Los Angeles doesn’t get enough credit as a natural jazz locus. Nonetheless, it has produced some of the idiom’s very finest practitioners. During the 1940s, Central Avenue was one of American music’s most critical creative crossroads, and its ballrooms and nightclubs incubated a small circle of acquaintances who in very short order reached a preternatural maturity and unleashed some of the most drastically creative, influential and downright historic achievements the world has ever been favored with. All these players grew up steeped in our between-the-devil-desert-and-deep-blue-sea’s very particular state of way, way out Western mind. While there’s plenty of young talent coming up, this list is nowhere near definitive. Rather, it’s a quick and dirty rundown, an affectionate, albeit stunted, primer, not a last word statement-of-record.
10. Kitty White
Vocalist Kitty White’s arresting style was loaded with atmosphere and color and exhibited a mix of languid authority and steamy conviction that served as an unmistakable calling card. Teamed with her twin sister, she began her career in 1926 as a vaudeville attraction at age 3, and grew up singing gospel, blues and pop. White came into her own thanks to a dynamic jazz prowess, which led to heavy club work and deals with Mercury and Capitol (recording with the likes of Ben Webster and Red Callender). White’s wealth of talent allowed her to cross over for plenty of lucrative and high-profile Hollywood soundtrack action in the 1950s, notably in noir fave Kiss Me Deadly, Charles Laughton/Robert Mitchum spine-chiller Night of the Hunter and dueting onscreen with Elvis Presley in King Creole, before cutting out for Palm Springs and a near two-decade lounge gig at the Spa Hotel.
9. Gil Bernal
Chicano tenor saxophonist Gil Bernal’s extraordinary career ignited when he was a teenager. He hit the road in 1949 with a lineup of Lionel Hampton’s band that included Quincy Jones and Little Jimmy Scott, and later established himself as one of the hottest tenor players in town, moving into steady studio jobs with The Coasters and Duane Eddy as well as a stretch with Spike Jones. Even on his many solo R&B meal-ticket workouts, you can hear the pure jazz cat struggling to climb out of the R&B factory, a feat he most ably managed from the 1960s up until his death at age 80 in 2010. In the clubs, Bernal’s live jams were righteous jazz in all forms and at its best, from free Coltrane-inspired explorations to straight-ahead introspective ballads, put over with his reliably superb, warm tone and impeccable time and taste.
8. Vi Redd
Alto saxist-singer Vi Redd, born here in 1928, was a natural and pioneering jazz force, albeit one who is criminally underappreciated and, sadly, also under-recorded. Daughter of noted New Orleans drummer and Central Avenue staple Alton Redd, she grew up surrounded by jazz musicians and ably held her own as a first-rate soloist and interpretive singer. Over the course of a distinguished career, Redd was a prized bandstand asset who toured and performed with Sarah Vaughn, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Count Basie, Max Roach and Dizzy Gillespie. Although she took up the sax as a teenager, Redd didn’t record until 1962, first issuing the Parker-centric, Leonard Feather–produced Bird Call followed by her masterpiece, Lady Soul. A true unsung titan.
7. Dexter Gordon
Dexter Gordon cast one of the longest and most notable jazz shadows across midcentury American culture, with a stellar swing-to-bop résumé, hard-fought personal battles including heroin addiction and hard prison time, and ultimately a triumph, late in life, with his memorable Oscar-nominated performance in Bertrand Tavernier’s 1986 Round Midnight and Best Jazz Instrumental Performance Grammy win that same year. A teenage sax phenom who blew alongside Illinois Jacquet in the Lionel Hampton band circa 1940 and went on to gain invaluable experience doing stints with Fletcher Henderson, Louis Armstrong and Billy Eckstine, Gordon broke out as one of the first wave of hard bop soloists circa ’46 and blew though the next four decades with artful aplomb. A long tall larger-than-life phenom.
