The Sound of a City : It took Bette Cox 20 years to unearth the music of black L.A. She crisscrossed the country to put together the bones of a past filled with blues, jazz and symphonies, then fleshed out the story of the West Coast vibe.
Like ritual, early most Sunday mornings, it wanders out alone.
Not quite a voice, but a barely audible electric hum. Low. Just beneath the surface of the organ, this mere vibration finds form. Raw sound becomes comfort words.
“Oftentimes one woman, one person, might start a song,” says Bette Y. Cox, explaining the power of ritual. Depending on the house of worship, the person hosting that voice might be called “Aunt Jane.” Maybe simply “Sister.” Her voice rises like a spirit, gathers force with emotion and purpose. “Then everybody just joins in. They feel the emotion and they sing together.”
Cox, who possesses a compact, delicate voice that quivers like crystal when she speaks, could--but probably wouldn’t--call herself a secular version of an Aunt Jane.
But the song she started last month at the California Afro-American Museum is still going strong--and is due to continue, until the crews come in to clear the displays come October.
Her exhibit, “The Musical Renaissance of Black Los Angeles (1890-c. 1955),” kicked off with a three-day symposium with live music by some of L.A.’s mainstays--Buddy Collette, Gerald Wilson, and an all-star Ladies Jam Session featuring underappreciated luminaries Clora Bryant, Dorothy Donegan, Vi Redd, Genelle Hawkins, Melba Liston, Sheila Gonzales and Betty Hall Jones. “She’s the only person I know who could have bitten off so much and gone with it,” says artist Yvonne Cole-Meo, 70, daughter of the much lauded L.A.-based concert pianist Lorenza Jordan-Cole, who passed away last year at 95.
“Without Bette on the scene, doing her diligent research, we would have a big gap there. She’s done the jazz and the classical. I mean jazz is the meat . . . but there were also classical musicians--composers like William Grant Still--and a lot of children don’t know that,” Cole-Meo says. “And the fact that Bette is so knowledgeable and unselfish makes her a good ambassador.”
But for Cox, who on the symposium’s closing night strutted about victorious in her red drop-waist dress, matching heels and pearls, looking something like a flapper on a cloud, it was a victory past due. It took her 20 years to unearth “the sound of L.A.”--to prove that L.A. even had a sound. At least one worthy to document.
Call it what you will. A melting pot. A court bouillon--even in its early years, L.A. was the place as travelers ventured west--running from ghosts, wars, ruin; following hunches, rumor and dreams.
A continuum of settlers brought not only favorite rocking chairs, family quilts, hope chests and gilt-edged Bibles, but also guitars, pianos, sheet music and songs.
Whether it was Chicago blues, Texas shouts, Kansas City jazz or a Vienna waltz--when it landed in Los Angeles, Cox has observed, it metamorphosed, even if by just a shade--a reworking of a verse, a slight shift in a tempo, a revamped intro.
Here, where many auditoriums were off-limits to black Angelenos, the Sunday sanctuary served as an influential nexus: “The black church has always been important, not only as a religious temple but as a concert hall, an educational place,” Cox says.
And while the radio waves of the ‘30s and ‘40s beamed East Coast sounds westward, L.A.’s jazz traveled eastward by rail, hand-delivered by Pullman porters who stayed on top of the latest styles.
“It was one of the things that drew people here,” Cox says, “to see what Central Avenue was all about.”
Somewhere, however, in the pursuit of day-to-day concerns, something happened. The history wasn’t quite lost . . . maybe misplaced would be most accurate. Links in the chain were missing. Chapters without resolution. It was just a matter of finding those who held it.
Cox, who taught music basics to Los Angeles elementary school students, felt she should flesh out their studies of indigenous music.
“I was looking for a book about black history of music in Los Angeles,” she recalls. “This was in the ‘60s, and those were the years that the school district had accepted black history.” Having moved to Los Angeles from Twin Falls, Ida., to attend UCLA in 1938, she remembers a time when even the discussion of inclusion was moot.
