Influential L.A. drummer Billy Higgins was known around the globe; closer to home, he mentored hundreds of local musicians.
His non-profit performance space and workshop the World Stage opened in 1989 and, along with the Vision Theater, quickly became the centerpiece of the Leimert Park arts scene.
But now, 12 years since Higgins' passing of kidney and liver failure, a new landlord has caused a lot of uncertainty, not just for the future of the venue but the identity of the neighborhood.
Higgins opened the World Stage with poet Kamau Daaood, offering writer workshops, jam sessions and poetry nights to the community for little charge. Artists of all disciplines showed up in droves, opening galleries and other cultural meeting spots like Fifth Street Dicks and Babe & Ricky's Inn.
It all helped turn the neighborhood around 43rd Place and Crenshaw Boulevard into what director John Singleton referred to as a “Black Greenwich Village.”
Last May, the approval of a Leimert Park metro station for the incoming Crenshaw/LAX line seemed to be further cause for optimism. It took two years of fighting to get the approval for the $40 million investment, but soon afterwards World Stage's owners and their neighbors learned that the building had been sold.
Vocalist Dwight Trible performs regularly at World Stage and is also on its board. He's worried about what's ahead.
“From the cleaners on 43rd to across the park, everybody has been evicted,” he says. “The building that the World Stage is in has at least four empty spaces.”
He adds that the venue has been moved to a month-to-month lease, and that no one seems quite sure who actually owns the buildings now.
The Weekly couldn't figure it out either; the building is owned by an LLC, Mascot MBA, but the only contact listed on property records is lawyer Richard Teitel, who refuses to reveal the owner's name, and says he no longer represents them. The building's management company, Clint Lukens Realty, was similarly unhelpful in determining the owner or any future plans for the property.
The board's attempts to get help from local councilman Herb Wesson, who recently inherited the neighborhood via redistricting, have been unsuccessful as well.
“This saddens my heart,” says saxophonist Charles Lloyd, another World Stage regular. “The arts are the foundation of every civilization and the World Stage is a treasure and a landmark that has set an example for many other community performance spaces around the country.”
Bop icon Barry Harris regularly visited from New York and offered master classes, while Branford Marsalis has fondly recalled playing the intimate space with his quartet. The spot's late night jam sessions are open to anyone who can keep up with the 25 choruses unleashed by rising stars like Kamasi Washington and Terrace Martin.
Transportation hubs are seen as beneficial for local businesses, and often lead to real estate development. But in this case the character of the neighborhood seems to be suffering.
“People are talking about a metro rail stop in Leimert Park because it is the mecca of African American arts and culture,” says Trible. “There would be none of that stuff going on had it not been for the World Stage.”
Adds Lloyd: “Leimert Park is not just any community, it was Billy Higgins' community. He poured his heart and soul into elevating the performance and education platform where he and Kamauu welcomed anyone and everyone.”