6. Buddy Collette
Saxist-flautist Buddy Collette was one of the true fine Swinging Shepherds of the influential late-’50s West Coast jazz sect, a player whose lithe, probing skills as a soloist heralded the arrival of a new breed of interpreters. Collette also made history as one of the first black musicians to perform on a network television show (as a member of the orchestra for Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life, a decision for which bandleader Jerry Fielding immediately began receiving hate mail). He formed his first band as a teen (in the process persuading chum Charles Mingus to switch from cello to bass) and subsequently rose from the Central Avenue crucible to enjoy a long, productive career as one of the top cats in Los Angeles.
5. Ernie Andrews
The fabulous jazz vocalist has a distinctive, slightly smoky, dry (martini dry) tone that he uses to inhabit a lyric with tremendous, laid-back expressive quality and an abiding natural fealty to the blues. Andrews began his career in the late 1940s, did six years with the Harry James Orchestra and soon developed himself into a powerful solo talent. The deceptively relaxed Andrews methodology provides an oft-cunning feint, which allows for deftly applied dynamism and plenty of palpable tension — an engrossing presentation that’s always informed by the enduringly valuable truths of the human experience’s inevitably rotten lows. Although semi-retired, Andrews still make the occasional appearance; if you hear of one, don’t miss the opportunity.
4. Art Pepper
Los Angeles’ original jazzbo white boy wild-o, the Gardena-born, Watts-bred Pepper came up getting high and jamming with the usual suspects on Central Avenue — Mingus, Dexter Gordon, Benny Carter — and developed an alto sax sound unique unto himself. Pepper’s opulent, relaxed melodic sense and kicked-back improvisatory manner of navigation made him one of the top players of the mid-’50s and earned him, between not infrequent drug busts and incarceration, several stretches with professorial visionary Stan Kenton’s famed aggregation (a significant feat, as Kenton did not suffer dopers lightly). But Pepper’s impulsive hard-living shenanigans (documented in an amazing autobio, Straight Life) took a lethal toll, snuffing him out at age 56.
3. Chico Hamilton
Drummer Chico Hamilton radiated a deliciously frosty musical attitude and made his rep through a marked propensity for assembling bands of tastefully and painstaking selected players who, as an ensemble, made a profound mark on contemporary jazz. Eschewing midcentury hard bop’s insurrectionary drive and heat, Hamilton took an almost contrary approach; to him, drums were “a sensuous, feminine instrument” and his employ of unusual instrumentation — flute, cello, the still-active John Pisano’s lulling, understated guitar — represented an original, innovative, wholly new brand of West Coast cool, a contemplative sotto voce that issued a creative challenge to bop’s declarative shout. Genius.
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2. Eric Dolphy
A deep bop communicator, Dolphy’s reeds, whether the alto sax or bass clarinet, imparted a liberated message in his own magnificently unique musical vocabulary, a wholly disimprisoned style that, as he said, was “based on freedom of sound. You start with one line and you keep inventing as you go along. And you keep creating until you state a phrase.” Dolphy’s statements were nothing less than revolutionary and took wing to such an altitude that he is revered as not only one of California’s most important jazz artists but gained international recognition as a groundbreaking talent whose otherworldly flights of improvisation were unparalleled. Dolphy’s sudden mysterious death, at age 36 in Berlin, remains of one of jazz’s greatest losses.
1. Charles Mingus
One of the key forces in postwar jazz, Mingus, although born in Arizona, arrived in L.A. as a toddler and grew up in Watts among the teenage bop fiends studying the Central Avenue school of cool. An accomplished pianist, Mingus led his charge through jazz as a bassist-composer and bandleader and his music, fraught with gospel and blues voltage, changed everything. A creative giant with an illimitable originality, Mingus was an epic force, a Jazz Mount Rushmore–worthy titan. Truly larger than life, Mingus could seemingly do anything (f’rinstance, he successfully toilet-trained his cat, Nightlife) and his singular, soulful whammy still reverberates throughout American music.