But Cox’s optimism wilted when her search through the usual channels--library shelves, newspaper clippings, filmstrips and the like--came up empty.
More than she could accomplish in the narrow corners of her workday, Cox decided to dedicate a sabbatical to an exhausting search that sometimes had the feel of an archeological dig.
She crisscrossed the country--from lectures and round-tables to seminars and concerts. And by journey’s end, she had created a skeleton from which to work.
“I came back armed with books and material to build my library. I came back feeling like I discovered a whole new world.”
What began as a defined mission, Cox admits, turned quickly to obsession.
For some time it remained an after-hours pursuit--squeezed between full-time teaching, then her work as commissioner of L.A.’s Department of Cultural Affairs. What little time was left was taken up as founding president of the BEEM Foundation (Black Experience Expressed through Music)--an organization of educators.
But one by one, Cox’s other obligations fell away. She retired from her job. Stepped down from her appointed city position. Saw her children pack up and go to college. At first Bette Cox worried about her open-ended days--but it didn’t take too long to figure out how to fill them.
It started with a map.
Quickly drawn and, Cox admits, dotted with a few mistakes, her early Magic Marker-on-butcher-paper rendering of Central Avenue in its heyday was her omnipresent inspiration.
It still hangs on the door of her daughter’s old room, now one of two offices dedicated to the project. Cox has turned her entire home into a music conservatory of sorts--full of out-of-print books, stacks of LPs, photographs, even old instruments.
The collection spills out of those offices and into the living room. Boxes fill couch space. File folders, loose papers and more boxes take up residence in the dining room. The works, tangible proof that this endeavor has become not just a labor of love, but a family member close to the heart.
This paper bounty has generated an artifact over which Cox beams with pride. A bound manuscript that rests on her lap, ready to make the New York publishing rounds. It’s only, however, a small portion of what she’s amassed over the years.
The book, “Central Avenue: Its Rise and Fall--The Musical Renaissance of Black L.A. 1890-1955,” is an offshoot of Cox’s oral history project, which put her in touch with musicians, teachers, students, composers, who set to the task of re-creating not just the physical backdrop, but the soundtrack that accompanied it.
“I had been interviewing these old musicians,” Cox says. “A couple of them just passed away--Freita Shaw-Johnson, pianist Lorenza Jordan-Cole. They were both outstanding musicians in their lifetime . . . in the twilight of their life,” Cox says, “but they were still alive and talking to me.”
As have so many others. Too many of these musicians were the sole bearers of their stories, irreplaceable bricks in a vast city history.
The exhibit would provide another, immediate dimension. And so, with a fury, grant writing began--by far, Cox attests, the most difficult leg of the journey. But lining up money from foundations such as Arco, Weingart, Rockefeller and Ahmanson, as well as McDonnell Douglas, the California Arts Council and others, Cox was able to move this obsession to fruition.
Laid out in a suite of rooms at the Exhibition Park museum, the exhibit visually explicates the evolution of music in Los Angeles. Installations depict various hearths from which black music sprang: Saturday night good-time music (illustrated by tiny cocktail tables); the Sunday morning pulpit (with organ close by); a family’s sitting room (couch and coffee table covered with yellowed programs, honors, citations, announcements--and, of course, the well-worn spinet).
Cox dedicates much of this exhibit to those who didn’t live it, allowing those who did to tell an eager audience their version of the history.
Figures who started L.A.’s song--like Sam Browne, who in the ‘30s couldn’t land a job after graduating cum laude from USC’s school of music. Biding his time, Browne became part of a singing group called the Alabama Crooners. Although none of the men could claim Alabama as their home, Cox says, flipping through her manuscript to find an illustration, “in those days you had to do things like that in order to make a living to eat.”
Eventually securing a night-school job, Browne much later eased himself into a permanent position at Jefferson High School, where he taught a succession of names that would eventually pop up on Central Avenue marquees, in newspaper listings and in LP liner notes--Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus, Horace Tapscott, Dexter Gordon, Chico Hamilton, Sonny Criss, Paul Bryant.
