If you think of L.A.’s past as a movie, you will find the city’s nondominant classes and races on the cutting-room floor. You already know the starring roles, which are nailed down by a familiar cast of wealthy celebrities from William Mulholland to O.J. Simpson. That viewpoint becomes history, and history becomes stereotype and cliché. But with the publication of Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles (University of California Press), it will be hard to stereotype Central Avenue, and harder still to forget it.
Steven Isoardi, instigator of the oral-history project that would become the book, found his point of entry while writing a review of the 1986 documentary Ernie Andrews: Blues for Central Avenue. On researching the swarming African-American jazz and blues scene that thrived here in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, the political-science Ph.D. and saxophonist discovered that documentation was practically nil. Isoardi approached Dale Treleven of UCLA’s Oral History Program about filling the vacuum, and an enormous undertaking began. Musicians Buddy Collette and William Green helped compile the list of interviewees, which eventually included more than 30 men and women, together contributing thousands of pages of recollections. The results have been bound as archival source materials (available at UCLA) and as Central Avenue Sounds, a manageable 442-page condensation for the general public. The interviewees are considered co-authors and will receive shares of any royalties.
A number of valuable publications treating Central Avenue have appeared in the last decade, but Central Avenue Sounds’ scope makes it definitive. The book brings to life a completely vanished and unrecognizable Los Angeles, a city of chicken coops, gambling, explosive creativity and overt racism, painted in the words of African-Americans, mostly still living, who by no means agree on everything. Central Avenue emerges as a whirlwind of excitement and exploitation, neither a snake pit nor a utopia.
The story can never be complete, particularly without the words of saxophonist Dexter Gordon and key music teacher Samuel Browne, both of whom died before they could be interviewed. But it’s more than strong enough to make a difference, this story of a community that rose up, not only without the help of L.A.’s mainstream power structures, but often in outright defiance of them.
What follows is a sampling of Central Avenue Sounds.
CAST OF PLAYERS
Native Texan Clora Bryant played trumpet on Central Avenue before traveling the world (including the Soviet Union) with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.
Beginning in the ’40s, bassist David Bryant performed with Sonny Criss, Dexter Gordon, B.B. King, Johnny Otis, Gerald Wilson and Nellie Lutcher, as well as doing work for television.
Through his high visibility and persistent efforts, multiwind player Buddy Collette has come to be virtually identified with Central Avenue. A longtime bandleader and composer, he was instrumental in breaking television’s color barrier. He has also been an influential teacher, his students including Eric Dolphy, Frank Morgan, Sonny Criss and James Newton.
William Douglass was a versatile drummer with Benny Carter, Benny Goodman, Art Tatum and Ben Webster, and a strong proponent of amalgamating the segregated Musicians Union. He died in 1994 at age 71.
One of the lasting world eminences of the trumpet and flügelhorn, Art Farmer came to L.A. in 1945 and eventually performed with Lionel Hampton, Horace Silver and Gerry Mulligan, but is especially known as a combo leader and for his partnership with Benny Golson. He lives in Austria.
William Green was in constant demand as a multi-instrumentalist studio musician in film and television, also playing with numerous top names in jazz, pop and R&B, and teaching. He died in 1996.
Multireedman and guitarist Jack Kelson has been all over the place — in jazz, R&B, pop and rock, onstage, on TV and in films — from the ’40s onward. His phenomenal memory makes the L.A. native an ideal raconteur.
Before a stroke forced her to give up trombone, Melba Liston had already amassed impressive credits as a performer (with Quincy Jones and Dizzy Gillespie), a composer, and an arranger (for Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Abbey Lincoln and, especially, Randy Weston).
Cecil “Big Jay” McNeely left bebop behind in the ’50s to play R&B, where he developed a wildly theatrical presence and a honking saxophone style. He quit music for 20 years before returning to full-time perform ance in the ’80s.
One of the top big-band saxists of all time, rising to prominence with Lionel Hampton, Marshal Royal was Count Basie’s lead alto for 20 years beginning in the early ’50s. He played in numerous contexts, including television and theater, until his death in 1995.
