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Central Avenue

Cynthia E. Griffin- | 7/23/2008, 5 p.m.

For years, people have recognized that L.A.'s Central Avenue was a hot, hot place in the 1930s, '40s and '50s, if you were a musician or liked to boogie to the music they created.
Most of this action took place in the middle of the Central Avenue corridor--near 43rd Street or Vernon . . . or so people believe.
This year the 13th annual Central Avenue Jazz Festival set for July 26 and 27 at the intersection of Central and 42nd Street gives a nod to another part of the "Avenoo" that actually set the stage for the hot times further down the road.
Tonight for the first time, festival organizers will include a prelude to the Central Avenue Jazz Festival with a community concert at First Street and Central Avenue from 6:30 - 9:30 p.m.
This free concert will be held in the Japanese American National Museum, and the artists will include arranger/composer/keyboardist Dave Iwataki; The L.A. Jazz Collective, which is a group of musicians working together to build a stronger jazz community within Los Angeles; and vocalist Dwight Trible.
One of the reasons the prelude concert has been added is because the festival coordinators want to add a series of pre-launch events that will build momentum for the actual event, said Scott Ito, one of the festival coordinators. "This is a test run. We want to reach out to other communities, and begin to set up partnerships," explained Ito. "We want to connect culturally from the northern end of Central. There is this historical connection, and that was the rationale behind the concert, to re-establish that historical connection."
While the community around First and Central, which today is known as Little Tokyo, has its own contemporary jazz vibe playing, the northern part of the avenue is no newcomer to the rhythm of this music. In fact, that historical connection Ito mentions began shortly after the turn of the century. Some of the intersections on the northern part of Central were integral in helping propel jazz to commercial acceptance during its early development nationally.
Take 12th and Central, for example. This spot was home to the Spikes Brothers Music Store which opened in 1919 at 1203 S. Central Ave. Johnny and Benjamin "Reb" Spikes were vaudeville-era musicians born in Dallas, Texas. They moved with their family to Los Angeles in 1897 and formed a group which traveled around the Southwestern United States.
After they opened the store at 12th and Central, it gradually became the hub for the African American music scene in Los Angeles. Not only did people go there to buy all sorts of sheet music, instruments and "nasty" jazz records (as they were sometimes called during that early period), but musicians also hung out there, and the brothers eventually began to book bands and send them out on gigs.
With their involvement in L.A.'s music scene (particularly Reb), it was logical that the Spikes brothers would eventually establish their own record label. They did so in a studio in the store. It was called Sunshine Records, and in 1921, they created history by becoming the first African American company to record a jazz record. It was also the first jazz recording made by an African American band from New Orleans.
The artist they recorded was New Orleans trombonist Edward "Kid" Ory. His band's name was Spikes Seven Pods of Pepper Orchestra, which was in reality Ory's Original Creole Jazz Band, which formed in Los Angeles in 1919. Some historical reports, (according to Douglas Henry Daniel writing in the quarterly journal California History), actually note that the band was initially formed in the early 1900s and was one of three groups singled out as creators or purveyors of New Orleans jazz to a national audience.
In addition to their music store, Reb Spikes was credited as being the owner of the Dreamland Cafe at Fourth and Central, which featured a variety of artists playing gigs there including Ory's band.
The Spikes brothers were also connected with the fledgling Hollywood motion picture industry and made soundtracks for Warner Brothers movies. They also made a "Jazz" film in 1927 and registered it through Warner Brothers only 11 days after the copyright was filed for "The Jazz Singer," which was thought to be the first sound motion picture.
According to one researcher, the inclusion of jazz in movies was one of the key reasons, the music was able to gain national recognition and acceptance.
The Spikes brothers' businesses were not the only places showcasing the new jazz music on north Central during those early years. The Cadillac Cafe was another spot frequented by African Americans who were gaining renown for their musical skills. Located at 533 S. Central Ave., the club played host to a number of L.A. transplants including Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton, who played in Los Angeles during several periods. The first was 1917-1923 and the second was 1940-41.
The famed pianist was another New Orleans native who called Los Angeles his home for a short time. He arrived in Los Angeles in 1917, following band leader Bill Manuel Johnson and Johnson's sister Anita Gonzalez to where Morton's tango "The Crave" created a sensation among the early Hollywood set.
Morton, who is described as an important transition figure between ragtime and early jazz, was involved in a stormy common-law relationship with Gonzalez and one researcher said he described her as the only woman he ever loved.
At the Cadillac, Morton was probably in charge of the club's vaudeville show, according to one researcher and performed there with "Bricktop" (Ada Smith) before she became the owner of the world-renowned Parisian nightclub that carried her nickname. This red-haired chanteuse also arrived in Los Angeles in 1917.
A ragtime king and early jazz innovator, Morton would die from asthma complications in the City of Angels after an 11-day stay in Los Angeles County General Hospital. The date was July 10, 1941. He was only 51 or 56 (researchers have never quite authenticated his actual birth date).
This is just a small example of what part the northern end of Central Avenue played in the city's jazz history, and the concert tonight pays tribute to that often forgotten legacy.
The rest of the festival will, as usual, kick off at 11 a.m. with a panel discussion facilitated by legendary jazz artists Clora Bryant, an 81-year trumpet virtuoso, who performed on Central Avenue in the 1940s. The 45-minute program will feature other pioneers of the boulevard talking about their experiences playing there.
Another Central Avenue musical legend, Ernie Andrews, will kick off the entertainment on Saturday at noon, followed by the Al Williams and Jazz Society, the Justo Almario Quartet, the Gerald Wilson Orchestra and finishing off with vocalist Barbara Morrsion.
The Sunday line-up features the youth group JazzAmerica starting off the day at 11 a.m. followed by Phyllis Battle, Michael Sessions, Nedra Wheeler, Poncho Sanchez and Nate Morgan.
The musical styles that will be featured include straight ahead and Latin jazz as well as blues.
According to festival artistic director Jose Rizo the performance by Battle is her inaugural appearance; Michael Sessions will come in for the first time as a band leader; and Poncho Sanchez is returning as a performer for the first time in 12 years. "Nate Morgan and his band will close the festival and will play a tribute to Thelonius Monk and Eric Dolphy," said Rizo.
The opening act Sunday--JazzAmerica--is a youth group studying in part under the tutelage of jazz icon Buddy Collette. He co-founded the tuition-free program in 1994 to perpetuate the jazz tradition, and young people ages 11 to 20 learn musicianship, ensemble playing, sight-reading, soloing and music theory.
Rizo said JazzAmerica fills an important niche for the festival, and that is showcasing the next generation of young jazz artists. But this is not an easy task because the music programs that have in past decades traditionally produced artists like Andrews are not that strong today admits the artistic director.
But keeping with the festival's tradition of presenting something old and something new, organizers say they continue to search out talent.