Weekends weren’t synonymous with rest. At home, Browne hosted lessons that always went beyond scales and transcription.
“He used to take students with him down on Central Avenue, just to get acquainted with the music,” Cox says. “They couldn’t go into the nightclubs because they were too young. But he would stand outside with them and let them hear the music.”
Visiting lecturers included William Grant Still, Jimmy Lunceford, Count Basie and W.C. Handy, “to give them an idea of what it’s like to go out in the world and perform.”
Browne owed his prowess to his teacher, William Wilkins, the eccentric and enigmatic music don who draped himself in black capes and broad-brimmed hats, and carried a gold-tipped walking stick.
“He was the first black music teacher in the community,” says Cox, whose research places Wilkins’ arrival about 1912. In a year or two, parents were beginning to notice that he had great results. “It seemed that everybody wanted to have their children take piano lessons from William Wilkins.” When times were flush, he could boast 250 aspiring concertizers.
His eccentricity manifested beyond his wardrobe.
“People told me about Sunday afternoons when Wilkins would have his pianos brought out on the front lawn . . . he had five or six,” Cox recounts. “He lived in a big two-story house on Central, and he would have maybe two children at each piano. They would all be playing something together. And when the streetcar would come by and they would start playing. The conductor would just stop and let everybody watch and listen. And when they would finish, (the passengers) would give a big round of applause and the streetcar would move along. That was sort of a Sunday happening.”
To be sure, other evocative stories have been lost to the ages. This is what Cox finds so strikingly important about the oral component of the exhibit: the audio- and videotapes, the kick-off symposium.
“It’s like they are all griots from Africa. They all have something to share, to tell. . . . These were the people who gave me the history. More than half have passed on, but to those that were left, we are grateful for. Since perhaps next year we wouldn’t have had enough.”
The revelations stir mixed feelings within conductor Leroy Hurte, who founded the Angel City Orchestra in 1958, and whose baton has guided the Inglewood Philharmonic since 1972.
“There were some negative and positive emotions that had to do with how difficult it is for African Americans to really accomplish things that they wanted to accomplish,” says Hurte with a nod to Wilkins and Browne. “It put us in a vicious circle. It was so difficult to try to gain experience.” Hurte remembers the circle he paced--needing experience to gain experience--”especially in the conducting field.”
Hurte’s story isn’t unique. The sociopolitical climate played a big part in shading and shaping the music. L.A.’s black musicians didn’t have just race issues to contend with, but those of regionalism as well.
Consequently, the city shaped the music as much as the music shaped the city, Cox has found.
But forging Los Angeles’ musical identity has never been easy. And battles of ownership still rage.
“Buddy Collette was remembering that when a lot of our young people went East to play their music, the people in the East thought (the Californians) had taken something from them,” Cox says. “They didn’t recognize it as something that belonged to the people from the West.”
Bette Cox hopes to change that.
“Music is really important to all of us and is part of us as African Americans,” she says. “I knew from my studies of . . . Africa that everything is done to music. They celebrate a birth, a first tooth, the funeral, through music.”
Here, the tradition builds on that influence. And for those like jazz musician Collette, or Sam Browne, or William Wilkins, who gambled with L.A.-the-long-shot, the rewards are that much more resonant and acutely affect those who follow.
“I felt that some of the things we did were of historical value,” Hurte says. “I am proud of my race and the things that we do. And I felt that somewhere down the line there should be some documentation. I’ve always been concerned about our young people. About opening their horizons.”
“There was always a lot being created here,” says Cox, rounding out yet another verse of her song turned epic ballad.
“And it wasn’t until people came here for themselves that they discovered that the music created and developed here was by homemade musicians,” she underscores, “who didn’t go away.”
* “The Musical Renaissance of Black Los Angeles (1890-c. 1955),” California Afro-American Museum, 600 State Drive, Exposition Park, Los Angeles. Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., through Oct. 29. Free. Information: (213) 744-7432.
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.