A pianist with Earl Bostic, Benny Carter, Billy Eckstine and Lionel Hampton, Fletcher Smith passed away in 1993.
Having started out playing trombone in the late ’40s, Horace Tapscott switched to piano and has led groups of every size, including his large Pan-Afrikan People’s Arkestra, since the early ’60s. He is an internationally known figure on the cusp of the avant-garde, and a devoted servant of his community.
Since his arrival in L.A. in the ’40s, pianist Gerald Wiggins has proved he can do anything, performing with his own groups as well as Louis Armstrong, Louie Bellson, Duke Ellington, Art Pepper, Lena Horne, Dinah Washington and many other pinnacle names. He’s also all over numerous MGM soundtracks.
Still active as the leader of his big band, trumpeter Gerald Wilson can trace a brilliant career back to joining the Jimmie Lunceford band in 1939. He is also a respected educator and a composer-arranger for film and television.
Trombonist Britt Woodman will be found in the credits of Duke Ellington’s band throughout the ’50s; he also served stints with Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and Dizzy Gillespie, and has done considerable stage and TV work.
Coney Woodman, the oldest of the Woodman brothers, was a piano player on the early Central Avenue scene of the ’30s and ’40s. He stopped playing professionally in the ’60s, but continued performing in church.
Before narcolepsy prevented him from continuing to play professionally, William “Brother” Woodman Jr. played tenor in the bands of Fletcher Henderson and Joe Liggins.
Drummer Lee Young co-led a band with his older brother Lester in L.A. in the early ’40s, and has performed with Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday. He has spent much of his latter career working in the business end of the music industry.
Virginia-born pianist Marl Young had a fruitful musical association with Lucille Ball and was a perennial force in the politics of the Musicians Union, whose segregated L.A. locals merged in 1953.
I hoboed out here from Lincoln, Nebraska, in ’33. It was in wintertime. It was about 22 below zero. I think when I left Lincoln I had 20 cents, a sack of crackers, and some water. Now, the water — You see, I had been around hobos, and they’d been telling me all these things, which was very true. When the trains go through the tunnels, if you don’t have some water and a wet handkerchief, you get smothered to death. Because the smoke is going to come in that car. See, it was open boxcars then. And a man said, “When you see the train facing to go in that tunnel, you dampen that cloth and put it over your face and lay flat on the car until it comes through there.” Because if you sit up there, man, that smoke will kill you. Because those tunnels are long. From Lincoln to Denver it’s 500 miles. There’s a lot of tunnels. . . .
So I got to Denver, and I got in the jungles. . . . [A man I met] said, “If you help me drive to Los Angeles, I’ll pay your rent for one week and I’ll introduce you to some musicians that probably can help you.” So I helped him drive to Los Angeles.
Boy, we got closer to Los Angeles, and I started looking at them palm trees, and I said, “Shit, I ain’t going to ever leave here.”
. . . Prohibition had just ended in 1933, March 10. I never will forget that. You’d go down there on Central Avenue, down around 12th Street where the grocery stores and things were — Man, they were giving away free beer and free wine, you know, in the big barrels and stuff. They were so glad that Prohibition was over . . . It was free. Yeah. Free!
I remember going through Pomona, and I put my hand out the window, and I felt that warm air. “Jesus Christ, this is November!” And I remember the first Christmas that I spent here. I’m walking down the street, and I had to stop, because I was dressed like this. “My God. Here I am, this is Christmas Day, and I’m walking down San Pedro Street in my shirtsleeves, my short, short sleeves.” I said, “My God, where has this been all my life? I’ll never leave this town.”
My mother bought some property on 115th Street in 1926, and she built a house on the lot. It’s the place where I’m at now. Up until the Depression it was great, but when the Depression hit, wow. You know, a single woman raising two kids and buying a home, it was rough. She worked for some of the movie stars and directors. Housework, that kind of work. During the Depression she was also sewing for the WPA [Works Progress Administration]. But we survived with a big garden out in back. We had chickens, turkeys, you know, fowl. Pigeons. We used to sell squab. You say squab, that’s a delicacy, right? We used to take it to school every day for lunch. Yeah. If we didn’t have any bread, then on a biscuit. And we used to sell eggs and vegetables. We only had to buy a few staples. She even went to night school to learn about chickens. Built a neat chicken house with a cement floor. She was really serious about it. It was tough. But we did all right.
