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Your life in color

A diversifying Los Angeles breathes new life into the city’s jazz culture

Listen while you read

The mid-afternoon sun beams down as a father and son carefully place thick slices of plantain into a pan of hot oil. A little girl tucks a small handful of cash in her waist apron, then watches as her grandmother spoons refried beans into crispy gordita shells. The slight chime of a piano cues singer T.C. Carson, whose voice oozes through the speakers like hot lava. In a lounge-worthy coo, he begins: “Love is stronger than hate. Love is stronger than fear. Love is stronger than aggression.” Emboldened, he continues, “Love is stronger than race. Love is stronger than number 45.” Rollicking cheers follow in quick succession. Carson’s voice soars. The people are listening.

Now in its 22nd year, the Central Avenue Jazz Festival continues to tell the area’s cultural and musical significance in an increasingly changing Los Angeles. Here, in what was once a segregated African-American community, the Los Angeles jazz movement was born. As early as 1908 musicians began to migrate to L.A. from New Orleans. Early proprietors of Dixieland and swing jazz, like pianist Jelly Roll Morton, cornet player King Oliver and bass fiddler Bill Johnson embraced Los Angeles as a breeding ground for innovation. It was bassist Bill Johnson, Jelly Roll Morton’s brother-in-law, who first assembled a group of musicians in Los Angeles. That band, the Original Creole Orchestra, played in South-Central for about a month. Some members went back to New Orleans, but others, like Bill Johnson, decided to stay in L.A. Jelly Roll himself recalled: “Of course Bill seen the opportunity so he got into the band… and came to Los Angeles.”

Now almost a century later, L.A. jazz, despite the one-sided assertions of last year’s nostalgia-filled flick, “La La Land,” is not dying. But it is changing. As borders have extended far beyond the Bayou, Los Angeles has become home to a much broader base of migrants. The natural fluidity of its sound calls out to masters of world music. Afro-Caribbean percussion collides with Ragtime piano. Brazilian Bossa Nova dances about the organ-like cry of the Chinese sheng. The jazz stage is now existing as a reflection of a new Los Angeles itself. The music, an inherently American convention — an African-American tradition — now invites a multitude of players.

It would take a few more years, though, for Los Angeles to become the birthplace and not simply the breeding ground. “At the start of the 20th century, L.A. is being built up by migration, and that’s certainly the case for the African-American community,” explains jazz historian Steven Isoardi. “It’s not really until the 1930s that Los Angeles’ black community starts building up its own homegrown musicians.” Bee-bop, hard-bop and avant-garde jazz all collided to create a truly West Coast sound, the architects of which were all L.A. born instrumentalists and bandleaders like Charles Mingus, Buddy Collette, Chico Hamilton and Dexter Gordon. By the 1940s, Los Angeles, and specifically, Central Avenue, had become a destination for world-class acts like Duke Ellington, Lena Horne and Billie Holiday.

“I was born at the Dunbar Hotel in South Central, so I’m homegrown,” says jazz vocalist and director of S.H.I.N.E. Muwasi women’s African drumming circle at the World Stage, Reneé Fisher-Mims. Referring to South-Central’s jazz scene, she continues, “Here it’s very organic. This is where you come to get it. You get it here and then you go somewhere like the Blue Whale….”

Brandon Cordoba

Jazz is a conversation, and pianist Brandon Cordoba is a raconteur. Taking inspiration from the classic sounds of bebop, modern R&B music, hip hop, and electronic music, Brandon is moving the sound of L.A. jazz forward, while paying homage to its past.

Connie Han

A young jazz pianist, Connie Han is trying to put “straight-ahead music” back into the mainstream. Watching her perform, one would have no doubt that she can do it singlehandedly. With a deep understanding of jazz’s past, Connie is bringing straight-ahead bebop music into the present and out outward into the future.

Dr. Bobby Rodriguez

A master trumpeter, Dr. Bobby Rodriguez weaves together traditional aesthetics of jazz, with melodies and rhythms from a wide cross section of Hispanic music. He artfully combines Puerto Rican salsa music with Cuban rhythms and the Mexican music he heard as a child growing up in East L.A. As a performer and educator, Dr. Rodriguez hopes to inspire young musicians to add their own stories to the tapestry of jazz music.

Kelly Che

“Just like everybody else, we are all immigrants, we have our own culture and heritage. One day I realized why I am singing this, I am from there, and I have to represent my culture.”

Crossing rhythms

On the third floor of a Little Tokyo shopping center sits the Blue Whale. Often referred to by its regular performers as a “creative space” rather than a “jazz club”, owner Joon Lee’s brainchild was born of his own experience as a young musician, struggling to find a space to try out new music. “Now there’s so much more diversity. You would be surprised by how many Chinese students, Korean students, even kids from Thailand and Taiwan are studying jazz in some of the music schools around here.”

“I didn’t know many other Korean people. I was new in town, and even in music school there were not many Korean students, let alone students of any other background studying jazz,” recalls Lee, who is also a vocalist. A Korean immigrant, Lee first came to the U.S. to study architecture in Brooklyn. One night while working as a bus boy at a little Bleecker Street eatery, something caught Lee’s ear, “It was Bobby McFerrin and Chick Corea. I later found out that this music was jazz and I thought, ‘This is the stuff I need to do, not architecture.'”

