Los Angeles music heroesboth sung and unsung
Norman O. Richmond | 6/5/2013, 5 p.m.
Los Angeles has nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to producing Black music makers. Some of the most creative, influential and popular music makers were either born or raised in the City of Angels. There is no way I can cover them all in such a short article, but here are some of my favorites to acknowledge on Black Music Appreciation Month:
Perhaps the most unsung of all Los Angeles music makers is Alma Julia Hightower, a vocalist, musician and music teacher. She was born on Nov. 27, 1888, in Baton Rouge, La., and died Aug. 1, 1970, in Los Angeles at the age of 82. She moved to Los Angeles in the 1920s and taught many Angelenos who then went on to gain national and international recognition. On Nov. 30, 2007, Hightower was one of 32 entertainers honored at the Community Build Park in Los Angeles.
After living in Los Angeles for a number of years, she began her illustrious career. Most of her work was done at her Hightower Music Studio and Conservatory on Vernon Avenue between Mettler Street and Towne Avenue. Hightower students are a Who's Who in African American music--Charles Mingus bassist, composer and bandleader; Dexter Gordon, tenor saxophonist and actor; Roy Ayers, xylophonist; Chico Hamilton, percussionist; Buddy Collette, woodwind player; Illinois Jacquet, woodwind player; Sonny Criss, tenor saxophonist; Big Jay McNeely, tenor saxophonist; Clora Byrant, trumpeter; Vi Redd, alto saxophonist; and Melba Liston, trombonist, composer and arranger.
Liston was born in Kansas City, Mo., on Jan. 13, 1926, and passed on April 23, 1999, in New York City. After playing in youth bands and studying with Hightower and others, she joined the big band led by Gerald Wilson in 1943. (Wilson is 95 years of age and is still living in the City of Angels.) She was part of the 1940s bebop movement; she recorded with Dexter Gordon in 1947 and joined Dizzy Gillespie's big band (which included saxophonists John Coltrane, and Paul Gonsalves, as well as pianist John Lewis) in New York for a time, when Wilson disbanded his orchestra in 1948. She toured with Count Basie for a time, and then with Billie Holiday (1949).
Liston's collaborations with pianist/composer Randy Weston, beginning in the early 1960s, are widely acknowledged as jazz classics. Liston's musical relationship with Weston began in 1960 when she arranged his groundbreaking album "Uhuru Afrika."
"After we did 'Uhuru Afrika,' which at that time was controversial, it became difficult for her to get work," Weston later pointed out.
In 1964, the South African government banned "Uhuru Afrika," but Jamaica and other Caribbean nations came calling and Liston had a profound impact on Black music in that area of the world. "Melba and I went to the then-Minister of Tourism P.J. Patterson (who later became prime minister) and Rex Nettleford (the Caribbean scholar and social critic) and that was it," said Weston. "Melba liked it so much we got her attached to the University of the West Indies at Mona (Jamaica), and she stayed there five years."