What a night it was. Up on the bandstand, Eddie (Lockjaw) Davis coaxed deep, sweet sounds from his tenor saxophone. In the packed Sunset Hyatt's Silver Screen Room, Jaws' friends swayed and nodded.
There, leaning against the back wall, stood Harry (Sweets) Edison, long one of the trumpet kings of Count Basie's band. Over at the bar, John Collins, a guitar master who once backed Nat King Cole. At a table with his wife, Sylvia, Red Holloway, a tenor sax player who booked the talent and led the house band at the Parisian Room, for years an illustrious jazz location at La Brea and Washington. In a corner, Jerome Richardson, a prominent flutist and alto saxophonist who has been featured as a soloist in the Thad Jones- Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra.
Jaws clearly was motivated by such a choice gathering. "Oh, he's taking care of business," Edison whispered, tapping out the beat on his neighbor's shoulder. Next to Sweets, someone could endure no more.
"Don't lose your mind, Eddie," he cried out. "Don't lose your mind."
It was past 1 a.m. when Jaws finally insisted that the show was over. Dozens clung to their seats or gathered at the bar.No one wanted to leave.
No wonder. A night with such an audience does not happen very often in Los Angeles.
Another night was more typical. Composer and tenor saxophonist Teddy Edwards was blowing with probing, soft emotion at Rosalind's West African Cuisine, a restaurant on La Cienega Boulevard that sometimes features live music. Listening to him with eyes closed felt just fine. Step back, glance around, and the feeling vanished. The room was almost empty. As Edwards played, a couple finished eating and rose, leaving half a dozen in attendance. At the break, Edwards paused by one table. "Thanks for sticking around," he said with a smile.
Jazz masters inhabit Los Angeles in abundance, but they go largely unnoticed. Besides those who gathered at the Hyatt, they include sax player Marshall Royal, blues player Eddie (Cleanhead) Vinson, pianist Jimmy Rowles, sax player Plas Johnson. There are more generally well-known names of the jazz world living in Los Angeles--such as Ella Fitzgerald and Benny Carter--but these less-heralded artists have high talent and rich histories. Some are legendary innovators in a genuinely American art form, and others are superb craftsmen, their names credited on countless albums by singers from Billie Holiday to Ella Fitzgerald. Most live modestly, in central-city apartments or small suburban houses. They wait by the telephone, or tire of waiting and call the clubs themselves. They stare out at half-empty rooms with graceful resignation. They pocket paychecks that seem fat if they top $100.
The problem comes down to limited audience interest and a dwindling number
of clubs for what has been called mainstream jazz . Too many listeners prefer whatever's new--fusion, synthesizers--to the best of what's been around.
But these same musicians can climb aboard airplanes and be transformed. In Europe and Japan, some of them are heroes. Lines snake up the street from clubs there. Fans in cars meet them at the station.
It's an odd sort of existence. The musicians slip different identities on and off. Frustrations are balanced by moments of triumph.
The musicians remember past glory.
For Teddy Edwards, 61, that glory was the Los Angeles he found when he moved here in early 1945, a city where something was going on 24 hours a day. He played with everyone--Benny Carter, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday. He recorded "Teddy's Ready" and his popular "Blues in Teddy's Flat," and wrote his most famous composition, "Sunset Eyes." Central Avenue was full of clubs. The Downbeat Room at 42nd Street was his favorite, but there were others all around town. None exists anymore--the Plantation, the Last Word, Jack's Basket Room, the Jungle Room, Casablanca, Streets of Paris, Suzie Q, the Jade Room, Billy Berg's, the Hangover, the Cobra Room, Rendezvous, the Finale Club. "Oh, music all over," Edwards says. "You leave your gig, go to another one. It's been going downhill ever since Central Avenue."
For Sweets Edison, 70, it was the Basie years. He was the youngest in the band, 21, when he joined in 1937. He'd eventually play with everyone from Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald to Frank Sinatra, record solo albums, and join Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges on the classic "Back to Back" recording.