Anthony Davis, the composer and pianist who earned a Pulitzer Prize in 2020 for his opera The Central Park Five, is likely one of the rare players and composers arising from the jazz tradition to earn praise from Opera News as "a national treasure." In this edition of List'N Up from the American Composeer Guild's I Care If You Listen, Davis assembles a absorbing playlist that at once deeply honors his jazz tradition, while adroitly sidestepping category.
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(“Hollywood Jazz — 1945-1972" by Richard Wyatt Jr.)
Charles Mingus, Nat “King” Cole, Frank Sinatra, and Ornette Coleman lived here. Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, and Dave Brubeck recorded here. Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and Charlie Parker jammed here. But most importantly, a crucial chapter in jazz history played out here.
While cities like New Orleans and New York City are where jazz music was born and bred, Los Angeles was the beating heart of the West Coast Jazz scene. From the late 1920s to the 1950s not only was L.A.’s jazz scene influential to artform itself, it brought pride and power to L.A.’s Black community.
The epicenter of it all was the historic Central Avenue corridor, from Little Tokyo to Watts, with some jazz joints springing up as far away as Hollywood. Central Avenue was the economic and social center of a segregated Black community. A cultural mecca, the scene was constant and electric. As the only integrated section of L.A., people of all races and classes—from blue-collar workers to Hollywood stars—mingled together to watch, to dance, to drink, and...to listen.
For #InternationalJazzDay, get ready to cut a rug while we take you on a tour of some key killer diller locations that played an important role in jazz history, from swinging Central Avenue to swanky Old Hollywood. You dig?
The Dunbar Hotel
4225 S Central Avenue Los Angeles
Any trip through L.A.’s jazz history must start at the Dunbar Hotel. Originally built as the Hotel Somerville, the Dunbar played a key role in L.A.’s Black community for decades. Doctor John Somerville built the hotel for the first West Coast convention of the NAACP in 1928 and it provided first-class accommodations for African Americans in a segregated Los Angeles. At the heart of the Central Avenue jazz scene, many prominent jazz musicians stayed or performed there, including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Bessie Smith. Other notable guests included Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Hern Jefferies, Langston Hughes, Joe Louis, Arthur B. Spingarn, and W. E. B. Du Bois. As the epicenter of Black L.A.’s social and cultural life, a number of jazz clubs and theaters sprang up along Central Avenue and the district began to flourish as a popular nightlife destination.
After a herculean restoration, today the Dunbar Hotel provides affordable housing for seniors and offers a beautiful gathering space for the community. (It also makes a cameo appearance in 2019’s My Name is Dolemite.)
4215 Central Avenue
Perhaps the most famous club along Central Avenue was Club Alabam, known as the “Finest Harlem Cafe in America.” Hints of the Cocoanut Grove could be seen with its rich furnishings and interior palm trees. Saxophonist Art Pepper recalled that “the bandstand was plush and gorgeous with curtains that glistened.” Club Alabam, which had an integrated audience like all of the clubs along the corridor, became the center of L.A.’s jazz scene boasting some of the finest jazz artists in the country. At its most glorious, wrote jazz historian Steven Isoardi, it was kind of a shining star, the premier spot on the Avenue.
Club Alabam may have been the star, but its neighbors were also just as popular: the Downbeat at 4201 S Central Avenue was a major hot spot and, at one point, was home to an all-star jazz band that included L.A. native, the legendary Charles Mingus. Further along, the Elks Hall at 4016 S Central Avenue was said to have been the biggest Black-owned building in Los Angeles. Able to fit from five to six hundred people, it had three floors, which offered flexibility for a wide variety of acts and events.
The Lincoln Theatre
2300 Central Avenue
Opened in 1927, the Lincoln Theater was the largest of five theaters along the Central Avenue corridor that provided entertainment to the Black community. While the 1920s boasted the era of the grand movie palaces on Broadway, African Americans were segregated if allowed at all. The Lincoln, built between 1926 and 1927, was the first theatre built by African Americans for African Americans and was easily the most important. A beautiful example of Moorish Revival Architecture, the California Eagle called it, “the finest and most beautiful theater in the country built exclusively for race patronage.”
