Off the Books: “Los Angeles’s Central Avenue Jazz”

Dweez has been assigned Steve Zahn as a doppleganger on more than one occasion. “This was a brief glittering moment of jazz as straight-up entertainment before the music was bogged down by academia...
By    July 29, 2014


Dweez has been assigned Steve Zahn as a doppleganger on more than one occasion.

“This was a brief glittering moment of jazz as straight-up entertainment before the music was bogged down by academia and oppressive seriousness. Jazz was once the music of the people, and an element of entertainment value was not just provided: it was expected.” -Sean J. O’Connell, Los Angeles’s Central Avenue Jazz, page 71

For those of us who stuck with David Simon’s what-isn’t-less-acclaimed-than-The-Wire TV series Tremé through at least the third (of four) seasons, we watched Davis McAlary lead unofficial history of jazz tours through New Orleans. Despite The Big Easy being ground zero for what many consider the U.S.A.’s greatest bomb drop on the art world, even snarky Davis struggles to explain to his tour group why certain jazz landmarks haven’t been preserved. It’s the central theme of the show — how can this country so whole-heartedly ignore the art form that in so many ways defines it?

I blame wine, myself. The mountain one has to climb in order to inspect enough grape varietals to have a valid opinion is an intimidating one. The ‘oppressive seriousness’ of viticulture, a term I had to look up, dissuades the casual wine drinker from climbing it. It takes all the fun away. We’re led to believe jazz, like wine, is reserved for the snobbiest snobs among us.

That jazz was once the music of the people, as the new book on L.A.’s jazz history argues, is the same glorious, inclusive, and entertaining past that Tremé strove to recapture and recast for a modern audience. As good as the show was, it fizzled out to dismal ratings in a shortened final season, an ode to a city and a music dangling by a preservationist thread in its own backyard.

Swapping places with Steve Zahn and playing the role of DJ Davis for the tour of Los Angeles’s jazz past is Sean J. O’Connell. He’s a writer and musician who took up the daunting task of writing about the jazz in a city where there has been about as much preservation effort a square of toilet paper on a puddle of spilt wine.

What Works:

Wearing a historian’s hat, O’Connell masterfully connects dots, geographic and cultural, to the musical timeline to give Central Avenue Jazz a half-century sprawl. We see Kid Ory’s grave at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, Louis Armstrong is arrested for marijuana possession, and Charlie “Bird” Parker serves six months in a Los Angeles mental institution after lighting his Bronzeville hotel room on fire. Bronzeville is where Little Tokyo is today and was before Japanese interment during WWII, right at the northernmost tip of Central Avenue where you usually slurp down bowls of ramen at Diakokuya on First Street.

O’Connell traces the noir narrative L.A. became famous for with novels set in and around the avenue like Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley, If He Hollers Let Him Go by Chester Himes, and Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely where the first line begins, “It was one of the mixed blocks over on Central Avenue, the blocks that are not yet all negro.”

Central Avenue’s happenings rubbed off on Hollywood on more than one occasion too. For every notable Duke Ellington score O’Connell conjures films like Dolemite, which was shot at the Dunbar Hotel in the geographic heart of the scene. In turn, Redd Foxx’s Laff of the Party and other comedians and performer-types sprung up to record. If the Hollywood sign became the symbol for the entertainment factory L.A. itself became, it seems, after reading O’Connell’s work, that Central Avenue was the long, narrow post that held it skyward.

Above all, this is a music book. O’Connell catalogs more than forty recordings, some of which I’ve compiled into a YouTube playlist. “Earth Angel,” “Hit The Road Jack,” and “Nature Boy,” were all timeless jams that in one way or another had roots on the ave. Central Avenue Jazz goes deep enough to depict the music business itself, profiling people like producer John Dolphin who created both a Cash Records and a Money Records.

There are too many other musical dribs and drabs to regurgitate here but what O’Connell did best was to capture the spirit of the scene. Stitching the geographic, historical, and art odds and ends together is what Arcadia publishing’s Images of America series aims to do. By including Slim Gaillard’s vout language dictionary and adding details like Coleman Hawkin’s tendency to forget his saxophone in the backseat of his unlocked car at night, O’Connell achieves something greater. He accomplishes the cliché that is the golden standard for any history book: bringing the past to life.

What Doesn’t:

For better or worse, 200 photos and 127 soft-cover pages can only do so much. The thousands of other titles in the Images of America series adhere to these confines and O’Connell was not exempt. That L.A.’s jazz history was given the same space that Angel’s Flight was feels somehow unfair.

You could call the design simple and straightforward but the word that comes to mind is dusty. Typography and image layout have been snapped to Arcadia’s archaic publishing style guide that disguises the object itself as something akin to a tired restaurant franchise when it’s really a hole-in-the-wall gem. The broiler plate presentation does a disservice to the legwork O’Connell did photo, record, and fact digging.

O’Connell is occasionally caught between delivering the facts and the urge to add color and perspective. One caption beneath a photo of the old Hotel Somerville entrance way at the Dunbar Hotel reads, “Imagine the many cigarette butts and shoe styles this sturdy floor mat has experienced from the hundreds of thousands of pairs to grace its entryway.”

With a length, design and layout catered to the subject itself rather than a house style, I’m certain O’Connell could have verbally framed his research more astutely.

But Should You Read It?

The advantage of the Images of America format is, for one, that it exists. Who knows if O’Connell could have found a publisher willing to let him dig down Central Avenue’s musical trenches as extensively. If it weren’t for the apparatus that I just criticized, there’s a chance that we wouldn’t have this book at all.

The other plus is accessibility. It’s short and affordable, especially compared to the imaginary price of the make-believe coffee table behemoth I fantasize the book could be at its best. If you aren’t interested enough in jazz or Los Angeles to sacrifice the time required to flip through what’s basically an adult picture book then maybe the L.A. jazz mountain climb isn’t suited for you.

So we find ourselves again at ‘oppressive seriousness’ basecamp.
Maybe it’s a book world problem just as much as it is a wine and jazz one. Fortunately, you don’t have to read to fully enjoy music, despite people like me insisting otherwise. The purpose of this book is to preserve and illuminate the history of jazz on Central Avenue.

If you should decide that before or after that point you want to know more, Los Angeles’s Central Avenue Jazz is the place to start. Then, you can determine for yourself whether or not jazz gets better with time.

*Page numbers are taken from Los Angeles’s Central Avenue Jazz, 2014 Arcadia Publishing. That was the edition reviewed.

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