With Asian migrants projected to become the largest immigrant group in the U.S., surpassing Hispanics, by 2065, Lee’s evaluation of music schools today becomes less and less surprising. But why do so many people — both foreign and American-born — seem to flock to a style of music so deeply American at its core? One of the most notable reasons is the improvisation and the extempore style that characterizes jazz.

In Venice, the 10-piece instrumental band, Katalyst, ad-lib off of one another. Each member sensing the other’s next move, indulging in extempore musical storytelling. “There’s a lot that goes into it [jazz], there’s a long history and tradition of how the music is played. You get into a study of a lot of improvisation,” says keyboardist for Katalyst and producer Brandon Cordoba, “Once you get really good at playing jazz, you can transition to any genre pretty much.”

Here in the far reaches of coastal L.A., miles from South-Central, musicians of all backgrounds playing brass, keys, strings and percussion vibe off one another with no plans, no agenda, other than to just exist and engage in the music. The musical tenants of jazz remain unfixed, not bound by any arbitrary regulations on origins of sound, movement, or tonality. Perhaps more than any other scene or genre in Los Angeles, jazz provides common ground for musicians of disparate backgrounds to converse, without boundaries.

“The thing is this: it’s what’s in your soul, not what’s on the outside or where you come from,” says UCLA professor and Latin jazz legend, Dr. Bobby Rodriguez. “You don’t need to come from New Orleans to play jazz. You don’t have to be one color; you don’t have to be one ancestry. I think it’s all a hoax. The reality is, I should have been a mariachi musician-growing up there was nothing but Mexican music playing in my house. But that’s not what I do, that’s not my thing.”

His “thing,” of course, turned out to be jazz music. “I’m not a Latin trumpet player,” asserts Rodriguez. “That’s not what I do. I play jazz music, but I surround myself with a Latin beat.” Now in his 18th year as a professor of jazz trumpet and Latin Big Band at UCLA, Dr. Bobby — as he’s known by his students — looks ahead with a firm sense of hope in the future of jazz. And despite his jazz-first approach to his musicality, he believes he has a cultural and musical responsibility to represent Latin jazz musicians, saying “I’m not black, I’m not Jewish, I’m not white. I’m the other thing.”

Jazz in L.A. is becoming more and more populated by those who might self-identify as, in the words of Dr. Bobby, “the other thing.” Some bring with them the songbooks of their culture, and others come to the table ready to reinvent themselves, ready to push the boundaries. Today there are a number of fine schools and conservatories working to empower and invigorate the next generation of jazz musicians.

And while these young musicians might have their own idea of what type of sound it is they’re trying to achieve, they’re still-whether they realize it or not-being influenced by a much larger pool of artists, than say, a young Buddy Collette.

“Jazz is about preserving a tradition, preserving a very rich and unique language that is not found anywhere else. So with that said, when you master that language or at least get the great whole of it, you are able to put your own personality on it.”

-Connie Han, Jazz Pianist

“For me personally, what makes jazz great is this present, in the moment engagement, a real time engagement with other human beings.”

-Ramsey Castaneda, Educator, Musician and Doctor of Musical Arts Candidate

“There was as many jazz musicians here as there was in New York, but New York got all the play. We always had our own thing. California always had it’s own thing, especially Los Angeles.”

-Amde Hamilton, Jazz Poet

“We live as part of the oral culture of jazz in that they have to hear and they have to remember and they have to play from the mind out.”

-Lee Secard, Director of the Jazz Workshop at the Colburn School

A minor chord progression

The sun starts to fade on this hot July afternoon. There’s only one more performance left this year for Central Avenue’s big weekend, and it’s that of songstress Barbara Morrison. Morrison, who’s performed alongside the likes of artists like Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie and Buddy Collette now invigorates the next generation of South-Central musicians with her Leimert Park performing arts center. Three teenagers sit on the same side of a picnic table snickering to themselves while devouring hot wings.

“I came here because I performed yesterday and then I came to support Mr. Evan today,” 16-year-old Mark Valdes points with his thumb toward his friend. Evan, an 18-year-old recent high school graduate has just performed inside the lobby of the hallowed Dunbar Hotel lobby alongside other members of the Jazz America Youth Jazz Combo.

“It’s changing and getting more modern,” remarks Valdes, “In Central Avenue it’s kind of old school, which is cool, but at places like the Blue Whale, musicians are experimenting more, the sound is more modern. You can’t be in there unless you’re 21, and I’m only 16.” The three exemplify the diversity taking place within the next generation of jazz in L.A. They remain curious, determined to know and hear today’s modulations on a hundred-year-old sound. The young drummer looks up at the sky, “Whoever owns the Blue Whale, they need to hear this. They gotta lower the age.”

And the beat goes on…

From propelling students into stardom to fostering musical curiosity in children under 10, Los Angeles’ music schools and conservatories are keeping L.A.’s long tradition of strong music education alive. Performing at the highest level of education, programs around the city are dispelling myths that music education no longer matters—all while extending opportunities to young musicians whose families may not be able to afford traditional lessons.

The Colburn Conservatory of Music

Silverlake Conservatory of Music

Academy of Music and Performing Arts at Hamilton High School

South Pasadena Music Center & Conservatory

Los Angeles County High School for the Arts

Looking for jazz in LA?

Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published on uscstoryspace.com.