Central Avenue: a long thoroughfare slicing through East Los Angeles from East 1st Street on the north to Del Amo on the south. Not much to look at these days, it was at one time one of America’s most legendary cultural arenas.
It belongs, first of all, on any short list of America’s most vital jazz mainsprings. In the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s, when New York’s Harlem and 52nd Street, New Orleans’ Storyville and parts of Chicago and Kansas City were developing many of the music’s great artists--and getting more of the media attention--Central Avenue was bustling with its own unique activities.
And not just jazz. There were full-blown nightclub revues, blues hangouts, after-hours clubs, theaters, bars and taverns. A West Coast destination for many performers, Central also was a nurturing ground for such major Southland-based jazz artists as Teddy Edwards, Ray Brown, Red Callender, Gerald Wilson, Dorothy Donegan, Buddy Collette, Clora Bryant and dozens of others.
Wilson, a trumpeter and composer who still leads his own roaring big band, offers an impressionistic list of some of the venues--a list filled with his own rich memories:
“There was the Down Beat, the Club Alabam and the Last Word,” he says. “Lovejoy’s was a place down on Vernon where Art Tatum used to play on this little tiny piano, not much more than a spinet. There was Jack’s Basket with all the jam sessions, and there was Ivie Anderson’s Chicken Shack--you know, she used to sing with Duke Ellington.
“The Lincoln Theatre was up near Adams, and you can’t forget the Plantation around 105th. A lot of bands played there--Earl Hines, Count Basie, Erskine Hawkins. I played there myself with Billie Holiday. In between, there was Dynamite Jackson’s, up around 48th. And, in the early days, there was something called the 54th St. Drugstore, where all the musicians and dancers used to hang out.”
On Saturday and Sunday, the third annual Central Avenue Jazz Festival (a free event sponsored by the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department) will celebrate the area’s past and present. The event’s programs will take place directly in front of the historic Dunbar Hotel, still echoing with memories of the great jazz performers who have stayed there.
Now a historic site and the home to some elderly residents, the Dunbar has been renovated as part of a plan for the eventual revival of the area. But at the moment it is one of the rare locations on Central Avenue--which now is virtually indistinguishable from any other run-down, Los Angeles central city street--that recall the thoroughfare’s past glories.
"[Central Avenue] was the beginning of a lot of real free, honest music,” says saxophonist and educator Collette, who led a group with Charles Mingus in the avenue’s Down Beat Club in the mid-'40s. “We had all different kinds of music right in the same area. You had a chance to hear everybody, and everybody made a contribution to whatever the Central Avenue sound was.”
Beyond the music, Central Avenue also was a neighborhood. Unlike New York’s 52nd Street, which consisted of a few short blocks in midtown Manhattan, Central was (and is) surrounded by residential areas.
“It was a community. That’s the best way to put it,” says tenor saxophonist Edwards, echoing the remembrances of many Central Avenue veterans. “But it was a community that had music right in the middle of it, going on from, say, 9 in the evening until 6 o’clock in the morning, from 118th all the way to 1st St.”
“It was a place where all of the black people could congregate, go to their clubs, their theaters,” says trumpeter and bandleader Wilson. “There was the Elks Ballroom, the Lincoln Theater. It was a neighborhood. They could go to the Dunbar, have a snack at the coffee bar, or go into the dining room or the bar and listen to the jukebox. It was a place that was essential to our people as a nation.”
Central Avenue’s most active years stretched from the early ‘20s to the late ‘40s. It saw jazz move from New Orleans-style groups to bebop, pop music shift from vaudeville-based songs to rhythm & blues. And, in a period in which segregation still ruled the land, it provided a respite and haven for traveling African American artists.
“All the bands and the black celebrities stayed there,” Edwards says, “because there was no other place for them to stay. And that’s where the action was. Joe Louis, Lena Horne, Duke Ellington, Count Basie--all the bands--they were all at the Dunbar.”
The Dunbar, at 42nd Street, was the center of a cluster of venues. Nearby were the Club Alabam--originally called the Apex Club, and the home for often-elaborate music and dance productions--the Down Beat and the Last Word. The close proximity of the Dunbar and the various entertainment venues made the area between Vernon and Adams into a kind of full-time street celebration.
“It was a place to hang out,” Wilson says. “But what really made it so great, especially in the area around the Dunbar, was that all the great artists who came into town were there. And you could get to see these people every day--Duke Ellington and his band, Cab Calloway, all the great entertainers and singers. It was a thrill to be there. You’d look up and see Charles Brown and the Drifters walking down the street.
“And it wasn’t just that you could hear them play, it was that you could see them and talk to them and see them during the day--right there in your own neighborhood.”
