New York and New Orleans have always been associated with great jazz. So have Chicago and Philadelphia. But what about Los Angeles, a hotbed of the entertainment industry? At one time, the only place to see and hear some of the world's top jazz acts was on Central Avenue in downtown Los Angeles.
Sure there's lots and lots of jazz in Los Angeles today, but nothing like the jazz that once poured out onto Central Avenue. Between 1921 and 1956, Central Avenue's nightclubs and theatres were a magnet for America's finest jazz musicians, including saxophonist Wardell Gray. Central Avenue's bustling nightlife is captured on Wardell Gray's "Move," from the CD box set Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz In Los Angeles.
The music of New Orleans infiltrated sunny Southern California with the arrival of "Jelly Roll" Morton, a flamboyant pianist who proudly proclaimed himself the inventor of jazz. A major influence on up-and-coming jazz, blues and swing players, Morton spent some of his best years in Los Angeles. He arrived in 1917, and over the next five years performed at the Cadillac Cafe and Paradise Gardens on Central Avenue.
"Jelly Roll" Morton once said his 1926 composition "The Pearls" was dedicated to a "very pretty little waitress at the Kansas City Bar" in Tijuana, Mexico. No doubt, he performed it many times farther north on Central Avenue in Los Angeles.
It wasn't unusual to see the era's best-known jazz stars taking part in nightly jam sessions along Central Avenue. Pianist Art Tatum was a fixture at the Club Congo and the Memo.
Along with "Jelly Roll" Morton, Art Tatum revolutionized modern jazz piano playing with daring two-handed piano rolls in a combination of swing and blues.
Tatum's version of "Body And Soul" features his band, The Swingsters, on a 1937 recording.
A decade later, Central Avenue was a required stop for everyone from Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton and Charles Mingus to Nat King Cole, Charlie Parker and be-bop singer Slim Gaillard with "Laguna."
As the 1950s ushered in the era of rock and roll, jazz on Central Avenue became scarce. With the success of B.B. King, "Fats" Domino and John Lee Hooker spreading across the U.S., rhythm-and-blues gained popularity.
The honking of tenor saxes, once dominated by Illinois Jacquet, was now led by R&B pioneer Big Jay McNeely. Big Jay McNeely's "3-D," one of 91 tracks on Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles.