By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
|Photo by Lee Tanner|
Central Avenue Sounds
There are good reasons for revived interest in that 30-year summer in the other half of this century -- reasons that don't all concern lost history and the advanced age of the few remaining witnesses. The attraction of Central Avenue is that it was a long party, hosted by the city's African-American community, to which everyonewas invited, before economic opportunity was quashed and before the fear set in. Today's observer, accustomed to an uneasy de facto segregation, likes to know there was a time when citizens of all races could spill drinks on each other in glad abandon; despite the numerous anti-discrimination laws that have been passed since, Central Avenue is a reminder of how far we haven't come. Now, with racial tension at artery-busting levels, ghetto poverty entrenched, street violence the rule, and schools separate and extremely unequal, fuzzy nostalgia is about all we have. But Central Avenue still serves as an example. The scene was real, and if it was real -- regardless of its inequities, criminal element and exploitation -- maybe it can happen again, better next time.
But it's hard to imagine the music being better. Central Avenue Sounds rides a recent wave of documentation, including Contemporary's The West Coast Jazz Boxlast year, showing that the condescension Easterners historically accorded Pacificside jazz and blues was just plain silly. Requiring discrimination and direction, the choice of music got the works from Steven Isoardi (the book's primary editor), California Institute for the Preservation of Jazz director Ken Poston and archivist Eric Frankhauser.
The challenge certainly wasn't digging up good material; it was narrowing the focus. The compilers decided this wasn't the place to reinforce the visibility of already familiar white satellites such as Art Pepper and Chet Baker; the music's African-American center would be emphasized. Isoardi and crew had to spotlight L.A.'s impact on the careers of Dixielander Kid Ory, jazz "inventor" Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans prodigy Louis Armstrong and bebop founder Charlie Parker. And substantial representation of L.A.-bred giants such as Lester Young, Lionel Hampton, Dexter Gordon, Wardell Gray and Charles Mingus was also de rigueur.
But Central Avenue Sounds' greatest contribution will be in winning new fans for musicians who aren't household names even among jazz fans. A couple of 1930 cuts from Paul Howard's Quality Serenaders show a sophisticated, smoothly jumping take on what we now tend to think of as old cartoon music; a sax solo on the Serenaders' "California Swing" anticipates harmonic lawbreaking that wouldn't be current for more than a decade. Howard McGhee's aggressive band, the first bebop on the coast, shows the trumpeter was a lot more than a Bird sideman. The Gerald Wilson Orchestras of 1945 and 1947 demonstrate intriguing dissonances and chord substitutions, kicked by such distinctive saxmen as Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis and Marshal Royal. In 1948, the short-lived Roy Porter's 17 Beboppers (featuring Eric Dolphy and Art Farmer) was one of the slamminest, most irreverent gangs ever. And in 1952, the remarkable subtleties of the Joe Swanson Orchestra (featuring Wardell Gray) were enhanced by the flute and alto of Buddy Collette, who remains an essential Central Avenue avatar today.
Even listeners familiar with all of the above will be glad to find obscure recordings by more famous names. Scratchy transfers from old needle-in-groove sources detract nothing from new perspectives on the likes of Ory, Mingus and Collette.
That's some of the jazz. Equally fresh was the R&B, which not only boasted a crowd of singular and influential voices, but offered clues to the era's racial attitudes. You can hear the roots of both Fats Domino and Patsy Cline in the mid-'40s piano and vocals of Hadda Brooks. Ernie Andrews' sexy lilt was as soothing as a Swedish massage. Nellie Lutcher's rich insinuation on "Fine Brown Frame" cast her as a kind of naughty debutante amid 1947's surface repression. And Slim Gaillard spoke for everybody in 1945 when he sang, "Don't like vanilla . . . there's a tutti-frutti one for me."
A copy of last year's Central Avenue Sounds book should be next to Mike Davis' City of Quartzon the shelf of anyone who wants some perspective on L.A. history. You can put the AvenueCD box there too, because the package doesn't stop with the music; its 92-page booklet is a reference text in itself. In addition to full session data and track-by-track commentary, it includes valuable L.A.-specific essays by music scholars on pre-bop (Floyd Levin), bop (Ken Poston), R&B (Jim Dawson) and Jelly Roll Morton (Phil Pastras), as well as an excellent period scene-setter overview from Steven Isoardi. And plenty of pix.