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Don't Sell the Soul

(Illustration by Ronald Kurniawan)

Hi, reader, I’m Greg, and this is Brick; we’re the Weekly’s jazz guys. Leimert Park is one of our favorite places to hang out separately, so why not try it together? We drove over one Saturday and made a general nuisance of ourselves.

Brick: Nuisance? I was just following you.

Greg: That one block of Degnan Boulevard off 43rd Street has the most relaxed vibe in the city. Seems like everybody’s acquainted, but people are glad to talk to newcomers too.

Brick: I always push Leimert in my jazz listings — the jams and the neighborhood feeling are like something out of the old days. What’d you do before I got there Saturday?

Greg: Took a stroll through Lucy Florence Cultural Center (3351 W. 43rd St., 323-293-1356). It’s a gallery of Afrocentric art, plus coffeehouse, restaurant, small performance space. Got a bunch of little parlors too, all fresh and neatly decorated. If there’s gonna be a local meeting of six or 100, good chance it’ll be there. The proprietors, Ron and Richard Harris, took over 10 years ago. Ron said they’re just a couple of old hippies trying to do a community thing. Only place I’ve ever seen that sells Truebrary, the board game about African inventors.

Brick: You insisted that we try some food at that new Jamaican place, ­Ackee Bamboo (4305 Degnan Blvd., 323-295-7275).

Greg: Yeah, I twisted your arm.

Brick: It was good.

Greg: Is that all you’ve got to say?

Brick: Okay, it was really good. I’m a jazz guy, not a restaurant critic.

Greg: Weren’t you dazzled by the neon colors and zesty flavors of the june-plum juice and the guava-pineapple nectar? Didn’t you find the jerk-chicken stew complex, profound and redolent of island loam? Didn’t it all dance on your palate?

Brick: Yeah, sure. That’s what I meant.

Greg: Well, that curried goat blew my damn head off. Kinda vinegary, superspicy. I was choking and loving it. I wanted to take home a bucketful.

Brick: Your belt was too tight as it was. Lucky the other restaurants, M&M Soul Food and Augustine’s, were closed.

Greg: Yeah, somebody was telling me they’re only open intermittently these days.

Brick: It was Saturday night, for chrissakes! And M&M seems packed every other time I’ve been by.

Greg: It was fun sticking our heads into Africa by the Yard (4319 Degnan Blvd., 323-291-1517) — I get mesmerized by the tribal masks. Sometimes one just calls me, and I’ve got to buy it.

Brick: Wild chess sets there too. And some kind of African-percussion lesson was going on in the back.

Greg: There’s music everywhere in Leimert. Jackie over at Gallery Plus (4333 Degnan Blvd., 323-296-2398), the prints-and-framing place, told me Barbara Morrison has been organizing blues and jazz fests across the street, and Jackie can hear fine during her counter shifts, no admission required. She also said Eso Won, the African-culture bookstore, is moving next door from its La Brea spot.

Brick: Seems like Leimert is doing pretty well despite that huge rent hike a few years back. The new owners of 5th Street Dick’s (4305 Degnan Blvd., 323-296-0040), William and Leon, have a ways to go in getting the place’s music bookings more regular, but they serve great coffee now.

Greg: Leon told me it’s only a matter of time before Degnan gets turned into the Grove South; Bernie Parks and the city are determined to inflict the dreaded “mixed use.” Selling Leimert’s soul, literally. Did you see all those “Save Leimert Park” signs? There was a rally that morning.

Brick: Better enjoy it while we can. You think all the little shops with the trinkets and masks, like Zambezi Bazaar (4334 Degnan Blvd., 323-299-6383), will survive?

Greg: I think one of those dashikis would look good on you.

Brick: You first.

Greg: You probably thought I wasn’t man enough to sample a few more victuals.

Brick: With the Kitchen (3347½ 43rd Pl.) around the corner, it would’ve been stupid not to. Deep South soul food, mostly takeout. Perfect greens.