Watts was no problem. You could leave your door open. And the kids knew they had to walk a straight line, because the neighbors could kick their behinds, too. So everybody helped. You were raised by the neighbors. It’s not like it is now. If you go to a parent now, they might say, “Mind your own business” or “My boy is a good boy.” And we respected the older people. Everybody was “mister.”
Cecil “Big Jay” McNeely
We used to go down all the time and watch Simon Rodia building the Watts Towers. Watts was a beautiful place. They used to deliver the milk in a little horse-and-buggy. We had the ice man — we had to buy ice. We had a lot of chickens and ducks and things in our place. We had 100 feet by 100, and had a well on it, and grew all types of vegetables. See, my father [Dillard McNeely] was from the South, and, like a farmer, he knew how to grow all the vegetables. We had to take a bath in a number-2 tub. We had a pump. The water was fresh. We had a little windmill there. I think we were about the only ones who had a well, though. It was strictly all rural country out there at that time, because everything was downtown. There was no Orange County.
Around ’39 is when they closed the town down. You had a curfew then. Two o’clock. They could have food, but they couldn’t serve alcohol. They had to bootleg that. I was with Luke Jones when they closed the town down. I was working at Eighth and Figueroa upstairs, working for Papki. Papki had a lot of brothers . . . The cops warned him, though. They called him and told him they were closing him up, closing the town down, and he didn’t believe it. See, Papki had some friends on the police force, and they called him and told him that they were going to raid his place, and he didn’t believe it. Man, they came up there and chopped up that place. The first time they did it, they told the musicians to get their instruments and get them out, because they were going to tear down the joint. And they did, man. They chopped up those tables. Those gambling tables. You could gamble in all of the clubs. Everywhere they were gambling. Trying to make a dollar, man.
The first regular job that my parents allowed me to go to — I was still at Jefferson High School — I worked at a place called Danceland, between Second and Third on Main Street. It was one of the best taxi dances and one of the biggest taxi-dance jobs. They had about 35 girls that went to work every night. Customers would buy a string of tickets and dance with these girls. You would play one and a half choruses, and that was one dime. The girls would tear off one ticket. And sometimes these Filipino guys would have maybe 20 tickets, and they’d go out and dance with this girl until all of the tickets were taken up.
Well, I learned the repertoire, which was maybe 100 tunes. And if you were slick enough, you could play them backwards and go the other direction. I had a pretty good memory, and I learned the complete book during the time that I was there. I even did my homework for Jefferson High School, my book reports and things of that sort. I’d be reading my book reports during the time that I would be playing in the taxi dance. . . .
There weren’t too many drugs in those days. As I grew older, in my later teens and into my early 20s, marijuana became popular, because marijuana in the state of California wasn’t even declared illegal until later. You could go down alleys, find a plant growing there, pick it, wrap it up in some brown paper and smoke it. Nobody worried about it. It was nothing.
Coming from New York, most of the guys here were strange. You know, they didn’t dig New Yorkers at all. They said we had an attitude, and I guess we did. Well at that time I was under that false impression that these guys didn’t know anything out here, you know, this West Coast jazz. Everything here was so laid-back.
The first summer I came out here, I worked with the Sweethearts of Rhythm at the Million Dollar Theater. I worked one week with them down there. They had a chaperone, Miss Rae Lee Jones, and she wanted me to travel with them. My dad and I were still living out here on Adams and St. Andrews Place, and I went home the first day and told my dad about how these girls were feeling on each other’s boobs and patting each other on the butt and kissing. Daddy said, “You come home.”
During her years on the road with the big bands, Melba was severely abused by several fellow musicians.
Rapes and everything. I’ve been going through that stuff for all my life. I’d just go to the doctor and tell him, and that was that. Anyway that’s not — I don’t even want to hear about — I mean, I don’t want to talk about that.
