THE CENTRAL AVENUE JAZZ FESTIVAL
Every year for the past 17 years, during the last weekend in July, LA residents and visitors are treated to the preeminent jazz event on the West Coast with The Central Avenue Jazz Festival. It’s free and open to the public – last year, 35,000 attended. The focus, of course, is live music but there are also craft and food booths. I’ve been meaning to check it out in the past and this I year finally did.
LOCATION OF EVENT
A BRIEF BIT OF BACKGROUND ABOUT SOUTH CENTRAL
The event takes place at the historic Dunbar Hotel in South Central — the actual neighborhood named after South Central Avenue and not the coded catch-all for “all neighborhoods south of the 10 Freeway assumed to be mostly black, impoverished and dangerous.” I could be wrong but it’s my guess that it’s mostly due to the perceived, negative connotations of “South Central” that there seem to be almost no official uses of that name in reference to the area. Instead one get’s the “Central Avenue Corridor” in its stead, or “Historic South Central” as a way of deflecting lingering associations — much as Compton Boulevard was re-branded Marine Boulevard on South Los Angeles’s Westside.
On the second day of the festival I took the Blue Line to Washington Boulevard, walked over to Central Avenue and headed south. I didn’t realize how big South Central is, and how hot it was, until I’d begun walking 23 blocks, keeping my eyes open for historic markers and sites of interest along the way. One landmark that I passed and didn’t see a marker for was the former headquarters of the Black Panthers‘ Southern California chapter (4115 S. Central Avenue).
SOUTH CENTRAL’S BEGINNINGS
the all black LAFD Station 30 now the African American Firefighter Museum (AAFFM)
Before the rise of the South Central neighborhood, most of Los Angeles’s black population lived in a small area around Skid Row colloquially known as “Brick Block,” where several black-owned businesses were established. Leapfrogging south over Skid Row, more black businesses and residences sprang up around the intersection of South Central Avenue and 12th Street in what’s now the Downtown LA‘s The Wholesale District. By 1915, the black-owned California Eagle publication was referring to South Central as the LA‘s “Black Belt.” Because it was centered along South Central Avenue, the neighborhood came to be known as South Central.
RISE OF THE EASTSIDE
In 1917, famed New Orleanian ragtime and jazz musician Jelly Roll Morton made a new home in LA. Two years later, fellow Louisianan jazz musician Kid Ory followed. The so-called Black Belt began to move further south along Central Avenue Corridor and expanded to the surrounding area roughly hemmed in by Alameda, Main, Slauson and Washington (including what’s now the Furniture & Decorative Arts District. To many inhabitants of the area, the region east of Main Street as “The Eastside” (not to be confused the Eastside region east of the LA River).
THE DUNBAR HOTEL
The most important site of West Coast Jazz in South Central was the Dunbar Hotel. The hotel, which had an Art Deco lobby, was built in 1928 and was originally known as the Hotel Somerville. Its original owners, John and Vada Somerville, two prominent black Angelenos (John was the first black graduate of USC). There’s was one of the only hotels to allow black guests to stay there and many did. In 1928, delegates of the NAACP stayed there when in town. Somerville sold the hotel in 1929 to white owners who nonetheless renamed the hotel “Hotel Dunbar” after black Ohioan poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar.
Soon after, the hotel again sold in 1930, this time to a black owner, Lucius W. Lomax, Sr. In 1931 he obtained a cabaret license which allowed for live entertainment. Soon, black luminaries including Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, James Weldon Johnson, Joe Louis, John Coltrane, Josephine Baker, Langston Hughes, Lena Horne, Lionel Hampton, Louis Armstrong, Louis Jordan, Marian Anderson, Nat King Cole, Paul Robeson, Ralph Bunche, Ray Charles, Redd Foxx, Stepin Fetchit, Thurgood Marshall, W. E. B. Du Bois, and others congregated, performed and/or stayed there. Black Western star Herb Jeffries did as well, after he quit Earl Hines’s band and moved to LA.
