When the average jazz fan considers the West Coast's contributions to jazz today, he recalls the sounds of Chet Baker, Stan Getz, or Shorty Rogers. An often overlooked part of the West Coast scene, however, is Central Avenue in the 1940s.
Central Avenue was the main corridor in central Los Angeles that played host to numerous jazz clubs: the Club Alabam, the Downbeat, Glenn's Backroom, the Memo (pronounced "MEE-mo"), the Last Word Cafe, and others. In fact, the Avenue had the greatest concentration of jazz clubs in California. How was this possible? In 1920, about forty percent of L.A.'s African-American population lived on or around Central Avenue (between 10th and 50th Streets, approximately) and by 1940, that population had nearly doubled to seventy percent due to the restrictive all-white housing covenants that essentially kept the city's black population corralled in the area near Central Avenue. Paradoxically, this racial injustice resulted in one of the most fertile jazz scenes in California, which was enjoyed by all jazz fans, white or black.
The Avenue boasted a nightlife that rivalled New York City, Chicago, Kansas City and other jazz capitals of the country due to the round-the-clock labor employed by nearby defense plants during the war years. At any hour of the night (and often in the day), one could swing by the clubs and hear Hampton Hawes, Art Pepper, honking tenor Big Jay McNeely, KC blues shouter Big Joe Turner, or tenor battles between Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon ("The Chase," anyone?).
Several events and trends led to the decline of Central Avenue's scene: the closing of 24-hour factories after the war; the "cool" jazz craze of the 1950's overshadowing the music coming from the Avenue; the U.S. Supreme Court overturning the unjust housing covenants, finally allowing the city's black population to diffuse into greater Los Angeles. Most of the old hangs, save the historic Dunbar Hotel (the first hotel owned buy and built for African-Americans in L.A.), are no longer there. Central Avenue has been forgotten until recently, when the city's Community Redevelopment Agency approved a $500,000 plan to revitalize the avenue in February 2006, which would offer incentives to current merchants and encourage new businesses to develop there. Central Avenue may see its glory days again.
Coincidentally, at the same time of this overdue re-focus on L.A.'s 1940s jazz corridor, KJazz was been asked by Jazz at Lincoln Center to produce a 15-minute feature on Central Avenue's heyday and its place in jazz history. Written/produced by yours truly and narrated by KJazz's Music Director, Scott Willis (West Coast jazz and bop aficionado), the feature is available for exclusive download here:
Jazz at Lincoln Center and KKJZ-FM (KJazz) present: a Central Avenue Feature.
Check out the song at the tail-end of the feature, "It's April," a rare Buddy Collette recording from the definitive Central Avenue Sounds box set, which you need to buy! It's gorged with informative liner notes from Steve Isoardi, Ken Poston, and other experts of this seldom discussed L.A. phenomenon. You can buy its companion book here.