It was all right. When I started going with Gerald [Wilson’s band] I was okay, because I had his support. So I didn’t have to worry. But then I left in ’55, and I went back to Dizzy’s band, it was the same thing all over again. Yeah, well, you know, it’s a broad, and she’s by herself. That’s that.
Most of the cops Chief Parker would hire, he would get from down South. All the cops in Watts came from down South. There was discrimination everywhere; there wasn’t supposed to be, but there was in some parts of Los Angeles. You couldn’t go to Compton. Well, we’d go over there shopping. It’s just that you couldn’t live there.
And we played at Billy Berg’s during ’48, ’49. We were the house band. We would play for intermissions, when the featured attraction would take their breaks. Then we played all around. The Brass Rail in Glendale. Just a club. Very prejudiced during that time. Glendale has always been prejudiced. Cops harassed us all the time. They wanted to look at my cigarettes to see if I had any dope in them. I never gave that a thought, because I didn’t have no marijuana. I smoked some, but I didn’t smoke any around like that. I wouldn’t dare do anything like that. They harassed us on the streets, not in the clubs.
Glendale was the type of city where black guys didn’t hang out on the streets, but in the clubs things were all right. But you wouldn’t dare be caught walking around the streets there at night. As soon as your gig was over, you’d get into your little buggy and get back across town. We had a lot of places like that. We always referred to those areas as “Little Texas” or “Little Mississippi.”
William “Brother” Woodman Jr.
The Melody Club on Slauson. I’ll tell you what happened there. Well, as I said before, I wasn’t used to prejudice. I just didn’t see how it even existed. I was born in Watts, and at Jordan High there was a mixture of various races: white, Mexican, Oriental. We all got along wonderful together. At the Melody Club people were coming in, the place began to pack, and they had “reserved” signs on almost all the tables. I wondered about that within myself. White people would come in. It was packed every night. Then the blacks would be coming in, and they’d turn them away. And that really got to me.
So I went to Jessie Price. I said, “Man, did you see those colored people?”
“Yeah, man. I don’t like it either, but there ain’t nothing you can do about it.”
“Well, man, why don’t you talk to the man and ask him what’s happening?”
“No, man. I can’t do that. That’s just the way it is.”
“Well, I’ll talk to him.” So I spoke to him. I forget his name. He was a Jewish fellow. I asked him, “Why is it that the colored people come in here, and you’re turning them down, and these reserved signs on the table surely aren’t reserved for everybody? But the reason why you’ve got them reserved is because it seems like you just want to make the colored people think that all these tables are reserved.”
“Well, I’ll tell you, Mr. Woodman, that’s just the way it is. That’s the way it is, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
I said, “You can do something about it.”
He didn’t like it when I said it to him. He told Jessie Price to fire me. So he let me go. I wanted to hit him in the mouth, but I couldn’t do that. They wouldn’t allow any blacks in there, no colored people. That wasn’t the only place. There were many places like that.
The woman next door saw us moving in, so we introduced each other. She said, “I’m glad to have you in our neighborhood.” I told her, “Thank you very much. I’ll be a very good neighbor to you. But any of those people that are peeking out of there, if anyone wants to burn a cross on my front lawn, I’m going to kill them.” And she started crying. I said, “I’m the only black on this block. If anybody burns a cross or anything on my front lawn, I’m going to give them a double load of my shotgun to start with. And I want you to tell them that.” They put signs up: For Sale, For Sale, For Sale.
THE AMALGAMATION OF THE SEGREGATED MUSICIANS UNION LOCALS
Let me tell you about being hired at NBC in 1940. There were separate locals at the time. They called me because the drummers couldn’t play a show for them. It was the Camel Caravan. That’s scraping the bottom of the barrel, because you’re in separate locals. This was a [white] Local 47 contractor that called me to work. So I rushed out to Sunset and Gower, set up my drums and I played the show. When it was over, the guys were applauding, and the leader told me that I had the job for 13 weeks. I was really glad of that, because that’s breaking down something.
So I came back the next week. I was setting up my drums, and I saw another guy with his drums already set up. The contractor came over to me and said, “Lee, what are you setting your drums up for? That was just for last week.” Because of the separation of the locals, they didn’t think I had any rights, because I was from the black local. They figured if a white guy comes to town, he’s supposed to take that job. So they told me I didn’t have the job. I asked the conductor, “Didn’t you tell me I was hired for 13 weeks?” He said, “Yes, I did tell you that. And you’re who I wanted.” He wouldn’t back down.
