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.


Listen to the past, present and future of jazz in L.A.

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...."

Brandon Cordoba

Jazz is a conversation, and pianist Brandon Cordoba is a raconteur. Taking inspiration from the classic sounds of bebop, modern R&B music, hip hop, and electronic music, Brandon is moving the sound of L.A. jazz forward, while paying homage to its past.

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"Jazz is about preserving a tradition, preserving a very rich and unique language that is not found anywhere else. So with that said, when you master that language or at least get the great whole of it, you are able to put your own personality on it." -Connie Han, Jazz Pianist

Connie Han

A young jazz pianist, Connie Han is trying to put "straight-ahead music" back into the mainstream. Watching her perform, one would have no doubt that she can do it singlehandedly. With a deep understanding of jazz's past, Connie is bringing straight-ahead bebop music into the present and out outward into the future.

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Dr. Bobby Rodriguez

A master trumpeter, Dr. Bobby Rodriguez weaves together traditional aesthetics of jazz, with melodies and rhythms from a wide cross section of Hispanic music. He artfully combines Puerto Rican salsa music with Cuban rhythms and the Mexican music he heard as a child growing up in East L.A. As a performer and educator, Dr. Rodriguez hopes to inspire young musicians to add their own stories to the tapestry of jazz music.

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"For me personally, what makes jazz great is this present, in the moment engagement, a real time engagement with other human beings." -Ramsey Castaneda, Educator, Musician and Doctor of Musical Arts Candidate

One Los Angeles, Many Rhythms

The diversity of players within L.A.'s jazz scene includes a breadth of pivotal figures, from club owners to musicians to educators, not to mention, its listeners. Click play to hear what jazz means to those who indulge in and contribute to its sound. For more faces of jazz in L.A. head to Humans of L.A. Jazz on Instagram.

"Man, as long as people want to hear jazz, I'll give it to them." -Lionel Hampton

"There was as many jazz musicians here as there was in New York, but New York got all the play. We always had our own thing. California always had it's own thing, especially Los Angeles." -Amde Hamilton, Jazz Poet
"We live as part of the oral culture of jazz in that they have to hear and they have to remember and they have to play from the mind out." -Lee Secard, Director of the Jazz Workshop at the Colburn School

And the beat goes on...

From propelling students into stardom to fostering musical curiosity in children under 10, Los Angeles' music schools and conservatories are keeping L.A.'s long tradition of strong music education alive. Performing at the highest level of education, programs around the city are dispelling myths that music education no longer matters—all while extending opportunities to young musicians whose families may not be able to afford traditional lessons.