The Lincoln was a key venue in jazz history, and its stage welcomed icons like Lionel Hampton and Duke Ellington, Sammy Davis Jr. and so many more. It’s listed in the National and California Registers.
Ivie Anderson Residence
724 E. 52nd Place, South Los Angeles
“It Don’t Mean a Thing (if it ain’t got that swing)” is a battle cry of the swing era, and Ivie Anderson’s vocals on the 1932 Duke Ellington recording is simply iconic. Anderson hailed from Gilroy, but called Los Angeles home for much of her life and lived at 724 E. 52nd Place from 1930 to 1945. During this time Anderson toured heavily with Ellington’s band, whom she sang with for a decade.
(You can even watch her with Duke’s band in the classic Marx Brothers film A Day at the Races, where she performs “All God's Chillun Got Rhythm.”) Anderson’s former home is listed in both the national and state historic registers as a contributor to the 52nd Place Historic District, which is also an HPOZ.
The Tiffany Club
3260 West 8th Street, Los Angeles
You’d never guess as you speed past the low-rise market at West 8th Street and Normandie Avenue that a litany of jazz greats once played there in the 1950s. Dave Brubeck, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Helen Forrest, Nat King Cole—the list goes on and on. (Chet Baker and Stan Getz’s set was recorded and definitely worth a listen.)
In 1952, the great Louis Armstrong headlined the club with an all-star band that included Earl “Fatha” Hines and Jack Teagarden. It was an integrated audience, as you can see in this famous photo taken in 1954 of Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe at the Tiffany. Monroe was a huge fan of Fitzgerald and the two women became friends. Monroe actively promoted Ella by attending her performances, which guaranteed press coverage.
Jefferson High School
1319 E 41st Street, Los Angeles
Not all jazz greats hailed from the East Coast. Many were born right here in Los Angeles. Most notable, Charles Mingus and Buddy Collette, who both attended Jordan High School in Watts. (Mingus, in fact, grew up steps from the Watts Towers and often saw Simon Rodia as he worked on building his menagerie of glass and scraps.) But it is Jefferson High School in South Los Angeles that nurtured the talent for the largest number of future jazz artists.
Dexter Gordon and Don Cherry are perhaps its most famous graduates, but for many the real star was teacher Samuel R. Browne: the first Black music teacher in the Los Angeles public school system. After receiving advanced degrees from USC in music and education, he eventually took a job at Jefferson High School where, in 1936, he became the first Black teacher to integrate the school. He often accompanied his students to Central Avenue jazz clubs and, as part of their music education, took them to rehearsals where at any given time they’d see Lionel Hampton, Stan Kenton, or Duke Ellington at work. He’d also bring talent to the classroom—stars like Nat “King” Cole and Jimmie Lunceford—for recitals and master class seminars.
The Hollywood Bowl
2301 N Highland Ave, Los Angeles
The enduring, much beloved L.A. icon has long been a friend to jazz musicians...even when the critics weren’t. (When Frank Sinatra made his Bowl debut in 1943 to sellout crowd of Bobby Soxers, the Times sneered about swing: “is it possible that there is no alternative in this country?”) In 1954, Louis Armstrong performed "The Whippenproof Song" on The Colgate Comedy Hour which became the first ever live telecast from the Bowl. Two years later, the Bowl hosted the jazz event of the decade: an all-star concert Jazz at the Hollywood Bowl. With Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald headlining, the concert was an extraordinary who’s-who of jazz greats, among them Oscar Peterson, Roy Eldridge, Buddy Rich, and Art Tatum.
It’s hardly surprising that the Playboy Jazz Festival has called the Bowl home since 1979, making it one of the longest-running jazz festivals around.
The It Club
4731 W. Washington Boulevard
The It Club (which was across the street from today’s Nate Holden Performing Arts Center) was owned by John T. McClain, a man who would go on to become an executive and huge force in the L.A. as one of the most powerful figures in the world of Black music. McClain’s father rubbed shoulders with ganger “Bugsy” Siegel and his mother, an accomplished pianist, appeared with Lena Horne in Hollywood during the ‘40s.
During the 1950s and ‘60s, it was common to see huge jazz stars play the It Club. Miles Davis and John Coltrane were returning guests, and jazz legend Thelonious Monk recorded here in 1964, resulting in the album “Live at the It Club.”
