Black music mecca
Los Angeles has an impact on multiple genres of music
Jason Lewis | OW Staff Writer | 6/16/2016, midnight
Black music has dominated the United States for about a century, with jazz, gospel, R&B, and hip hop being ingrained in all cultures of this country.
African Americans have been so impactful in the music industry during the past 100 years that June has been celebrated as Black Music Month since 1979. During this time, the contributions of Black music is honored.
While all regions of our nation have contributed to the greatness of Black music, Los Angeles has a very unique history. The music has influenced the city, and in some cases, the culture of the city has influenced the music.
When it comes to music in Los Angeles, it starts with jazz, and it has its roots in one area of the city.
“The great history of L.A. jazz is two words, Central Avenue,” said Mitch Glickman, music director of the Symphonic Jazz Orchestra. “The 1920s, 30s, 40s, that was the place. Up and down that street, all the musicians were playing all day long. The biggest stars in the world were all playing, hanging out. This was the mecca for great jazz, for great night life. The Dunbar Hotel. Anybody who was anybody was staying there.”
As a result of The Great Migration which took place in the 1920s, many Blacks left the segregated South. While some went north to midwest cities such as Chicago and to northeast cities such as New York, many moved out West to Los Angeles. While the city was known to have better conditions for Blacks, they still were unable to escape segregation, and housing covenants restricted them to the Central Avenue area until the late 40s.
While these restrictions had an adverse affect on the Black community, the offshoot of these racial tactics was the creation of one of the best jazz scenes in the world. Central Avenue attracted some of the world’s best jazz musicians, and most prominent celebrities.
“There was Louis Armstrong, there was Billie Holiday, there was Duke Ellington,” Glickman said. “They would jam until the sun came up.”
In some ways, jazz music mirrored society at that time.
“Jazz is unique in so many different ways,” Glickman said. “One is that jazz represents America, and jazz is democracy. Unlike any other kind of music, jazz is about the individual dealing with society. Jazz gives the voice to the individual. No matter how different, or how wild, or crazy it might be, jazz gives you that voice. That is a huge thing, especially for young people. To know that they have a voice.”
While the music became a part of the city’s culture, Los Angeles also influenced it. New York was known for it’s grit, but Los Angeles with its “laid back” feel, inspired the creation of “cool jazz” just after World War II. It can be said that jazz set the stage for other forms of mainstream music that followed it.
“There would have been no hip hop, no R&B without blues, which gave rise to jazz, which gave birth to all of the other forms of American music,” Glickman said. “Rhythm & Blues is just a faster, danceable version of the blues. Then came rock and roll, then came hip hop. It all came from that same well.”
Before R&B and hip hop were able to rise, gospel music flourished right along side jazz.
“Gospel is a tradition that developed, not on the West Coast, and there are different styles of gospel,” said Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje, Ph.D., UCLA professor in the Department of Ethnomethodology. “Gospel is a musical genre that is identifiable with the urban culture. When Blacks, around the turn of the twentieth century, began to move from rural areas of the South, to perhaps the North and the Midwest, they had a new life, a new experience, so they wanted their worship life and the music that they used to worship to reflect that difference. So you began to see a new kind of music come into existence.”
Many of the innovators of gospel music were from Chicago. There was an East Coast movement, but Chicago was the center of gospel up until World War II. While Jazz became big early on, it took gospel more time to develop in Los Angeles.
“[The city] has always been behind the times. I think primarily because the way in which Los Angeles developed for Blacks early on,” DjeDje said. “I think Blacks then were a little uppity. They were sort of well established and well educated. The more Western educated they were, they identified primarily with European culture. You had a few people who were performing gospel here in the city during the 30s, but it was not that prominent.”
According to DjeDje, gospel music more identified with working class people. But that was soon to change, and the culture of the city changed the music.
“It was not until Blacks came to move out here in the 40s, with the wartime industries, that gospel became much more prominent,” DjeDje said. “But when it came out here—because you already had that sort of European type of music thriving—that influenced gospel. So it became a little more classical, as opposed to down home and L.A. kind of
changed gospel, at least from my research.
“What California, and perhaps Los Angeles is most well known for is contemporary gospel,” DjeDje continued. “People like the Hawkins Singers, and Andre Crouch, who were the major innovators. And the reason for that was because Los Angeles was a little more open to new ideas. In integrated gospel with pop music and all of that.”
