It was a fundraiser for a venerable Crenshaw-area jazz establishment at risk of going under. But the aging musicians, outré artists and dreadlocked activists gathered to help at Leimert Park were an emblem of the venue's problems.
They lined up for a turn at the mic to share their personal stories: The World Stage had inspired them to write, sing, play, create ... transforming lives, they said.
They were impressively long on passion, but unfortunately short on funds.
That didn't stop World Stage manager Matt Gibson from trying to rev up the crowd. "There's probably somebody in your phone book who knows somebody who knows somebody who could solve this problem with the stroke of a pen," he said.
"Make a phone call to somebody who could write that check."
But money is not the only thing the World Stage needs to survive. The weathered landmark may be on borrowed time. Landlords in Leimert Park Village have begun raising rents and evicting long-time tenants in anticipation of a neighborhood revival sparked by the incoming Expo Line.
Leimert Park Village, just off Crenshaw and north of Vernon, has long been considered the artistic heart of black Los Angeles. It has a black literature-oriented bookstore, its own Walk of Fame and several comfortably cluttered art galleries and African-themed shops that are throwbacks to the era of afros and dashikis.
But the arts district has been losing its mojo for a while. Merchants blame the economy, poor city services and high crime nearby.
The subway has been hailed as a way to revive it. That's why local activists, merchants and politicians spent two years lobbying for a Leimert Park stop on the Crenshaw segment of the Expo Line.
They celebrated last spring when $80 million was earmarked for an underground station at Leimert Park Village that is expected to open in 2018.
"Now the irony of that 'victory' has become apparent," said jazz historian Jeffrey Winston, a former World Stage board member. "Many of those activists who clamored for the Metro line may not be able to reap the benefits at all."
The World Stage Performance Gallery has been around since 1989, when it was founded by poet Kamau Daáood and renowned drummer Billy Higgins, as a cultural center that would encourage young artists and jazz musicians.
"Billy would tour Europe and come back and throw money at it," Winston recalled. "He'd pay the rent, do whatever repairs were needed. It was, for him, a labor of love."
Higgins died 12 years ago and the World Stage has been limping along since then. "It's a grass-roots organization," Winston said. "We never had the cash to hire someone to run the place."
A loose-knit collective of professional jazz musicians offers jam sessions, drum lessons and coaching for vocalists, poets and piano players. But at $5 a workshop — the rate hasn't changed in years — those fees barely cover the utility bills.
The subway issue hasn't created their crisis; it simply highlighted their vulnerability as the new owners of their newly valuable block begin evicting businesses around them.
"This place is a spiritual base for artists," said Winston, who grew up in Leimert Park when it was mostly Jewish and Japanese.
"Now it's the last bastion of black culture. We'd like to think we're still viable. But we're in crisis mode month to month."