By Darlene Donloe
SOUTH LOS ANGELES — Jefferson High School is located in an area of Los Angeles that was once a music mecca for some of the industry’s most note-worthy jazz greats.
The fourth oldest high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, Jefferson can boast of being a music incubator for artists like Alvin Ailey, Carmen de Lavallade, Dexter Gordon and Etta James, who all, at one time attended the academic institution.
The school was a fitting backdrop for the latest edition of “MUSE/IQUE 2022 L.A. Composed: A Festival of Los Angeles Music,” a yearlong concert series that focuses on a different street and the music that is associated with it.
Over the past decade, MUSE/IQUE, founded in 2011, has curated and presented unexpected live multidisciplinary performances in iconic community locales.
This time the focus was “The Songs and Stories of Central Avenue,” a musical journey celebrating the rich cultural history of L.A.
At one time, Central Avenue, was the place to be and the place to be seen in Black Los Angeles.
The nightlife dominated by the sounds of jazz greats like Charles Mingus, Nat “King” Cole, Art Pepper, Charlie Parker, Ray Brown, Red Callendar, Sonny Criss, Eric Dolphy, Jimmy Knepper, Harold Land Sr., Art Farmer, Hampton Hawes, Zoot Sims, Teddy Edwards and more.
MUSE/IQUE, led by artistic director Rachael Worby and Myron McKinley, the music director and pianist for Earth, Wind & Fire; included Sy Smith, LaVance Colley, DC6 Singers Collective, and the Lula Washington Dance Theatre who honored Alvin Ailey. It was held on Sept. 9 for students and Sept. 11 for adults at Jefferson High.
“I am ecstatic about our partnership with MUSE/IQUE.” said Tamai Johnson, the first Black female principal of Thomas Jefferson High School. “With this jazz renaissance concert, I hope to rekindle our performing arts flame at Jefferson High School. I want to expose our students to experiences that encourage a lifelong love for the arts. Hosting this special performance for our students will plant a seed and significantly enrich their lives.”
As artistic director, Worby said MUSE/IQUE was “thrilled” to “be performing Central Avenue concerts in the Jefferson High School auditorium.”
McKinley, a producer-songwriter, programmer, and film scorer, led the band, which included members of his Myron McKinley Trio — Stacy Lamont (drums) and Ian Martin (bass), who were joined by guitarist Tony P., Ray Brown, who provided orchestration for the horns and Earth, Wind & Fire members Gary Bias on saxophone and Reggie Young on trombone.
McKinley said he “really liked the kids’ energy.”
“They probably didn’t know any of the songs but the music touched them,” he said. “The whole goal is for that. It’s important for them to understand this place’s legacy. With this show, they got a glimpse of the history.”
McKinley, 50, wanted to be involved in the festival because he wanted to give the students “something they have never experienced” and wanted to “make people aware of the expertise of the era.”
“Music transcends,” said McKinley, whose solo project, “Sound Alchemist,” is being released in October. “They were clapping and enjoying the music even though they didn’t know anything about it. With music, it’s a conversation on stage that they didn’t know, but they understood it. They can’t deny it. It opens up their taste in music.”
McKinley was 3 when he began piano lessons. He “grew up in the hood,” where, he says, his taste in music was different from that of his neighborhood friends.
“I thought I was weird growing up,” he said. “I grew up on 64th and Cimarron where no one knew who Art Tatum or Oscar Peterson or Chick Corea were. No one else was listening to it.
“When I shared my interest with others, they didn’t hear it the same way. Things changed when USC picked me as one of 14 students to be part of a jazz conference in Germany. It was the best time for me to grow. I didn’t think I was weird anymore because I was around people who felt the same way about music.”
McKinley, who has worked with Stevie Wonder, Tupac, Whitney Houston, Puff Daddy, Yolanda Adams, Chaka Khan, Chicago, Dr. Dre, and a host of others, said he was only “vaguely familiar” with the historic Central Avenue jazz scene.
“When I was studying at USC, I remember Wynton [Marsalis] mentioning something about it,” he said. “We thought he was talking about a jazz club. Central Avenue jazz is part of our history. It was significant and life-changing. At the time, I didn’t understand. I didn’t get the depth. I do now.”
From the 1920s to the 1950s Central Avenue was considered by many to be Los Angeles’ answer to the Harlem Renaissance, and the epicenter of the West Coast jazz scene.
By the mid-1940s, Central Avenue had become the jazz thoroughfare of the West. There were dozens of legitimate nightclubs on Central, including the Brown Bomber, Bird in the Basket, and the lounge at the Dunbar Hotel.
Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday were regulars in the local clubs.
There also were breakfast clubs or after-hours places where patrons could buy their own booze and dance past sunrise.
The Journal of African American Registry said of Central Avenue, “The same way many know Harlem as a historically Black enclave, the area in and around Central Avenue was ironically referred to as ‘Little Harlem’ due to its striking similarities. Harlem’s Apollo Theatre and its importance to the neighborhood can be taken by the same token, referring to the many jazz clubs on Central Avenue.
“However, in this case, looking at the ethnographical nature of Central Avenue and its establishment of a jazz scene and culture, Jefferson High School’s contribution cannot be overstated. Such an institution served to nurture students, musicians, and athletes sparking an inevitable culture of jazz within. Jefferson High School was a pivotal structure for a newly established Black district after the turn of the 20th century.”
During the performance, MUSE/IQUE honored and celebrated the legacy of Central Avenue and its impact on the city and beyond. There were tributes to some of the artists and visionaries who made an impact on Central Avenue, including the aforementioned Ailey in dance and choreography, Merry Clayton in gospel, plus Duke Ellington, Dexter Gordon and Count Basie in jazz, and more.
Songs performed in both shows included “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Zaz Zuh Zaz,” “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “Georgia on My Mind,” “Somethin’s Got a Hold on Me,” “One for My Baby,” “Round’ Midnight,” “Great Pretender,” “Earth Angel,” “They Can’t Take Yhat Away From Me,” “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “What a Wonderful World.”
Curated and led by Worby, “L.A. Composed: A Festival of Los Angeles Music,” features renowned musicians and dancers from stage and screen performing at cornerstone cultural institutions throughout the city, including Avalon Hollywood, Caltech, the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens, Skirball Cultural Center, and the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.
L.A. Composed runs until November. Tickets are on sale now at muse-ique.com.
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at email@example.com.