the poor, so the lower class had role models - doctors, lawyers, teachers - to look up to who lived right next door. Many of those interviewed mention how this helped in the upbringing of the children, as opposed to today where the only people with money in the neighborhoods might be drug dealers.

Naturally, there is a lot of talk about the amalgamation of the black and white musicians' unions, well before the historical 1954 Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court ruling. While most people thought that the segregation should end, many foresaw - correctly - the drawbacks for the black community, most especially the lack of camaraderie and their own venue (the union headquarters) for meeting/jamming/discussing/writing/etc.

I really wasn't sure how I enjoy the book due to my lack of knowledge of the subject, but I found this quite entertaining and informative. Definitely a great resource for those interested in Los Angeles' rich music past.