Best Of :: Arts & Entertainment
Los Angeles used to be a major jazz hub. From the 1920s until the 1950s a small strip of Central Avenue, around Vernon Avenue, played host to every major jazz figure passing through town, including Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker. These days almost every building from that era is gone, save for the Dunbar Hotel, which housed many of those aforementioned musicians. Seventeen years ago, however, an initiative to preserve the region's jazz heritage began. A great oral history CD titled Central Avenue Sounds was released, the Dunbar is under renovation and the Central Avenue Jazz Festival was born. The free, two-day festival held each July now features legends and younger cats alike, and attracts thousands of people. It's a great annual reminder of this town's once-vibrant jazz scene, as well as a hint of what it could be again. 42nd Street and Central Avenue, South L.A. centralavejazz.org.
—Sean J. O'Connell
Pat Grossi's stage name is Active Child, which refers to his precious, youthful tendency to put his ears right up to the speaker to get a better listen. The moniker is a bit cringe-inducing, and indeed the lyrics on the Pasadena resident's 2011 full-length debut album, You Are All I See, aren't for those too cool to attend school. They're unfiltered, unvarnished, filled with pummeling emotional honesty, through the eyes of sometimes-vindictive characters whose feelings are crushed over and over but nonetheless expect next time to be different. "I fall in love, way too fast," he sings on "Way Too Fast." "You're so damn cold, soon you'll be all by yourself." Produced by composition genius Ariel Rechtshaid, Grossi's songs are often accented by electronic flourishes and harp, and almost all of them feel like climactic scenes in dramatic movies — the part where we learn Bruce Willis is dead, or that the woman in The Crying Game is a man. This is not music for the ironic of heart. activechildmusic.com.
If there is one band that represents the multicultural mix of Los Angeles, it's La Santa Cecilia. Since its Latin Grammy nomination last year, the Boyle Heights–bred group has been representing L.A. at major festivals in Texas and New York. (It's exciting, particularly for those who can remember them packing La Cita in their early years.) They're also picking up the attention of critics, through pieces on NPR's All Things Considered and Latino USA. Further, their hybrid of Latin, rock and world music has caught the attention of groups like Cafe Tacuba, Lila Downs, Ozomatli and Los Lobos, all of whom have had La Santa Cecilia open shows for them this year. Anyone who has attended their concerts can attest that lead singer Marisol "La Marisoul" Hernandez has one of the most powerful voices in the city, in any genre. lasantacecilia.com.
Each summer the Levitt Pavilions in Pasadena and MacArthur Park put on free shows; the scene is relaxed, the views are nice, and the lineups are absolutely first-rate. Although a good portion of the musicians are from L.A., they come from all over the world, and include Weekly favorite acts like Dam-Funk, Fool's Gold and Buyepongo. (There's a particular emphasis on Latin alternative music, with a spotlight on new and underappreciated groups.) It's suitable for the whole family but edgy enough for serious music aficionados, there are great food vendors and, hey, did we mention it's free? MacArthur Park: 230 W. Sixth St., Westlake. (213) 384-5701. levittla.org. Pasadena: Memorial Park, between Walnut and Holly on Raymond Avenue, Pasadena. (626) 683-3230, levittpavilionpasadena.org.
South Los Angeles rap collective Black Hippy was assembled by Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith, who, via a handwritten sign hanging in their Carson studio, lets them know that they should strive for charisma, personality, swagger, substance, lyrics, uniqueness and work ethic. In an era of one-off dance club hits, it's the "substance" that the group — rappers Jay Rock, Ab-Soul, ScHoolBoy Q and breakout star Kendrick Lamar — seems to take to heart most particularly. Their hard-edged raps pay strict attention to craft and structure, while remaining suitable for car stereos and self-medication time. With members dropping first-rate solo efforts in rapid succession, the collective has linked up with Dr. Dre's Aftermath Records, and a group effort is in the works. So much concentrated talent is a bit dizzying — and supergroups never seem to work — but our money is still on Black Hippy living up to their reputation as this decade's N.W.A. topdawgmusic.com.
Smooth steel curves cut the skyline at unexpected angles and sharp creases, which is partly why no other building in L.A. proclaims "21st century" like Walt Disney Concert Hall. The acoustics and visuals inside are as impressive as the exterior, which makes it easily the best place to hear an orchestra in Southern California. Whether it's symphonic or choral music, an organ recital or a jazz, pop or folk-music show, the sound is detailed and warm. Meanwhile, seating surrounds the stage — something that is rare in the United States. Conducting geeks can sit behind the orchestra, while thrill seekers can purchase a front-row seat in the balcony (or side and rear terraces) for an extra adrenaline rush. Even the parking garage directly below is clean, safe and easy to use. Want to learn more? Take the free, self-guided audio tour narrated by actor John Lithgow, architect Frank Gehry and L.A. Philharmonic conductor laureate Esa-Pekka Salonen. 111 S. Grand Ave., dwntwn. (323) 850-2000, laphil.com/philpedia/about-walt-disney-concert-hall.