Greg: Rich eats, very homey. If it came to war, I’d choose the ruthless barbecue with all the chiles floating in the sauce over at Phillips (4307 Leimert Blvd., 323-292-7613), but I wasn’t sneezing at the Kitchen’s short ribs smothered in country gravy, no sir.

Brick: Sitting there at a sidewalk table listening to the drum circle in the park across the street was pretty ideal too. That Leimert Park drum circle seems to have more varied African rhythms going on than the Cuban circles in my part of town. Interesting change.

Greg: Thanks for introducing me to the cat who runs Sunny’s Spot (3349 W. 43rd Pl., 323-291-4075), the coffee shop and jam space next door. With all the musician pictures and signatures on the wall, and the beat furnishings, it’s got a real hardcore seekers’ atmosphere.

Brick: I went to Sunny’s jam session later, between World Stage sets. There were maybe a dozen folks plus the players in that bare-bones room upstairs. Friday’s jam is the best, with a better house band — Jerrell Ballard’s trio anchors it. That Saturday, it was basically amateur night, but the people were digging it. I bought a couple of little sweet-potato pies for home, and headed over to the Stage.

Greg: Sorry I couldn’t stick around. World Stage (4344 Degnan Blvd., 323-293-2451) brings back a lot of memories for me — shows with Horace Tapscott, Billy Higgins, Jackie Kelso. Henry Grimes’ first public show in 30 years was there. And you remember Black/Note, that younger band that came up in the ’90s? Their first album was called 43rd & Degnan.

Brick: Black/Note’s original trumpeter, Richard Grant, was playing with Charles Owens at the Stage on our Saturday. Beautiful musician.

Greg: And Owens, yeah, incredible wind player — used to play with Tapscott a lot.

Brick: Inside, it’s just a tiny storefront with folding chairs, really, and it was stifling. Nedra Wheeler was squeezing her double bass behind an unused drum kit. Derf Reklaw, up front by his three congas, was tearing the folks up with an outrageous story about some African gig where he was yelled at by the bandleader for not dressing African enough. “What you mean, man? These clothes are from Senegal! I bought ’em there!” Owens walked in — matching powder-green shirt and slacks and a big white Stetson. Absolutely incongruous; someone cracked wise about the hat. A guitar player, whom I did not know, took one edge of the stage as Owens busied himself taking away that house kit a piece at a time, giving the band some breathing room. A local loony took a seat in back, chortling a little too intensely, and the doorman hushed her — for the first of several times. Outside on the street, a trumpeter was blowing loud, flat, cracked notes. Someone went out and shushed him too. Owens was doing mostly Joe Henderson tunes. Reklaw laid out some Elvin Jones rhythms that kicked up the energy — certainly got the loony going; she was squirming in her seat and shouting like Moms Mabley on bad acid. In the second set, Owens’ “Shake Your Booty” was genuinely funky; he took his solo from the back of the room, and the whole place seemed filled with the music; the loon was going even more nuts. Owens took his solo outside — literally, out onto the sidewalk, playing for all the folks out there — came back in, dropped out, and Wheeler took over, laying down a swimmy groove. The encore on Joe Henderson’s “Jinrikisha” was the best, Grant blowing like Freddie Hubbard, Owens filling the air with flurries and screams, Wheeler and Reklaw locked in a monster groove, the guitar player darting around all of them. After most of the folks had wandered out, it still wasn’t over. Don Littleton came up, started messing around on the congas, Reklaw picked up his bongos, and suddenly there was a new jam, with Owens playing “Cherokee” at bop tempo over the manic hand drumming, crazier and crazier till, just like that, it ended. Reklaw, shaking his stinging hands, sat down. Littleton started up again, and Owens jumped in even madder, freer than before. When it stopped, the dozen people remaining burst into applause. They’d seen the most dangerous jazz created anywhere in L.A. that night.

Greg: I wish you hadn’t told me that.


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