OTHER SOUTH CENTRAL CLUBS
For a period during the Great Depression the hotel ceased operations as a hotel and served as a mission run by Reverend Mayor Jealous Divine, a cult leader who proclaimed to his followers in the Peace Mission movement that he was God. But the Dunbar (and attached Club Alabam) wasn’t the only hot spot in South Central. There was also Alex Lovejoy’s, The Avalon Theater, The Casablanca, The Crystal Tea Room, The Downbeat (4201 S. Central – demolished), Elk’s Hall (3416 S. Central – demolished) The Hole in the Wall, Ivy’s Chicken Shack, Jack’s Chicken Basket (Jack Johnson‘s after hours – 3219 S. Central – now demolished), The Last Word (demolished), The Lincoln Theater (2300 S. Central – now a church), The Memo Club (demolished), The Ritz Club, The Showboat, and Stuff Crouch’s Backstage all operating nearby. In the 1940s, the Dunbar returned to its roots, again becoming a hotel with live music.
DESEGREGATION AND THE DECLINE OF JAZZ’S POPULARITY
As a result of 1948’s Shelley v. Kraemer case, the Supreme Court banned the continued enforcement of racist restrictive covenants. As a result, the black population of South Central (and by then, Watts), began to fan out from their cramped neighborhoods. Visiting black musicians like Duke Ellington could suddenly stay in places like Chateau Marmont in Hollywood, closer to the venues where they were playing. At the same time, amongst jazz fans, West Coast Jazz’s popularity waned as new styles including Hard Bop, Modal Jazz and Free Jazz waxed. More damaging to jazz, Rock ‘n’ Roll stole Jazz’s place in the spotlight.
YEARS OF NEGLECT
The Dunbar struggled on until 1974, when it finally closed its doors (the same year it was designated as an Historic-Cultural Landmark (no. 131)). After it closed, Rudy Ray Moore filmed much of Dolemite (1974) and A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich (1976) on the premises. The former hotel was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976 but continued to suffer from neglect and vandalism. Closed and long vacant, it attracted squatters until, after renovations, it re-opened in 1990 as an apartment for low-income seniors. It also became the home of the Museum in Black, a museum of black history originally established by Brian Breye in Leimert Park in 1971. As of 2011 it was empty and began undergoing restoration. Although currently without a home, the MiB still has an online presence — Preserve the Museum in Black.
Following the 1992 Riots and the introspection and dialogue that followed, several black cultural events arose including the Pan-African Film Festival (1992) and Central Avenue Jazz Festival (1996) and there seems to have been a general re-assessment of South LA‘s unique cultural and historic importance. Despite the fact that much of South LA and South Central’s black population moved in the wake of the riots, (today South Central is more than 87% Latino and only 10% black) the Central Avenue Jazz Festival offers attendees a chance to experience a bit of history and culture and maybe will serve as an example of why we should hold onto the sites of our city’s rich history instead of, oh, tearing them down to make room for a KFC or police station.
CENTRAL AVE – A COMMUNITY ALBUM
There was a large art piece in the middle of the street with reproductions of photos from several generations. It was part of a project called Central Ave. It includes a mix of portraits taken by Sam Comen and family photos from Eastsiders of all generations. Since the website seems to be down, click here to check out the Facebook event page for the opening, or write to Comen at email@example.com
THE 2012 EVENT
No sooner had I arrived than a woman asked me what I’d thought of Ernie Andrews. Everybody seemed to be buzzing about his performance. One gentleman joked that he’d missed the performance, which started shortly after 1:00, because he was just getting up then — because he’d only gone home at 7:00!
I did catch Phil Ranelin‘s set which I enjoyed quite a bit, as did the rest of the attendees, apparently. The band rumbled and swung through numbers that touched on modal jazz, hard bop and avant-garde jazz showing that West Coast Jazz fans can appreciate other styles. Other performers included Diana Holling Band, Gerald Wilson Orchestra, Jazz America, LAUSD Beyond The Bell All-City Jazz Big Band, Poncho Sanchez, Sons of Etta, The New Jump Blues, and The Ray Goren Band. If you missed it this year, make sure you come to next’s!
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Click here to offer financial support and thank you!