While jazz faded away, and other forms of music have come and gone, gospel is the one form of music that has stood the test of time, as it is still popular today. “Our faith and our belief systems are much more ingrained with us, and
they are much more difficult to change,” DjeDje said. That’s why I don’t think that gospel music changes as quickly perhaps as popular music. [It gives people] their strength, that’s what gave them their determination. And for [many] Black people, [religion] has gotten us through all of the trials and tribulations that we’ve experienced.”
While gospel music continues to thrive, R&B and hip hop took the place of jazz. One major sign that R&B had a home in Los Angeles was when Motown Records moved their offices to this city in 1972.
“It was a big deal when Motown moved out here,” said Berry Benson, a digital marketing consultant for music labels. “Stevie Wonder lives here. Marvin Gaye lived in West Adams. So obviously, Motown’s talent, really the big torchbearers, all for the most part migrated out here, and that helped the scene a great deal.
“Rick James pretty much made his footprint here in Southern California,” Benson continued. “Teena Marie wouldn’t have been discovered if Motown didn’t move to California, because she was a Southern California/Venice girl.”
The story of R&B in Los Angeles cannot be told without one establishment on Crenshaw Blvd.
“The impact of Maverick’s Flat...it was the starting point for the likes of an Earth, Wind, and Fire; the Commodores, it really was the starting point for what the R&B scene was.”
While Maverick’s Flat and Motown Records slowly faded away over the years (Maverick’s Flat has since reopened), it made way for newer talent to emerge.
“Over the years, you’ve seen the movement go from Maverick’s Flat, to the 80s with Dick Griffey and Solar Records, which produced Shalamar, Lakeside, and all of those groups that were based here. That really started putting L.A. on the scene in terms of R&B music,” Benson said. “In the same way that Bootsy, and Zap and Roger, and Slave all started in the
Ohio R&B scene, that’s what Solar Records did for R&B music in the 80s in L.A.”
Since those glory days, the R&B scene—as far as home grown talent goes—has greatly diminished.
“We don’t have the high school (music) programs, which have been pretty much decimated over the years,” Benson said. “So we don’t have the programs out here to encourage the musicians to perform. We don’t have an infrastructure music education anymore. We don’t have very many urban adult acts that come out of Los Angeles.”
Even though the younger generation has not been as active in R&B music, it still thrives in Los Angeles.
“KJLH has been the torchbearer for R&B in the city for the past 50 years, and having the Taste of Soul as the showcase of what we have here in the city has probably been the most important vehicle that we have to promote R&B music in Los Angeles.” Benson said.
There is a new and younger movement that still exists in Los Angeles, according to Berry. With the Bryson Tillers of the world, the movement is younger than it was in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.
While R&B continues to have a place in Los Angeles, hip hop emerged as a force in the latter part of the 1980s when NWA took the industry by storm. The gang culture of the city put it’s own spin on rap music, which had become popular nationally.
After of NWA, Ice Cube emerged as one of the biggest solo artists, and Death Row records was formed by Suge Knight. With the likes of Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur, and others, gangster rap had a huge run through the 90s. But all great things come to an end, and make way for new sounds.
“We saw the gangster rap thing kind of fade out about 8-9 years ago, but now there has been a whole new movement with Kendrick Lamar (Compton) and Schoolboy Q, who are both from the same label, Top Dawg Entertainment,” Benson said. “Top Dawg has kind of taken the place to define West Coast hip hop. Ab-Soul (Carson) is also on that label.
“You’ve got the new movement of gangster, like YG (Compton),” Benson continued. “DJ Mustard (Los Angeles) is pretty much the producer of the new West Coast sound. He’s defined the sound that used to be the sound of Dre. He’s doing almost all of the records out here. Not just for hip hop, but now he’s branched out to R&B music. He recently did some stuff for Beyonce’s new album.”
According to Benson, West Coast hip hop is getting back to the point that it can rival the South, which became the most popular region for rap music in the late 90s.
Los Angeles has seen every form of Black music in this country over the past century, and has influenced it all. The story of jazz, gospel, R&B, and hip hop cannot be completely told without the contributions that musicians from this city have made.