I took my drums down, and I went to 767 to file charges. The president, his name was Mr. Bailey, was a gentleman, very good education, but he was from the South. He was a nice man, but wasn’t thinking right as far as I was concerned. And so I filed charges with the national organization. I could show you headlines in Down Beat in red. It says, “Color Loses Lee Young Job at NBC.” . . .
Anyway, when that story hit, then it was a big thing. Now we had to go to Local 47 before the board. Mr. Bailey, I never will forget him, he had his hat in his hand, and he was telling them, “I really think that Lee is one of our young musicians, and he may have misunderstood exactly what you said.” He’s got his hat in his hand and he’s kowtowing. So I told him, “With all due respect, I’ve been doing this all the time and I do know when I’ve been hired. And I’ll tell you,” and I told him what was said to me and what I asked. So they called the conductor on the phone and he told them, yes, I was right. He was bitterly against it, and he was angry at the manner it was done. When they hung up, they said I won the case. They paid me, but they didn’t give me the gig.
I remember one [union] meeting where one black guy said, “I don’t want to have nothing to do with no white man.” He had grown up in the South, where they were treated like dogs. I could understand his not wanting to have anything to do with white people.
Of course, we still had to deal with problems after the amalgamation. We discovered, some time after the amalgamation, some things on the new file cards. You pull out Marl Young’s card: Marl Young, such-and-such address, piano, and they would maybe underline piano. Then you might find Buddy Collette’s card: underlined phone number. We noticed that if you found anything underlined, that means that was a black musician. We filed charges against the treasurer, who was in charge of membership, and brought him up before the board. His whole thing was, “Well, I’m only trying to protect [the black musicians].” I got up and said, “Let me tell you one thing. I have been black all my life. I think I know more about how to protect me than you do.”
THE GREAT ONES
I’ll always remember Lovejoy’s. It was an upstairs place. I was a very young guy in 1941 working on West Eighth Street at a place called the 331 Club with Dootsie Williams’ Four Chocolates. That was when I really had gotten acquainted with Art Tatum, who was playing there, doing a single. I was just a little kid who was worshiping guys like Art. The guy who owned the club was named Herb Rose. So Art would tell me, “Tell Herb to give you a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon.” Whenever I got that case, I’m supposed to take it over on Central Avenue to Lovejoy’s and put it in the refrigerator. Art drank Scotch, V.O., and then he chased it with the Pabst Blue Ribbon. When everybody saw me coming there with a case of beer, then the word went around town, “Art’s coming in tonight.”
[Charles Mingus] was a strange cat, man. He came outside the theater when we were taking intermission, and he jumped on the man’s brand-new car — jumped on the hood of the stagehand’s car. Put a big dent in it. Then jumped on the other side. He’d just do anything. Brother Woodman was in the band. You know, Brother is just like a bull. So, [Mingus] said something to Brother Woodman, and man, when I looked around, Brother Woodman had that cat up over his head like that. He had Mingus over his head. Buddy Collette was there. He was in the band playing first alto. See, Woodman’s been whopping Mingus ever since they were kids in the back yards. He always wanted to jump on Brother Woodman, and Brother Woodman would be laughing and be beating him to death.
People think that [Mingus] hated white persons. They called him the angry man. But if you’d go to his pad, that’s all he had surrounding him, white people. The blacks were the ones that couldn’t understand him. He never had too many black friends, just his musicians that were with him: Eric Dolphy and Ted Curson and his drummer, Dannie Richmond. But lots of the other outside black musicians, they didn’t really know him, his heart, how beautiful a person he was. So he didn’t hate white people, he hated prejudice. And that’s when he’d get angry.
Mingus was always a disaster to have around. I loved him, but he was worse than a child. He didn’t know how to clean up behind himself. He could cook, but there would be eggs on the floor and ceiling. Couldn’t find his shoes when he had to go to work, didn’t have a white shirt, couldn’t write a check. All he could really do was play the bass and write music.
