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'Don't Like Vanilla'

Photo by Lee Tanner
SUMMERTIME IS THE RIGHT TIME. RHINO RECORDS' CENTRAL Avenue Sounds, the four-CD companion to the oral-history book of the same name published by University of California Press last year, arrives in the full heat of the season. And hot is how we like to think of the Los Angeles music and cultural scene of the '20s through the mid-'50s that inspired both retrospectives. After sweating out the midday sun, the city's movie stars, musicians, trust babies and working folk would don crisp duds at night and wrinkle 'em up again, dancing and boozing till dawn to the beat of irrepressible jazz and blues.

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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 everyone was 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 Box last 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 Quartz on the shelf of anyone who wants some perspective on L.A. history. You can put the Avenue CD 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.

As the summer wanes, this box can relocate you in another time -- but still, strange as it seems, the same place you're in. Look out the car window at the same hills, the same streets, some of the same landmarks (though nearly all those of Central Avenue are gone), while your ears and mind club-hop through time, and another era's memories become your own. An education is rarely this much fun.

CENTRAL AVENUE WAS RECONSTITUTED IN AN ENTIRELY different fashion a couple of Sundays ago, when a $500-a-plate benefit was held at Paramount Studios for the projected Wattstar Theater. For some years, community boosters have been raising funds to remodel the auditorium of Markham Middle School on East 104th Street into a theater for movies and performances in an area that, having ranked as a sub-zero priority for investors, lacks any such venue. Thanks to help from L.A.'s Community Redevelopment Agency, LAUSD, Paramount, Disney, PacBell, Boeing, Ronald McDonald and other organizations (including Rhino, which is donating a portion of Central Avenue Sounds' proceeds), Wattstar is well along the road to realization.

For the occasion of the "Watts Renaissance" benefit, the Paramount lot was set up to resemble an urban area from around 1940, with movie-set façades bearing such famous L.A. names as Club Zombie and Club Alabam. Billy Barty, Rodney Allen Rippy and City Councilman Rudy Svorinich were there. A number of Central Avenue­era musicians, including Clora Bryant, Lee Young and Gerald Wiggins, were present to be honored. There were vintage clothes, vintage cars, vintage vegetables and not-quite-vintage jazz performances. There was catering from Aunt Kizzy's, Kate Mantilini and many other restaurants. There was a silent auction, whose goods included a dark-skinned baby doll in starched white lace from Marie Osmond Fine Porcelain Collector Dolls.

Buddy Collette was there among the honorees, wheelchair-bound for some time now because of a stroke but still tall enough that you could talk to him without stooping. Asked why we should remember Central Avenue, he said it represented a kind of ideal that shouldn't be forgotten. "It was a lot of people joining together with creativity and love."

The great saxist Big Jay McNeely was there, nibbling chicken as he explained his switch from bebop to R&B: He had a hit with the latter, and just continued down that path. "It's all who you fall in with," he said, recalling his training under the musical patriarch Samuel Browne at Jefferson High -- a partial replica of which edifice loomed not 30 paces away. Authentic? "It's okay," he shrugged.

And Central Avenue Sounds pilot Steven Isoardi was there, talking about his upcoming Collette biography and fielding congratulations. "Anytime I can see all these people together, it's great," he said. So -- he's got the Central book and box; what about the movie?

Isoardi scanned the movie façades around him, and one could almost see recollections of The Benny Goodman Story and Bird pass across his eyes. He had nothing to say about movies.

Smart man. Central Avenue may be a legend, but it's not fiction yet.

VARIOUS ARTISTS | Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles (1921­1956) (Rhino)