Itinerary: Central Avenue


The Down Beat Club. The Parisian Room. The Jungle Room. Some of the swankiest and swingingest clubs in Los Angeles weren't in Hollywood or Beverly Hills in the 1940s; they were south of downtown, strung along Central Avenue. This weekend, step back to a period of L.A. history that recently has caught the eye--and ear--of historians. Several books published in the 1990s recount the area's history, and one of them has its own Rhino Records CD set as a companion volume: "Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles (1921-1956)."


Playwright Steven Sachs threw himself into the history of 1940s Los Angeles to write his new play, "Central Avenue," at the Fountain Theatre (5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood. Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. $22. [323] 663-1525). It recently extended its run through Sept. 30.

Eddie (Chet Grissom), a young white musician from Glendale, seeks out a jazz mentor in Sam (Jeris Lee Poindexter), and their relationship plays out against a shifting backdrop of musical and social change. Swing is giving way to bebop. Black musicians are trying to integrate the two musicians' unions. And there's a struggle for control of the corrupt and racist Los Angeles Police Department. Music director Ernie Fields Jr. uses jazz recordings from Central Avenue players and new versions of standards to set the scene.


Los Angeles began to reclaim its jazz heritage six years ago, when the city and the Dunbar Economic Development Corp. started the annual Central Avenue Jazz Festival. The free two-day festival pays tribute to the renaissance years from the '20s to the '50s, beginning with a panel at 11 a.m. with the musicians who played on "the Avenue," including Buddy Collette, Gerald Wilson, Leo Blevins, Harold Jackson and Paul Bryant.

The performances run until 7 p.m. at Central Avenue Pocket Park (4225 S. Central Ave., L.A., [213] 485-2437), with Billy Childs and Prophecy, Ralph Irizarry and Timbalaya, the Clayton Brothers, Freddie Crespo's Mambo Review, Issac Smith Quintet and the Sweet Baby J'ai Band scheduled.

One of L.A.'s great vocalists, Ernie Andrews, essentially grew up singing in clubs along Central Avenue. He was an usher at the Lincoln Theater at Central at 23rd Street, the same place where he won the talent contest that launched his career while he was still a teenager. That led to his first record, "Soothe Me," which sold 300,000 copies. He also performed with Collette, Wilson and Teddy Edwards, all of whom will be on hand for the Tribute to Ernie Andrews from 2 to 5 p.m. at the First AME Church (2270 S. Harvard Blvd., L.A. [323] 292-1619). The concert is a fund-raiser for the church to restore the Allen House, a house across the street that the church uses for events and meetings. It has recently been designated a historic building. Tickets are $25 to $50.


The second day of the Central Avenue Jazz Festival, from noon to 7:30 p.m., features Andrews singing with the Gerald Wilson Orchestra. Nearby is the Dunbar Hotel (4225 S. Central Ave., L.A. [323] 234-7882), where Wilson stayed on his first night in L.A. in 1942. The Dunbar, which opened in 1928 as the Hotel Somerville, was where Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Lionel Hampton, Lena Horne and Count Basie stayed while playing in L.A., in part because hotels in Beverly Hills and Hollywood were segregated. Now the building has apartments for seniors. In the lobby, a community history exhibit contains photos of the area in its heyday.

There are also free brochures for a walking tour of the Vernon-Central neighborhood, showing the locations of famous theaters, clubs and businesses.

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