And his music was always interesting. It wasn’t always the same. Tomorrow night he would start somewhere different and try something completely different. Even as a kid. That was his personality. He didn’t come from any mold. . . .
[Eric Dolphy] loved all those strange notes to the point of being out there even when the tune didn’t call for it. But he’d also had a background in classical music. He loved to practice it. He’d spend more time practicing classical than jazz, so he had the fingers and he had the difficult things always behind him.
He was a joy to teach. You didn’t have to teach him that much. He just loved it. Whatever you gave him, he’d approach it like you had given him a toy or a bowl of ice cream. It was fun, and the fun was always there. He was just a joy. There’s not too many that you meet that have the magic within their makeup. He would smile when he played or practiced, just enjoying it.
Dexter [Gordon] loved this thing so much that it was his life. If you love anything, you just live it, sleep it and eat it. And it seems to me that I’ve heard Marshal [Royal] say that Dexter told him once, as a very young man — Marshal said that Dexter’s ambition was to become a junkie. He was so committed to music — well, jazz music — and he felt that the epitome of being what he wanted was to be a junkie musician. In other words, I guess he felt that the dope was going to help him be a more completely formed musician. And Dexter apparently experimented a little too much with narcotics.
No matter how strong you are as a human being, if you tamper with the poisons too long it will get the best of you. I had enough silly, pioneering, adventuresome spirit about myself that I managed to make sure that I didn’t miss anything. So I have experimented with just about everything. There were a certain couple of things I drew the line on because I didn’t think I needed to make those experiments. But I’ve experimented widely enough to feel that, yeah, fine. Like some people say, “Don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it.” Well, I’ve tried almost everything, so I am in a position to knock it.
Just before [Charlie Parker] returned to New York, this artist gave him a going-away party [at] a ranch up in Pasadena, up in the hills. Let’s see, who was there? Frank Morgan, Larance Marable, a piano player named Amos Trice. A couple of more people. Anyway, we were burning, man. You know Bird. We were playing. So Bird had a tie, had a suit. He was all dressed up. Then he took off his coat first, then he took off his tie, then he took off his shirt. He did a striptease, down to his birthday suit. You hear me? His birthday suit, man. He said, “Okay, everybody get like me or split.” Now, more people got like him than split. And I was hiding behind my bass. And we were burning, man, burning!
None of us had any money. My brother [Addison Farmer] was working sometimes because the bass players would get more work than trumpet players, you know, because many little places would have a trio. Sometimes Charlie Parker would say, “Loan me 5 dollars” or “Loan me 10 dollars. I’ll pay you back tomorrow.” He always paid [Addison] back. Always. He developed a reputation of being a sort of swindler, borrowing money and never paying and all sorts of negative things like that. But that never happened.
And I remember one night we were walking on Central Avenue to go to one of those movie theaters. Well, you wait until the last feature had already started and then go to the doorman and say, “Hey, man, we don’t have any money. Why don’t you let us in to see the end of the movie?” It worked sometimes. So there was the great Charlie Parker, who didn’t have enough money to buy a ticket to go in a movie. But he was a human being, you know. He was out here just like everybody else.
I walked up to Miles Davis and asked him, “Miles, how could you help me understand what to do with jazz? How would you describe it?” “Well, Bill, I take one note that I like, and I add another and another —” he started walking off. “And another and another —” Until he disappeared. And that was it. And, truthfully, that is the answer.
Central is just as important as 125th Street in New York City or South Park in Chicago, Cedar Street, I think, in Pittsburgh. They all have it. All of the cities have a street. It’s the street where the black people live. And I think it’s important to Los Angeles, no matter what color you are. And it was very important to the music, jazz, because it was a place where it lived. And everyone came there, all of the biggest. You don’t come any bigger than Duke Ellington. You don’t come any bigger than Jelly Roll Morton. He died here. He’s right out there in the Calvary Cemetery on the Eastside here.
