Jazz : L.A.’s Lost Street of Dreams : The great musicians who once strode Central Avenue played from the heart.

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On Tuesday, Rhino Records is releasing “Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles (1921-1956),” a four-CD boxed set that has been assembled as a companion to the paperback version of the acclaimed book by the same name. Originally published in 1998 by the University of California Press, the oral history of the vital L.A. jazz scene was edited by Steven Isoardi, who was asked to co-produce the recording. Calendar invited poet and writer Kamau Daaood, a product of the Watts Writers Workshop and co-founder of the World Stage in Leimert Park, to give the collection a listen and reflect on the rich legacy of jazz in Los Angeles.


Central Avenue is a river, flowing with a rich musical history that for the most part has not been told. From the 1920s to the ‘50s it was the center of black life in Los Angeles. Along the fertile banks of Central Avenue unfolded a flowering cultural scene that paralleled that of New York’s 52nd Street. A caravan of great performers brought their bands through the area, figures such as Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, Joe Turner, Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker, to name a few. A lot of young talent lived and blossomed here, later making names for themselves--artists such as Buddy Collette, Melba Liston, Gerald Wilson, Hampton Hawes, Teddy Edwards, Frank Morgan, Horace Tapscott and so many more. For the most part everyone was transplanted here, working to fashion a better life.

The West Coast has neglected to blow its own horn. It has never fully realized the importance of some of the developments that took place under its own palm trees. Perhaps because it was a mostly black phenomenon in the shadow of Hollywood, or maybe it was the attempt to promote the so-called West Coast Sound with its primarily white cast of stars.


Whichever, some of the more successfully creative undertakings were overlooked. There are examples of players such as Charles Mingus, Wardell Gray, Dexter Gordon, Eric Dolphy, or even the early development here of Ornette Coleman and his crew, who have never been championed--or marketed, for that matter--as L.A.’s own.

Exploring the Rhino CD set is like discovering an ancestor’s record collection in a cluttered garage, taking the vinyl treasures into the house, wiping them off and firing up the turntable. A few of the tracks even have the snap, crackle and pop of vintage recordings--like soundscapes for old black-and-white movies. There are tracks of elegance and selections with modern sensibilities; there are hard-swinging tunes and recordings that are gutbucket funky.

You search the sounds for things you can relate to, for the familiar. If you’re lucky, new doors open, you make new connections. The past has a way of helping to understand more about the present. But it’s really more than music that we are dealing with here. It’s the emotional history of an era--how folks felt, the attitudes they held, how they spent their time, what was important to them. Each track becomes a time capsule to be opened and explored. It is not only good music that we seek; we seek insight, remembrance and revelation.

I was a teen and a young adult in the ‘60s. Charlie Parker had come and gone. I learned to appreciate bebop by reaching back and spending quality time with the music of that era. It’s just amazing how we can place a CD in the player and fill our spaces with mental images and sounds of other times and places. Its like a “Star Trek” transporter--one second there’s silence and the next you’re at the Olympic Auditorium in downtown L.A. in 1949 with Big Jay McNeely on stage lying on his back, screaming the bluest of blues through his tenor saxophone.

I have been fortunate to spend time with men that were witness to the unfolding of the Central Avenue music scene. Roy Porter, bandleader and bebop drummer, would come to a vintage record store I used to own in Leimert Park. A lot of young DJs, as well as Japanese and European record dealers, were looking for his records. Interestingly enough, they weren’t searching for the late ‘40s recordings of Porter’s 17 Beboppers, with sidemen like Art Farmer and Eric Dolphy (of which three tracks are featured in the boxed set). It was the funky recordings he did in the ‘70s and early ‘80s that they sought. The hip-hop generation had embraced this bebop hipster as one of its heroes.

Then there was Horace Tapscott, a young trombonist with Lionel Hampton’s and Gerald Wilson’s bands. Of course, Horace later switched to piano and became a major figure in the Los Angeles avant-garde music scene and the community arts movement. Because of his life’s work of marrying music and social activism, I consider Horace my mentor.


I learned so much from being in the presence of these men. There was something special about them. They were original thinkers, very outspoken, with such a sense of style, a smooth hipness in their voices and mannerisms. The depth and purity of their laughter was profound. Their backbones seemed straighter, their roots deeper. When they talked about the past, their eyes would become animated, fixed on some point in time when there was a real sense of community. A community that was held together by music, from the churches to the ballroom floors.

It is said that when people speak with the tongue, it goes as far as the ears. But when people speak from the heart, it goes to the heart. These were men of heart. This was music of heart arising from the struggle to shape their lives. Horace and Roy have left us in the recent past, which points to the real importance of a project like this. Their music and the quality of their spirit must be preserved.

While fishing in the stream of musical consciousness from another era, I found music with gusto. I found musicians who were fine craftsmen in capturing the essence of a time. So much of this music has dignity, like that of people in an old sepia photograph, dressed in their best clothes and posing proudly before the camera. This is a far cry from the sculptured static bumping loudly out from lowriders bouncing down the boulevard.

To sail down Central Avenue now, her banks so different, is like sailing down the Nile and seeing the majestic ruins of her high culture.