By Darlene Donloe
SOUTH LOS ANGELES — Back in the day, Central Avenue was the heart of the Black creative arts community in Los Angeles.
The area was considered the epicenter of the West Coast jazz scene with luminaries like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Charles Mingus, Lena Horne, Duke Ellington, Chico Hamilton, Billie Holiday, Art Pepper, Eric Dolphy and Clora Bryant among the performers who made Central Avenue the West Coast’s answer to the Harlem Renaissance as a significant place in music history.
By the mid-1940s, not only had Central Avenue become the jazz thoroughfare of the west, there were dozens of legitimate nightclubs as well, including The Brown Bomber, Bird in the Basket, and the lounge at the Dunbar Hotel. There were also breakfast clubs or after-hours places where patrons could buy their own booze and dance past sunrise.
The story of the South L.A. music influence and the famous performers who played a part in Central Avenue’s legendary designation will be celebrated once again as part of MUSE/IQUE’s yearlong concert series, “MUSIC = Power with Central Avenue: Open House – The Extraordinary Story of the South L.A. Music Legends Who Changed the World,” conducted by artistic and music director Rachael Worby.
Two performances honoring and celebrating the legacy of Central Avenue and its impact on the city will be held at 7:30 p.m., July 15 and July 16, at Memorial Park in Pasadena. There also was a performance at The Beehive in South Los Angeles July 12.
Over the past decade, MUSE/IQUE, a membership-driven organization founded in 2011, has curated and presented nine major live multidisciplinary performances each year placed in iconic community locales.
“One of the soul-satisfying concerts in our history is Central Avenue, which we performed last year for the Central Avenue-Jefferson High School student body,” Worby said. “Now we are pleased to bring this special concert with free admission to an even larger audience at Memorial Park in Pasadena.”
The legacy of jazz that began on Central Avenue, south of downtown Los Angeles, will be celebrated during a program designed to pay tribute to some of the artists and visionaries who made an impact on Central Avenue’s poppin’ nightlife, including Alvin Ailey in dance and choreography, Merry Clayton in gospel and Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Dexter Gordon in jazz, and more.
This year’s guest artists include Sy Smith, LaVance Colley, DC6 Singers Collective, and Myron McKinley (music director and keyboardist for Earth, Wind and Fire), all of whom participated in “MUSE/IQUE 2022 L.A. Composed: A Festival of Los Angeles Music, last September.
This year’s band includes Ian Martin (bass), Stacey Lamont Sydnor (drums), and Tony Pulizzi (guitar).
“When they reached out to me, I wanted to be involved because I knew the history of Central Avenue,” said Sy Smith, a Los Angeles native. “It’s the West Coast counterpart to 125th Street in Harlem. At the time, it represented the glory days of Black ownership.”
Smith, who has been in the music business for 25 years, said “It’s a shame that the importance of Central Avenue Jazz isn’t more widely known.
“It’s a shame it’s not common knowledge, but it’s not surprising,” said Smith, a featured vocalist who will sing songs from the era including some by Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. “It’s up to us to make sure these stories are not forgotten.
“It’s important because it’s not just teaching history but igniting the torch for people to carry it on,” she added. “It doesn’t have to die. It needs to live on. In L.A., we’re not in a deficit of culture here. There’s a community of teachers and griots. That’s how Central Avenue was.”
In a previous interview, Myron McKinley said, “Music transcends.”
“When I was studying at USC, I remember Wynton (Marsalis) mentioning something about it,” said McKinley, referring to Central Avenue. “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.”
McKinley, who admits to only being “vaguely familiar,” about Central Avenue, said last year he wanted to be involved in the festival because he wanted to give students at Thomas Jefferson High School, “something they have never experienced” and wanted to “make people aware of the expertise of the era.”
As part of the Central Avenue event, students from the Thomas Jefferson High School Band will perform, led by Michael Gray.
One of the most compelling aspects of this period on Central Avenue was the relationship between the art and cultural life happening on the street and the extraordinary arts programs at Jefferson High. During this period, Jefferson educated artists including Alvin Ailey, Carme de Lavallade, Etta James and Dexter Gordon.
“This truly fulfills our mission of making radically engaging live music experiences, accessible for all,” Worby said. “Built on a tradition of community and collaboration, we create events that feature an eclectic mix of artists and artistic disciplines — and in this case truly celebrate our L.A. musical heritage — in unconventional locations, spaces where art typically does not happen. MUSE/IQUE creates transformative musical adventures and illuminates the music that shapes our lives.”
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.