So jazz is very important in Los Angeles, and Central Avenue — There’s no place like Central Avenue. Because I’d rather come here. When I got here that beautiful day, and there was this beautiful street with a beautiful hotel to stay in, the Dunbar, which I didn’t have in New York City — They didn’t have a decent hotel for you to stay in there. But Los Angeles had the Dunbar Hotel and had that nice street, beautiful street.
There were not too many rules to be broken in music at that time. I think it was easier to just be you. You were playing for you. We all respected each other, and we didn’t all want to play like each other. The charm of it was that you came in with your own little sound. Every night there was stuff to hear. There was interplay. Dexter Gordon and Teddy Edwards and Wardell Gray and Gene Montgomery and Big Jay McNeely — close your eyes and you could tell who was playing. Alto players, the same thing. Sweet Pea Robinson and Sonny Criss and Eric Dolphy and Frank Morgan. No way could you miss it. You know, four bars or whatever, you could hear it. There was something wonderful there.
I’ll tell you something about Central Avenue: The white man owned all the clubs. The black man didn’t own nothing. So there was no success for the black man on Central Avenue. You just had a whole lot of clubs, that’s all. Selling whiskey, that’s all.
But that was one of the swingingest streets in the world, man, when it was jumping. Because I’ve been to all those places that are supposed to be swinging, like Kansas City, Chicago and New York, and all those places. But they didn’t swing like Central Avenue.
One of the most important people on Central Avenue was Leon Washington, the founder and publisher of the Los Angeles Sentinel. The most important thing that I remember about him was the fact that he was the publisher, and he had a very, very important campaign movement on Central Avenue. It was defined by the phrase “Don’t spend where you can’t work.” That is something that ran for many, many, many years. There was a lot of money being spent on Central Avenue in these stores that were not black-owned, and very, very few blacks worked as employees in the stores. So the campaign worked, and very gradually some of the money that was spent in the stores found its way into the pockets of black employees. . . .
That’s my favorite spot on Central Avenue, that spot in front of the Dunbar Hotel, because that to me was the hippest, most intimate, key spot of all the activity. That’s where all of the night people hung out: the sportsmen, the businessmen, the dancers, everybody in show business, people who were somebody who stayed at the hotel. . . .
That’s where you would go to look and go to be seen and go to talk and exchange the joy of being alive and having the privilege of being part of the audience and being onstage. The sharpies would take turns holding forth and being in charge. And the physical appearance of these men — I don’t see women in the picture. It’s always extremely well-dressed, sharp, sophisticated, worldly men. Show-business people. Not businessmen. But these were, in a sense, maybe the night people or the sportsmen or the people who had time to talk and have fun and be seen and look good and establish camaraderie and sort of that secret bonding that sportsmen have among themselves.
I’ve never seen more glamour anywhere in the world than in that one spot. Because, even if you weren’t working and if you were just part of the group, it was almost mandatory that you were sharp. Beautiful clothes, tailor-made clothes, beautiful suits and socks. And that was the day when men had their hair gassed or processed, whatever word you want to use. Everybody was just immaculately, you might say, splendiferous in their appearance, and they took great pride with everything about their appearance. The way they walked, you know: proud. And they could tell stories, and the body language, and all this. . . .
There was Stepin Fetchit with his long white Auburn-Cord or Packard or whatever it was, with a lion sitting in the back. That wasn’t far-fetched. That was just one of the things that you were lucky enough to see if you happened to be on the street when he decided to drive down the street.
But yeah, it’s really amazing to have been on the street, not realizing at that time what it was going to mean.
Two Italian fellows, the Risatto brothers, bought the Alabam. They had a little push downtown. They also had a place called the Breakfast Club, upstairs over the Alabam. They specialized in fried chicken, hot biscuits with honey, and things of that sort, and had an open bar. And on top of that, for a while they had an open crap game going, because they knew the people downtown. There wasn’t anybody bothering anybody. It didn’t even open until 2 o’clock, and they would have clientele there until 6, 7 o’clock in the morning. You had to pay off. They had some people that were doing business downtown. . . .
