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The Sound of a City : It took Bette Cox 20 years to unearth the music of black L.A. She crisscrossed the country to put together the bones of a past filled with blues, jazz and symphonies, then fleshed out the story of the West Coast vibe.

March 17, 1995|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like ritual, early most Sunday mornings, it wanders out alone.

Not quite a voice, but a barely audible electric hum. Low. Just beneath the surface of the organ, this mere vibration finds form. Raw sound becomes comfort words.

"Oftentimes one woman, one person, might start a song," says Bette Y. Cox, explaining the power of ritual. Depending on the house of worship, the person hosting that voice might be called "Aunt Jane." Maybe simply "Sister." Her voice rises like a spirit, gathers force with emotion and purpose. "Then everybody just joins in. They feel the emotion and they sing together."

Cox, who possesses a compact, delicate voice that quivers like crystal when she speaks, could--but probably wouldn't--call herself a secular version of an Aunt Jane.

But the song she started last month at the California Afro-American Museum is still going strong--and is due to continue, until the crews come in to clear the displays come October.

Her exhibit, "The Musical Renaissance of Black Los Angeles (1890-c. 1955)," kicked off with a three-day symposium with live music by some of L.A.'s mainstays--Buddy Collette, Gerald Wilson, and an all-star Ladies Jam Session featuring underappreciated luminaries Clora Bryant, Dorothy Donegan, Vi Redd, Genelle Hawkins, Melba Liston, Sheila Gonzales and Betty Hall Jones. "She's the only person I know who could have bitten off so much and gone with it," says artist Yvonne Cole-Meo, 70, daughter of the much lauded L.A.-based concert pianist Lorenza Jordan-Cole, who passed away last year at 95.

"Without Bette on the scene, doing her diligent research, we would have a big gap there. She's done the jazz and the classical. I mean jazz is the meat . . . but there were also classical musicians--composers like William Grant Still--and a lot of children don't know that," Cole-Meo says. "And the fact that Bette is so knowledgeable and unselfish makes her a good ambassador."

But for Cox, who on the symposium's closing night strutted about victorious in her red drop-waist dress, matching heels and pearls, looking something like a flapper on a cloud, it was a victory past due. It took her 20 years to unearth "the sound of L.A."--to prove that L.A. even had a sound. At least one worthy to document.

*

Call it what you will. A melting pot. A court bouillon--even in its early years, L.A. was the place as travelers ventured west--running from ghosts, wars, ruin; following hunches, rumor and dreams.

A continuum of settlers brought not only favorite rocking chairs, family quilts, hope chests and gilt-edged Bibles, but also guitars, pianos, sheet music and songs.

Whether it was Chicago blues, Texas shouts, Kansas City jazz or a Vienna waltz--when it landed in Los Angeles, Cox has observed, it metamorphosed, even if by just a shade--a reworking of a verse, a slight shift in a tempo, a revamped intro.

Here, where many auditoriums were off-limits to black Angelenos, the Sunday sanctuary served as an influential nexus: "The black church has always been important, not only as a religious temple but as a concert hall, an educational place," Cox says.

And while the radio waves of the '30s and '40s beamed East Coast sounds westward, L.A.'s jazz traveled eastward by rail, hand-delivered by Pullman porters who stayed on top of the latest styles.

"It was one of the things that drew people here," Cox says, "to see what Central Avenue was all about."

Somewhere, however, in the pursuit of day-to-day concerns, something happened. The history wasn't quite lost . . . maybe misplaced would be most accurate. Links in the chain were missing. Chapters without resolution. It was just a matter of finding those who held it.

Cox, who taught music basics to Los Angeles elementary school students, felt she should flesh out their studies of indigenous music.

"I was looking for a book about black history of music in Los Angeles," she recalls. "This was in the '60s, and those were the years that the school district had accepted black history." Having moved to Los Angeles from Twin Falls, Ida., to attend UCLA in 1938, she remembers a time when even the discussion of inclusion was moot.

But Cox's optimism wilted when her search through the usual channels--library shelves, newspaper clippings, filmstrips and the like--came up empty.

More than she could accomplish in the narrow corners of her workday, Cox decided to dedicate a sabbatical to an exhausting search that sometimes had the feel of an archeological dig.

She crisscrossed the country--from lectures and round-tables to seminars and concerts. And by journey's end, she had created a skeleton from which to work.

"I came back armed with books and material to build my library. I came back feeling like I discovered a whole new world."

*

What began as a defined mission, Cox admits, turned quickly to obsession.

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