A rapper's box of tricks is pretty sparse, consisting of little more than his voice and his rhymes. Fortunately Blu, the underrated rapper originally from San Pedro, has been blessed with the best of both. His voice, smoky and sensual, slides effortlessly through complex lyrics that reference everything from Scripture to Shakespeare to Notorious B.I.G. (Not for nothing, he also has the sexiest descriptions of sex in the rap game.) His collaboration with local dream-weaving producer Exile, Below the Heavens, is one of the few albums from the aughts that made L.A. Weekly's greatest L.A. rap albums list, yet surprisingly few people have heard it. Remedy that. While you're at it, pick up their latest collaboration, Give Me My Flowers While I Can Still Smell Them, and expect to be spirited away to the duo's magical, nostalgic world. noyork.tumblr.com.
There are a number of nice jazz rooms in Los Angeles, but none as accessible and forward-thinking as the Blue Whale. Joon Lee's dark, low-key room atop Little Tokyo's Weller Court consistently books some of the most important jazz musicians not just locally but globally — we're talking folks like John Daversa and Dwight Trible. It's an indispensable part of the scene, and it's actually a very pleasant place to hang out. People bring dates and sometimes, believe it or not, there are more women inside than men. (OK, that doesn't happen very often.) In any case, the Blue Whale has done a lot to boost the city's jazz profile, and it gives some really great musicians ample space to stretch out. 123 Astronaut E.S. Onizuka St., Ste. 301, Little Tokyo. (213) 620-0908, bluewhalemusic.com.
—Sean J. O'Connell
A few doors north of Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, Working Stage Theater recently was renovated with a Dwell magazine–worthy façade, seating for up to 60, surround sound and soundproofing. It's a bustling, creative environment — the sort of place that people who've never been to Hollywood might imagine exists on every block. For a very reasonable fee, the owners make available the theater space, as well as lighting and taping experts. If you've written a script or play, there's no better way to polish your work than to test it live onstage. And while the space is perfect for play and script readings or personal film screenings, its services go deeper: If the theater-loving owners believe a new play shows promise, they may offer to co-produce — helping shape it and finding the actors, among other things. Thanks to its upgrades, the space also is used for film shoots. 1516 N. Gardner St., W. Hlywd. (323) 521-8600, workingstage.com.
Are you the geek in the DoomBuggy craning his neck in Disney's Haunted Mansion ride, looking for the hidden projectors and strings that make the ghosts move? Yes? El Camino College's Multimedia Effects in the Haunted Mansion is the workshop for you. Taught each October for $35 by Natural History Museum senior media technician Chris Weisbart, what began as a historical survey of dark rides evolved into a three-hour DIY hacker forum. Weisbart covers basic animatronics and teaches you how to create many of the Haunted Mansion's beloved illusions — the ballroom's dancing and dueling ghouls, the candelabra hovering in the endless hallway, the singing busts in the graveyard. Last year, students built their own talking Madame Leota severed head floating in a crystal ball. Don't be afraid of the tech. The original Imagineers were mostly Disney artists who taught themselves the hardware tricks. Done right, a piece of glass, a flashlight and a bedsheet combine to make a pretty convincing and elegant spook. 16007 Crenshaw Blvd., Torrance. eccommunityed.com (see Visual Arts). —Gendy Alimurung
Los Angeles has some great public libraries. With the ability to order any book from any branch, all of the libraries can be pretty great. But South Pasadena, that tiny tree-lined enclave, has created the library we all wish we could have. Entirely self-contained, the budget for music and movies seems to be endless. New albums roll in every day, and the entire Criterion Collection hovers on the shelves waiting for someone to spend three weeks with Nanook of the North. Aside from the intriguing choices, the lights are on seven days a week at South Pasadena Library, and it stays open until 9 p.m. Monday through Wednesday — making it practically a late-night spot by sleepy suburban standards. 1100 Oxley St., South Pasadena. (626) 403-7340, ci.south-pasadena.ca.us/library. —Sean J. O'Connell
You want to write prose, poetry or screenplays, but your dreams are also filled with chocolatey ice cream sandwiches and flaky cinnamon walnut pastries. Writing Pad is Marilyn Friedman's answer for the hungry scribe. She has recruited top writing teachers, who provide cozy classes both downtown and in Culver City. Workshops and panels are led by widely published authors, award-winning journalists and working television and film professionals. And there's often snackage involved. Friedman graciously hosts events in her ultra-cool loft stocked with savory appetizers and cool beverages. She's a gifted wordsmith and charmer who sets the mood for classes with candles, cushy sofas and hot tea. Her husband, Jeff Bernstein, an artist, often is around to welcome guests, and his wry sense of humor and quirky paintings lend themselves to the creative ambience. And, if you really want to inspire your inner Hemingway with a movable feast, you can attend a catered Writing Pad weekend retreat in locales such as Idyllwild, Joshua Tree or Palm Springs. Seventh Street and Santa Fe Avenue, dwntwn. (call for address); 9415 Culver Blvd., Culver City; Wilshire Corridor, Wilshire Boulevard and Beverly Glen (call for address). (323) 333-2954, writingpad.com. —Lorinda Toledo