The Parker Room and Billy Berg’s
1358 Vine Street, Hollywood
The Parker Room, which recently closed, opened in 2017 to pay homage to its famous history. During its heyday in the 1940s, Billy Berg’s was one of the hottest jazz joints in L.A. and the country. Its claim to fame was being the site of Charlie Parker’s first West Coast engagement. (Hence the name “The Parker Room.”) In 1949, Billie Holiday threw an extravagant New Year's Party in the club.
But Billy Berg’s is also emblematic of a change in the L.A. jazz scene. In postwar L.A., Black musicians were making inroads at previously all-white clubs and theaters in places like Hollywood and downtown L.A. Jewish impresario Billy Berg became a prominent player in running integrated jazz joints. As KCET reports, in “less than twenty-five years, Berg came to own at least six different clubs in the Los Angeles area: Trouville, The Swing Club, Waldorf's Cellar, Club Capri, The 5-4 Ballroom and the most famous, Billy Berg's.”
Integrated Hollywood clubs also signaled a change in the tide. The scene on Central Avenue began to fade as white audiences no longer needed to head south to Central Avenue. Likewise, the desegregation of some jazz clubs in L.A. opened up more opportunities for Black musicians outside of Central Avenue.
Nat “King” Cole Residence
423 S. Muirfield Road, Hancock Park
Nat “King” Cole was among the many jazz musicians who “jumped ship” in L.A. while on tour, choosing the city as home. Despite being one of the most successful and popular entertainers of the 20th century, Cole and his family still faced racism. Discriminatory housing covenants enforced by homeowners’ associations across L.A. made his celebrity status irrelevant. In 1948, when Cole and his family purchased this $85,000 property, they were the first Black family to move into exclusively white Hancock Park.
The Cole’s were met with an affidavit by an angry group of white homeowners claiming that 50-year-old covenants restricted homeownership to non-Caucasians. After they refused to move, an ambitious plan to oust them was launched, including threats to his family and their real estate agent. But the law was against the homeowners’ association: that very year, the Supreme Court Decision of Shelley v. Kraemer had deemed restrictive covenants unconstitutional.
The Cole family would continue to endure intimidating acts of overt racism from the neighborhood over the years, but they loved their home and weathered the storms. Cole would live here until his untimely passing in 1965 and in 2003, Hancock Park —an HPOZ—dedicated the post office at 265 South Western Avenue in his honor.
1750 Vine Street, Hollywood
And any tour of L.A. jazz history wouldn’t be complete without a stop at the iconic Capitol Records building in Hollywood. The Capitol Records label was home to such legends like Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole, which is why the label's headquarters in Hollywood—a cherished Historic-Cultural Monument—proudly celebrates its connections to jazz history with its gorgeous mural “Hollywood Jazz — 1945-1972" on the south wall of the tower.
Created by legendary L.A.-based muralist Richard Wyatt, Jr. in 1990, the mural was commissioned at the request of the Los Angeles Jazz Society, and in 2013, it received a loving restoration from Capitol Records. An ode to titans of jazz music, the mural is also as beautiful as it is personal. “Nat King Cole’s widow [Maria] asked me if I would show him wearing his favorite tie,” Wyatt recalled in 2013.
** BONUS **
The Lighthouse Café (Because we probably wouldn’t hear the end of it otherwise…)
30 Pier Avenue, Hermosa Beach
Like it or loathe it, the film La La Land certainly did much to trigger interest not simply in L.A. locations, but the L.A. jazz scene. To its credit, the jazz club at the center of the film is an actual historic jazz club. The Lighthouse Café in Hermosa Beach has been in business since 1949, when an experimental Sunday jam session turned into a success. Over the decades, it welcomed greats like Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, but dozens of West Coast jazz artists from Art Pepper to the Jazz Crusaders recorded here.
Thanks to the popularity of the film La La Land, The Light House Café remains a popular destination and is one of a handful of historic, legacy businesses still operating in L.A. that serve up jazz. Others include the Catalina Club, the Baked Potato, Herb Alpert’s Vibrato, and LACMA’s popular Friday night jazz series.