A Diversifying Los Angeles Breathes New Life into the City's Jazz Culture
The mid-afternoon sun beams down as a father and son carefully place thick slices of plantain into a pan of hot oil. A little girl tucks a small handful of cash in her waist apron, then watches as her grandmother spoons refried beans into crispy gordita shells. The slight chime of a piano cues singer T.C. Carson, whose voice oozes through the speakers like hot lava. In a lounge-worthy coo, he begins: "Love is stronger than hate. Love is stronger than fear. Love is stronger than aggression." Emboldened, he continues, "Love is stronger than race. Love is stronger than number 45." Rollicking cheers follow in quick succession. Carson's voice soars. The people are listening.
Now in its 22nd year, the Central Avenue Jazz Festival continues to tell the area's cultural and musical significance in an increasingly changing Los Angeles. Here, in what was once a segregated African-American community, the Los Angeles jazz movement was born. As early as 1908 musicians began to migrate to L.A. from New Orleans. Early proprietors of Dixieland and swing jazz, like pianist Jelly Roll Morton, cornet player King Oliver and bass fiddler Bill Johnson embraced Los Angeles as a breeding ground for innovation. It was bassist Bill Johnson, Jelly Roll Morton's brother-in-law, who first assembled a group of musicians in Los Angeles. That band, the Original Creole Orchestra, played in South-Central for about a month. Some members went back to New Orleans, but others, like Bill Johnson, decided to stay in L.A. Jelly Roll himself recalled: "Of course Bill seen the opportunity so he got into the band... and came to Los Angeles."
Now almost a century later, L.A. jazz, despite the one-sided assertions of last year's nostalgia-filled flick, "La La Land," is not dying. But it is changing. As borders have extended far beyond the Bayou, Los Angeles has become home to a much broader base of migrants. The natural fluidity of its sound calls out to masters of world music. Afro-Caribbean percussion collides with Ragtime piano. Brazilian Bossa Nova dances about the organ-like cry of the Chinese sheng. The jazz stage is now existing as a reflection of a new Los Angeles itself. The music, an inherently American convention — an African-American tradition — now invites a multitude of players.Read more...
It would take a few more years, though, for Los Angeles to become the birthplace and not simply the breeding ground. "At the start of the 20th century, L.A. is being built up by migration, and that's certainly the case for the African-American community," explains jazz historian Steven Isoardi. "It's not really until the 1930s that Los Angeles' black community starts building up its own homegrown musicians." Bee-bop, hard-bop and avant-garde jazz all collided to create a truly West Coast sound, the architects of which were all L.A. born instrumentalists and bandleaders like Charles Mingus, Buddy Collette, Chico Hamilton and Dexter Gordon. By the 1940s, Los Angeles, and specifically, Central Avenue, had become a destination for world-class acts like Duke Ellington, Lena Horne and Billie Holiday.
"I was born at the Dunbar Hotel in South Central, so I'm homegrown," says jazz vocalist and director of S.H.I.N.E. Muwasi women's African drumming circle at the World Stage, Reneé Fisher-Mims. Referring to South-Central's jazz scene, she continues, "Here it's very organic. This is where you come to get it. You get it here and then you go somewhere like the Blue Whale...."