Central Role 

Four-disc set highlights L.A. jazz scene

Four-disc set highlights L.A. jazz scene

Various Artists

Central Avenue Sounds (Rhino)

Contrary to popular opinion in the hip-hop world, East Coast vs. West Coast battles didn’t begin in the late ’80s. The jazz world suffered its own version of this ludicrous conflict three decades earlier. According to prevailing stereotypes, the East Coasters represented the music’s vital, adventurous wing with hard bop, hipster lexicon, and late-night clubs known for furious cutting sessions. West Coast types were laid back, cerebral, more interested in fugues and waltzes than swing and soul.

Adding fuel to the fire were the inevitable racial overtones, with East Coast fans claiming that white musicians such as Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, and Chet Baker were getting far more publicity than Miles Davis or Thelonious Monk due to racism in the music press. West Coast fans came back with the retort that hard boppers simply churned out bombastic drum rolls, gospel piano licks, and overheated sax solos. There was far more fiction than fact in these generalizations, yet large segments of the jazz faithful still cling to them, despite numerous arguments to the contrary. Author/musician Ted Goia’s exhaustive book West Coast Jazz, for example, arduously shows that not only was there far more muscle than fluff in California jazz, it was an extensively integrated scene, given the time period.

Now more comprehensive evidence about the chops and credibility of California improvisers is available via Rhino’s impressive new boxed set, Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles (1921-1956). The four discs begin with the earliest sessions cut in the city and showcase the emergence of a definite sound blending elements from Eastern, Midwestern, and Southwestern styles with signature rhythms and influences born and bred in California.

In the ’30s, Central Avenue became the cultural center for African Americans in Los Angeles, much as Beale Street was to Memphians and Harlem was to New Yorkers. The street boasted an array of clubs, restaurants, and hotels, and the festive environment attracted fans across color and ethnic lines—even as it masked the ugly reality that blacks and Latinos were confined to one part of Los Angeles by segregated housing patterns openly endorsed and backed by the city government.

Still, in the midst of this political ugliness, incredibly beautiful music was created. From the set’s earliest sessions featuring legendary New Orleans jazz trombonist Kid Ory to its final dates with Charlie Parker disciple Frank Morgan and soul/jazz pianist Gerald Wiggins, this collection reveals the impact of both transplanted figures (Ory, pianist/composer Jelly Roll Morton, blues guitarist T-Bone Walker, saxophonist Lester Young) and native-born California artists (saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Teddy Edwards, pianist Hampton Hawes, bassist Charles Mingus). Central Avenue patrons demanded boisterous, joyous songs with booming beats and incendiary solos, so it’s no surprise that many numbers are either piano boogies, stomping orchestra showcases, or roaring horn battles. Not only do these sessions represent the last time jazz and blues were popular material rather than vanguard or historic fare, they also chronicle the coming of R&B, rock ’n’ roll, and ultimately the integration (of sorts) that signaled the end for Central Avenue.

The set includes extensive annotation from noted jazz and R&B scholars Floyd Levin, Phil Pastras (author of a forthcoming biography of Jelly Roll Morton), Ken Poston, and Jim Dawson. The compilers opted for non-chronological song sequencing, which can be jarring. Selections jump from the ’20s to the ’40s, then back again, but Rhino emphasizes mood and tempo over historical continuity, and the compositions most often flow smoothly.

The opening disc proves the weakest. The first track features wonderful “tailgate” playing from Kid Ory on “Ory’s Creole Trombone,” and Jimmy Noone offers splendid clarinet on Ory’s Creole Jazz Band’s “Get Out of Here,” but much of the other traditional New Orleans fare sounds rote and weary. Morton cut far better versions of “The Pearls” and “Kansas City Stomps” than these renditions, and even the usually extraordinary Louis Armstrong’s contributions are less than stellar. But the great works, among them Art Tatum’s blistering “Tiger Rag,” T-Bone Walker’s evocative “Mean Old World,” and Lionel Hampton’s dynamic “Flying Home” point the way toward the numerous treasures on the remaining discs.

These range from familiar standards like Nat “King” Cole’s “Straighten Up and Fly Right” to Hadda Brooks’ winsome “That’s My Desire” and Slim Gaillard’s wonderful, if nonsensical, novelty tune “Tutti Frutti.” By the ’40s, both a movement and an industry blossomed, and Central Avenue became a haven for jump orchestras led by Joe Liggins, Johnny Otis, Gerald Wilson, and Roy Milton, as well as mellow ensembles like Cole’s trio and Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers, featuring the smooth, elegant, and elastic lead vocals of Charles Brown. Bop made its entrance with Charlie Parker’s first trip to California to record for Dial in 1946, and it soon flourished with the subsequent appearance of other similarly attuned saxophonists such as Lucky Thompson, Dexter Gordon, and Wardell Gray.

The final two discs show older and newer styles dueling for audience supremacy during the late ’40s and early ’50s. Lester Young’s passionate, airy style was later adopted by a host of musicians from Zoot Sims to Al Cohn and Stan Getz, while more radical young musicians such as Mingus and multi-reed specialists Buddy Collette and Eric Dolphy investigated the connections between bop and classical. Meanwhile, the big orchestras were switching from R&B-inflected swing to straight R&B, new jump-blues stylists like Pee Wee Crayton were battling Walker for attention, and sassy singers such as Nellie Lutcher and Camille Howard continued to belt steamy ballads.

The fourth CD trumpets the arrival of R&B as Central Avenue’s sound of choice, evidenced by Johnny Otis, Roy Porter, Charles Brown, and the ear-piercing tenor sax screams of Big Jay McNeely. There were still a few boppers around like Wardell Gray, but the audience’s preference by this point was either for smoky blues along the lines of Percy Mayfield’s definitive “Please Send Me Someone to Love” or for less subtle material like Howard’s emphatic “Money Blues.”

While Central Avenue Sounds offers plenty of vital discographical and biographical information, most importantly the set proves highly enjoyable, frequently unforgettable, and uniformly fun. It harks back to an era when there wasn’t a music business so much as the business of making music. We can’t go back to this period, but at least we can remember it.


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