Five Historic L.A. Jazz Spots
The Lighthouse Cafe
Have you hugged a jazz musician today? You should. For the second year in a row, April 30th has been declared International Jazz Day by no less a reputable organization than the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. This year's host city is Istanbul.
But why not L.A.? After all, jazz matured simultaneously with the City of Angels and throughout the last 100 years some of the most important jazz musicians have lived and worked here. While clubs like the Blue Whale and the Jazz Bakery keep the spirit alive, many ghosts still swing in the dark corners of our desert grid. Here are five of the very best Los Angeles jazz landmarks.
8481 Melrose Place, West Hollywood
Lester Koenig's Contemporary Record label was probably the most vital chronicler of the Los Angeles jazz scene in the 1950s and '60s. The label recorded local legends like pianist Hampton Hawes and saxophonist Harold Land, as well as visitors like Sonny Rollins (Way Out West) and Ornette Coleman (Something Else!), the latter of whom lived briefly in Los Angeles, notably working as an elevator operator at Bullock's department store in downtown L.A.
The most impressive feat of Koenig's operation was that many of his releases were recorded in the wee hours of the morning at his distribution warehouse on Melrose Place, under the guidance of engineer Roy Dunann. It is unlikely that the shoppers in what is now a rather ritzy shopping district have any idea of the brilliance that once echoed in those streets.
Shelly's Manne Hole
1608 North Cahuenga, Hollywood
Drummer Shelly Manne was Contemporary Records' go-to drummer. He had a long running series with the label entitled "Shelly Manne & His Men," featuring a rotating cast of local talent. From 1960 to 1972, he ran a Hollywood jazz venue called Shelly's Manne Hole.
Pianist Bill Evans recorded an immortal live session there in 1963 while Jazz Bakery impresario and vocalist Ruth Price recorded a live album with Manne and his men, while she was still in her early twenties. The small manhole plaque is embedded off-center on the once-again happening sidewalk of Cahuenga Boulevard, commemorating the spot where so many great heroes once stubbed their cigarettes.
Lincoln Theater sign
Central Avenue Jazz Corridor
Central Avenue between 23rd & Vernon Avenue, South Central Los Angeles
From the late 1910s until the early 1950s, Central Avenue was the center of the West Coast jazz world. No less than the inventor of jazz, Jelly Roll Morton, lived, recorded and even pimped on the Avenue while musicians like Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton were regular visitors to palaces like the Lincoln Theater.
Miniscule joints like the Down Beat club housed equally great musicians like Los Angeles' own Buddy Collette, Dexter Gordon and Charles Mingus. A series of signs mark the spirits of jazz past on a rather run-down strip of Los Angeles. Important buildings like the Dunbar Hotel still remain intact, but the memories of walking into a room and witnessing Art Tatum pounding Pabsts and playing a busted piano are distant.
Where Les Paul's garage used to be
Les Paul's Garage
1514 North Curson, Hollywood
At the behest of crooner Bing Crosby, guitar god Les Paul set about converting his Hollywood garage into a recording studio. (Are there any personal garages that aren't studios now?) While tinkering with his toys, Paul discovered the indispensible technique of immediate multi-tracking that revolutionized the recording process. He also perfected a portable recording system that allowed him to record radio shows while on the road.
The recordings that came out of this tinkering, although viewed as a bit of a novelty, were intricate displays of music and mathematics, with Paul accompanying himself at all manner of speeds to create superhuman but swinging sounds. Paul's garage is no longer there -- it's a driveway for an auction house -- but it seems appropriate that Sunset Boulevard's massive Guitar Center is only a couple of blocks away.
30 Pier Avenue, Hermosa Beach
The Lighthouse defined the West Coast jazz scene for many record buyers worldwide. The venue began booking jazz in 1949 when bassist Howard Rumsey hosted a jam session, which filled the dive with bare-footed beatniks almost immediately.
Central Avenue veterans like saxophonists Teddy Edwards and Sonny Criss traveled across town to play in Rumsey's integrated free-for-all, while trumpeting dreamboat Chet Baker, who lived nearby at 1011 16th Street, became a regular performer, launching a career that is romanticized as much for its decline as its rise.
The venue still hosts Sunday jazz gigs (at 11am!) but through the 1960s it remained a key venue for touring artists like Cannonball Adderley, Elvin Jones and Lee Morgan to record live sessions and take in that unmistakable Pacific breeze.
Sean O'Connell frequently gives guided tours of the Los Angeles jazz scene. Want to meet some of these swinging ghosts for yourself? Contact him.
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