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L.A.: A Jazz Hotbed for 7 Decades : The Swing Era, in Effect, Was Born Here; Fusion Was Named Here

February 20, 1987|LEONARD FEATHER and A. JAMES LISKA

While jazz was first making its way to wax 70 years ago, Los Angeles, unbeknownst to its fewer than half a million residents, was already in the process of becoming a major center for a variety of Afro-American musical experiences.

Though it has lived all these seven decades in the shadow of New York and its Eastern elitist critical attitudes, this has not prevented the Southland from nurturing an abundance of innovative jazz talent and playing host to a variety of inventive musical movements.

With equal parts of pride and shame, Los Angeles may be credited with having supplied a place for racial barriers to be broken in the music world (the two segregated musicians' unions merged 34 years ago), while at the same time it may be blamed for retaining Jim Crow attitudes. Ironically, the lure of lucrative film and TV studio work has brought to Hollywood many potentially great jazz artists while limiting them to occasional appearances in a musically stimulating local jazz scene.

Perhaps it is Los Angeles' principal claim to fame as a catalyst for jazz that the Swing Era, in effect, was born here. Benny Goodman's orchestra, after a somewhat unsuccessful tour across country, opened at the Palomar, at Second Street and Vermont, on Aug. 21, 1935. The band was a sensation. "After traveling 3,000 miles," Goodman said, "we finally found people who were up on what we were trying to do. The first big roar from the crowd was one of the sweetest sounds I ever heard in my life." The band broke all records, the four-week booking was doubled, and big-band jazz--swing--became America's new sensation.

Today, more than half a century later, Los Angeles has a thriving jazz community, despite the temptations offered to resident musicians by commercial jobs. The Playboy, Queen Mary and other festivals are staged here annually. Major jazz concerts take place throughout the summer at the Hollywood Bowl. The Times' list of clubs far outnumbers a comparable listing in the New Yorker.

Los Angeles today takes this music seriously. Musicians are less likely to feel that their talents will go unappreciated here. This area is called home by countless world-class artists. Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard and Woody Herman, Jimmy Witherspoon and Alice Coltrane all live in or around Los Angeles, and the city is visited from time to time by most of the major jazz stars.

Be-bop, Dixieland, Latin jazz and big-band swing can be found almost every night of the week; fusion earned its name here; Norman Granz's Pablo, Lester Koenig's Contemporary, Albert Marx's Discovery and Bill Stillfield's PAUSA labels each began here and not too far away are Carl Jefferson's Concord and Orrin Keepnew's Landmark labels, as well as such companies as Fantasy, Black-Hawk, Sea Breeze, Theresa and Bosco.

Gerald Wilson's exceptional orchestra was formed in Los Angeles in 1944. Toshiko Akiyoshi and Lew Tabackin relocated here (from New York) in 1972 to start their award-winning big band; Ann Patterson's Maiden Voyage was launched locally in 1980.

KKGO and KLON devote their air-time to jazz. KCSN, KUTE, KCRW and a variety of other radio stations play jazz much of the time. Steve Allen and Bobby Troup promoted jazz on television in shows produced here; numerous jazz journals have begun here, and almost every college and university in the Southland today offers some form of jazz education in its curriculum.

Studio City is home base for the Dick Grove School of Music, the Southland's counterpart to Boston's famous Berklee College.

Back when "jazz" and "education" were considered a contradiction in terms, in June, 1922, a sextet variously known as Spikes' Pods of Pepper and Kid Ory's Sunshine Orchestra recorded "Ory's Creole Trombone" and "Society Blues" in Los Angeles; the two numbers appeared as a 78 on the Nordskog and Sunshine labels. At that time no other black combo had a phonograph record released anywhere.

By the mid-1920s, Washington Blvd. in Culver City was already a hotbed of activity in at least a dozen nightclubs, among them the Alabam and Frank Sebastian's Cotton Club, where Louis Armstrong would make his local cabaret debut in 1930. There were also clubs in West Hollywood, then called Sherman and known for its gambling and prostitution.

During the 1930s, clubs in or near Culver City hosted the bands of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway, and later Woody Herman and Harry James. Most of the other name bands of the Swing Era continued to find important outlets in Los Angeles and nearby; the Avalon Ballroom in Catalina was a favorite haunt for dancers who sought the big-band sound, as were the Palladium, the Trianon, the Aragon, the Heidi Ho and others. At one time Tommy Dorsey, leader of one of the most successful East Coast bands, bought the Casino Gardens and featured trumpeter Ziggy Elman.

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