A couple of Wednesdays ago at the Hollywood Bowl, Wynton Marsalis and his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra took us through jazz history with classic tunes and classic arrangements and big dollops of New Orleans. It was pure, unadulterated jazz, Wynton making magic with his mute, finessing out perfect blue strains. The crowd, all those thousands of people from the rich and spoiled way up front to the true believers back there in the nosebleeds, were enraptured. Thousands cheered with jazz-fan timing, thousands knew Strayhorn and Benny Carter and Oliver Nelson, thousands knew when to shout and when to shut up and listen. It was beautiful. Toward the end, Willie Nelson joined them — he was a last-minute fill in, and who knows if they’d even rehearsed — and the unholy fusion of jazz and country seemed completely natural. Even the brilliant green shooting star that flashed across the night sky was perfect. Quite a trick, that meteor. The gods of the night sky don’t come cheap. Ken Burns would have gasped at the metaphorical possibilities.
And the night still resonates, so this weekend’s Central Avenue Jazz Festival seems even more special, as it, too, celebrates jazz history — L.A.’s jazz history. Central Avenue was once one of the great jazz places, an epicenter, thriving, bustling, swinging, dotted with clubs full of music, everything from blues to bop. Everyone played there: Mingus and Buddy and Lucky and all the locals; Prez and Bird and Duke and all the New Yorkers coming West for the winter. Everybody. Walking the empty sidewalks now, it’s hard to imagine; everything’s gone, empty lots and burned-out fronts where the music used to be. But one weekend a year, like a vision, it returns, and the street is packed with people. And music — great jazz music — rings out and the crowd shouts and cheers. It feels like the best L.A. jazz event of the year. This year’s Saturday highlights include Justo Almario’s impassioned blowing; Barbara Morrison singing and getting down; Mr. Central Avenue himself, the great Ernie Andrews; and the Gerald Wilson Orchestra in all their glory. Gerald used to play right there across the street at the Dunbar Hotel as far back as the ’30s, and he’s in ecstasy on this stage. Sunday includes the passionate Michael Sessions; the charismatic bassist Nedra Wheeler; Poncho Sanchez in a venue made for his Latin jazz and blues mix; and, best of all, the extraordinary pianist Nate Morgan, whose band will send us off into the twilight and back to our cars in a mood where jazz is, once again, and if only for a weekend, the greatest damn thing in the world. It can be blistering hot, sure, but the crowds are festive and friendly, and jazz lovers every one. The Central Avenue Jazz Festival is a rite of passage for L.A. jazz fans, and if you haven’t been, it’s time. Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m., at Central Ave. and 42nd St. It’s free, and there’s free, secure parking and a shuttle service from Wadsworth Elementary School on King Blvd. at Central. Details at www.centralavejazz.com.
But there’s more. There’s always more. On Wednesday at the Hollywood Bowl is a double 90th-birthday celebration, with Gerald Wilson (and his orchestra) and Hank Jones (with his trio). These guys were born during World War I, began playing jazz professionally in their teens and have never stopped. They have seen it all, from Louis Armstrong on up, and have made unbelievable music.
Then there’s all the other jazz across town. The legendary arranger Bill Holman has his big band at Charlie O’s on Monday (in fact, Charlie O’s is great every night this week, especially Ernie Watts on Friday). Azar Lawrence’s terrific quartet is at 2nd St. Jazz (366 E. 2nd St. in Little Tokyo) on Thursday; he’s got one of our favorite pianists with him, Theo Saunders. And we really dig Otmaro Ruiz, whose quartet is at Spazio on Monday. Power-trio fans will want to see Larry Coryell, Joe Bagg and Alphonse Mouzon blow out Catalina’s this weekend. And Israeli saxophonist Anat Cohen brings her astonishing stylistic range to Hollywood & Highland on Tuesday, and this could really be special.
Finally ... at the Autry Museum on Thursday is Jose Perico Hernandez y Son de la Tierra. His Caravana Cubana is pretty essential Latin jazz, and we vividly remember an Autry show of his being the downright rowdiest event ever at the joint, the rum flowing and Cubans going nuts and hueros in Western duds dancing like mad and ol’ cowboy Gene’s statue, there in the middle cracking a loopy bronze smile.
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(Brick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)