Edwards remembers the after-hours clubs best--especially the Bird in the Basket (or Jack’s Basket), where jam sessions were a mainstay with the fried chicken.
“Most time we’d end up there after a gig,” he recalls, “and we’d play until daybreak. All the different guys--Wardell Gray, Dexter Gordon, Charlie Parker, Lucky Thompson, Howard McGhee, Erroll Garner, Hampton Hawes. The list goes on and on.”
He remembers the frequent presence of the legendary bebop alto saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker, who had a breakdown while working with Edwards. He also recalls the night Parker returned from incarceration at Camarillo to perform at the Down Beat Club.
“Everybody was there, man, everybody,” says Edwards. “It was a night to remember.”
Edwards, like Parker and virtually every other jazz man on the avenue, did not hesitate to play with rhythm & blues artists. The musical fermentation and creative interaction that resulted had an important impact upon both genres, helping jazz maintain its roots connection with the blues, and encouraging R&B; artists to add more improvisational spice to their playing.
“It was incredible,” says Wilson. “You had T-Bone Walker starring at the Alabam. Wynonie Harris and Charles Brown were around. Rhythm & blues was happening, and guys like Big Jay McNeely and Illinois Jacquet were doing their thing. A very exciting time, and we were all listening closely to each other.”
The result was an important musical interfacing--one that became a significant aspect of the sounds that emerged from Central Avenue and eventually reached out to other parts of the country. Unfortunately, Central Avenue never received much recognition for those sounds.
“A lot of guys eventually went to New York,” Collette says, “and we didn’t get the credit for the stuff that had started here. Chico Hamilton, Dexter Gordon--guys like that--left and some of the sound that they took from the West Coast was never acknowledged. Everybody enjoyed it, but there was no history of it. There were a lot of contributions that came from Central Avenue sounds that were never mentioned, even when West Coast jazz of the ‘50s became popular.”
Edwards attributes the lack of recognition to the failure of music journalists to check out the Central Avenue scene.
“The music press was in New York, and they blew it,” he says. “They didn’t come out here, even though there was plenty of action out here. All the musicians came out, but the writers didn’t and they missed all this history.”
Where did all the history go?
It began to fade in the late ‘40s, although individual entertainment locations emerged (and still surface) from time to time. But the era of Central Avenue as an African American cultural arena comparable to any in the United States largely ended with the ‘40s.
“I guess it began to fade after [World War II] ended,” says Wilson. “It was very good for a few years after the war. Jazz at the Philharmonic got started up at Philharmonic Hall at 5th and Olive, which was nearby. And that became very popular, with a lot of work for musicians. But then it just faded away.”
Edwards also blames the end of the war, noting that the shutting down of war industries reduced the prolific paychecks that had brought a free-spending crowd to the area.
“It used to be the money just ran down the avenue,” he says. “But as soon as the war was over, and the cash shut down, the avenue began to change. There were things going on for a while, maybe until about 1948, but after that, it was all over.”
All over and nearly all forgotten.
But not completely. In recent years, the media and the cultural community finally have begun to acknowledge the vital relevance of Central Avenue. Two recent books--"Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles” by Clora Bryant, Buddy Collette, William Green and others (University of California Press) and “Central Avenue: Its Rise and Fall, 1890-c. 1955" by Bette Yarbrough Cox (BEEM Publications)--include fascinating photos and revelatory interviews with Central Avenue veterans. “The Black Music History of Los Angeles--Its Roots” by Tom Reed (Black Accent/L.A. Press) is an intriguing grab bag of photos, concert bills and biographical data about the entire range of African American cultural activity in Los Angeles. And “West Coast Jazz 1945-1960" (Oxford University Press) by Ted Gioia includes an illuminating opening essay on the avenue, its many venues and fascinating characters.
For those who experienced the fabulous thoroughfare firsthand, the memories remain powerful.
“When I take my band out there in front of the Dunbar Hotel on Sunday,” says Wilson, “I’m going back to the place where I was the first night I slept in California, in 1942. Here I am, 56 years later, going right back there this weekend. That’s really something. And I’ll tell you one thing--it gives me a chance to remember some amazing times.”
The Central Avenue Jazz Festival ’98. Saturday: panel discussion with Clora Bryant, Buddy Collette, Big Jay McNeely, Clifford Solomon and Gerald Wilson, 11 a.m. Performances by Son Mayor, Smokey Wilson, Sweet Babby J’ai, Floyd Dixon, Ernie Andrews and the Frank Capp Juggernaut, Alex Acuna, noon-7:30 p.m. Sunday: performances by Ellis Hall, Francisco Aguabella, O.C. Smith, Olivia Revueltas, Gerald Wilson, Ralph Penland Polygon Quintet, noon-7:40 p.m. 4425 S. Central Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 485-2437. Free.