“South-Central” rings with the same tone as “South Bronx” nowadays, but the inner-city neighborhood was once the West Coast counterpart of Harlem--"a social and cultural mecca” of the African American community, as we read in Steven Isoardi’s introduction to “Central Avenue Sounds.” Among its greatest glories were the performers whose music and song could be heard up and down Central Avenue from the ‘20s through the late ‘50s.
“This nonstop, vibrant club scene produced some of the major voices in jazz and rhythm and blues,” writes Isoardi. “All races and classes gathered in the clubs, from longshoremen and Pullman porters to Humphrey Bogart, Ava Gardner and Howard Hughes.”
For many of us, it was Walter Mosley’s richly atmospheric mystery fiction, starting with “Devil in a Blue Dress,” that first enlightened us about the glory days of Central Avenue in the ‘40s. But oblique glimpses in nostalgic fiction conceal more than they reveal about real life in South-Central, a place that has been neglected in both journalism and scholarship. That is why two new books of ethnomusicology and musical history from the University of California Press, “Central Avenue Sounds” and “California Soul,” transcend their own subject matter by preserving a rich but mostly obscure chapter in California history.
Appropriately enough for a study of “secular black music in the Central Avenue community,” as Isoardi defines the scope of “Central Avenue Sounds,” the story is told through a chorus of voices. Working under the auspices of the UCLA Oral History Program, a team of interviewers recorded and transcribed the recollections of 19 men and women who experienced the music scene as performers, including saxophonist Marshal Royal, pianist Coney Woodman, jazz virtuoso Buddy Collette, trombonist Melba Liston, composer and arranger Clora Bryant, and musician and labor leader Marl Young, among others.
Something of the same collective approach and communal spirit is found in “California Soul,” an anthology of 16 essays and interviews that focus on “the musical creativity and experience of African Americans in California,” as editors Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje and Eddie S. Meadows explain. While “Central Avenue Sounds” confines itself to jazz and its immediate musical environs, “California Soul” embraces all genres of black music, not only jazz but blues, gospel, soul and rhythm ‘n’ blues, and ranges as far afield as Oakland and San Diego.
But there are differences in attitude as well as scope between these two books. More scholarship is on display in “California Soul,” and a sense of indignation and sometimes even outrage, as if the editors approached their work with missionary zeal. “We believe that it is appalling that so little has been done when one considers that California is one of the most important regions in the United States for black social and political activity,” the editors proclaim at the outset of “California Soul.” “Also, it is ironic that although Los Angeles and its surrounding communities can be regarded as the mass media capital of the world. . , little attention has been given to the city’s African-American culture, the foundation for most musical creativity in world culture.”
The reminiscences in “Central Avenue Sounds” tend to be rosy. Saxophonist Marshal Royal recalls a 1926 gig in Beverly Hills with his father’s band, a bachelor party for Jack Warner where “I learned practically all there was to know about manhood for the rest of my life at that one party.”
“They sent a Rolls-Royce to pick up my mother, my father, my uncle, and me,” recalls Royal. “We didn’t know it was a stag party, so they had to get another Rolls-Royce to take my mother home.”
Pianist Fletcher Smith describes how he rode the rails from Nebraska in 1933, carrying only “twenty cents, a sack of crackers, and some water,” and fell in love with Los Angeles: “Boy, we got closer to Los Angeles, and I started looking at them palm trees, and I said, ‘Shit, I ain’t going to ever leave here.’ ” And native Angeleno Jack Kelson, who performed as Jackie Kelso, concedes that he was star-struck by the after-hours glitter of the Club Alabama and the Dunbar Hotel on Central Avenue.
“It’s like putting makeup on,” Kelson recalls. “When the sun goes down, all of the flaws and imperfections, whatever you might perceive them to be--suddenly, there’s an aura of mysterious wonderfulness.”
The voices in “California Soul” are more shrill. Kwaku Person-Lynn, for example, asks radio executive Pam Robinson about “Insider Perspectives on the American-Afrikan” broadcasting industry--and we overhear a war story about how black radio stations stopped playing Prince’s “Soft and Wet” because his distributor, Warner Bros., was sending the choicest promotional items, including concert tickets and tour jackets, to white radio stations.
“There’s always a battle,” observes Robinson. “We have been supporting Prince all of this time. Now that he has crossed over, we get nothing.”
At their best moments, these books offer an informed and insightful glimpse into a scene that is also an art form, an industry and a subculture. Perhaps the best example of the richness of detail and breadth of imagination to be found in these pages is UCLA ethnomusicologist Jean Kidula’s contribution to “California Soul,” an elegant study of “The Gospel of Andrae Crouch.” Noting that Los Angeles has always been “a city of expectation and opportunity,” Kidula regards Crouch and his distinctive style of gospel music as “a synthesis of black and white, sacred and secular, tradition and innovation, reality and expectation, image and person--the same influences I see represented in Los Angeles as a city and in African-Americans as a people.” Deftly invoking Crouch’s religious upbringing, musical artistry, career choices and political affiliations, she shows how gospel is a “tradition bearer” that expresses black values and conveys them to a multiracial audience.
Sometimes the contributors to the two books look at the same landscape and see entirely different prospects. “Most nightclubs, restaurants, hotels and theaters outside the city’s South Central section were closed to African-American audiences,” writes Ralph Eastman, a humanities professor and theater director at Mt. San Antonio College, in “Pitchin’ up a Boogie,” one of the studies in “California Soul.” “Clubs did, however, make strange exceptions to their racial policies. Some had separate sections from which guests of band members could watch the show. They routinely admitted African-American newspaper columnists (presumably to the same segregated sections), striving to keep their community abreast of the fortunes of the featured performers, whom blacks could only see in Central Avenue appearances.”
By contrast, drummer Lee Young, a former Motown executive whose career as a performer included stints with Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday and his brother, accentuates the positive in “Central Avenue Sounds.” Although he confirms that the music industry was segregated, he saw some aspects as an opportunity rather than an oppression. White musicians were paid for seven nights of work even though they were given one night off, but the black musicians were expected to show up every night of the week. “And I just loved to play so much, I went to different clubs and told the guys that if they wanted a night off, I would play in their place,” he recalls. “So I got a chance to play all kinds of music, because I used to let these guys off.”
Between the two of these books, a happy balance is struck between sentimentality, which suffuses “Central Avenue Sounds,” and savvy, which gives “California Soul” such a sharp edge. The music scene was mostly gone from Central Avenue by the late ‘50s, due to the ravages of urban decay, but its influences can be detected in the nightclubs, church halls and recording studios throughout California where African American music is still being made and heard.
Both of these books are likely to appeal, above all, to aficionados and collectors of black music; indeed, the frequent references to the mechanics and nuances of musical performance are likely to send the serious reader to his or her collection of recordings. All that I missed as I read them was a soundtrack, especially when I wondered exactly what Jean Kidula heard when she listened to Andrae Crouch singing “The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power” and counted each time he repeats the word “power.”