I wouldn’t know about [Cotton Club owner Frank] Sebastian’s ties with the mob. He knew them all right, because he knew all the fellows that were with the gambling boat, Rex, that was stationed offshore. And behind the curtains at the club, they had open gambling. You’d only see the people come in the front door. They wouldn’t come into where we were playing. Big-time gambling. They had to pay off. He was the big man in Culver City. The tops in the police department. The police all came in there and ate for free, you know. They had the run of the place.
I’d say about 1951 the hard drugs were coming into Central Avenue. It was about over then, anyway. And it was a big deal. I mean, it was like being in a clique. If you didn’t shoot smack — I don’t care how good you play, but if I shot smack, then I wouldn’t feel comfortable playing with you because you don’t shoot up like I do. So a lot of that happened. I saw a lot of cats die early from not being able to handle the narcotics in the area. And the narcotics, when they came in, it was really a monster, because you’d start seeing cats changing personalities. Then all of a sudden you don’t want them to come to your house anymore. They’d become like zombies and nothing else matters. That’s when it really hit bottom. All you wanted to do was just get high and nod. And you’ve got too much talent for that and that’s whipping you.
What closed down Central Avenue in the ’50s was the powers that be and the police, because of the mixing. All the stars and all the people would come over to Central Avenue and listen to the music. They didn’t like that mixing, so they rousted people. Stopping you and patting you down. Going into the clubs and messing with people. They did that for a long time. And that’s how they closed it up. White ladies would come down, and they didn’t like that. So people got tired of being messed around by the police, because they weren’t doing anything. Mixed couples or even white people they’d stop, “What are you doing over on this side of town?” It was about racism. That’s what it was. It was rampant then. That’s why they hassled people. So people got tired of that shit and stopped going over there. Central Avenue shut down, and things moved west.
Of course, they had a little dope problem. Heroin and cocaine, those were the drugs then. Heroin was the hip drug. But how could this shit have gone on if they don’t sit back a little bit? They go through the pretense of cracking down, but they don’t. They crack down on the people that use, but they don’t crack down on the people that put it in the damn community. I mean, it’s the big shots, like even the government, I believe, that had something to do with some of it getting in the country.
You could get anything. Drugs, women, whatever. Night or day. There was a place called Brother’s, an after-hours place, where you’d go and sit around on the floor on the pillows, and the incense and the music and the soft lights, and that was it. People would go off into other rooms. I don’t know what they were doing, but they must have been getting loaded or something. It was called Brother’s. He was a guy who wore all these long robes. There was a mystique there, you know. It was a hangout for guys to go for guys and whatever. You could get whatever. But he was a nice man, a nice man. And he stayed open a long time after Central Avenue started to break down. He was on Central Avenue kind of off the alley. I remember you had to go down a walkway to the back. You had to know somebody who knew somebody to take you there. That’s the way it was. There were movie stars. And the entertainers. I only went there a couple of times, because that wasn’t my shtick at all. There was no live music! They had soft records. . . .
What stopped Central Avenue . . . was the insults, the heckles, raiding the after-hours places. That’s what stopped it. The money wasn’t flowing. That was the whole point, to close them down. They started closing up one by one. Well, time was passing. I guess it was time to move on. . . .
Now I can get my Central Avenue in a lot of different places. Like when I’m around Count Basie’s band and they’re swinging their butts off, that’s Central Avenue. It’s held over into my genes now, my whole being. That Central Avenue is there. That’s how deep Central Avenue is to me. I was in Russia and I heard some music. That was Central Avenue. I take it with me. Central Avenue is a part of me. It’s in Clora Bryant. It’s in a lot of people and they probably don’t even know it. They’ve shut it off. But I never closed it off. I carried it with me. I’ve had it in New York, sitting there listening. And Birdland? Hey, they thought that was New York, but that was Central Avenue. There’s Central Avenue in every large city or any city that had a black congregation where they started their music. Kansas City has a Central Avenue. It might be called Main Street or whatever. And 125th was a Central Avenue. By any other name, it’s Central Avenue to me.
And that’s how deep it is with me. It’s me. Central Avenue is me.
Excerpted from Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles, edited by Clora Bryant, Buddy Collette, William Green, Steven Isoardi, Jack Kelson, Horace Tapscott, Gerald Wilson and Marl Young. Printed by permission of the University of California Press, 1998.