February 7, 2020- Today's BHM topic is: Sebastian's Cotton Club and Les Hite
Although prohibition was in full effect during the 1920s, Culver City was the primary location in Los Angeles where that law was largely ignored. In 1926 local businessman Frank Sebastian purchased a large building that had been The Green Mill nightclub. He re-named it Frank Sebastian’s Cotton Club which was not, in any way, related to the Harlem Cotton Club.
Sebastian’s Cotton Club quickly became one of the most popular clubs in Southern California. It was located at Washington Blvd. and National Blvd. and was very much ahead of it’s time. The booking policy was to feature African American bands exclusively. Between 1930 and 1939 the house band was led by Les Hite who created one of the most outstanding bands in the country but remained little known outside of Los Angeles.
It was one of the best jobs in town for a musician with steady employment 7 nights a week. This gave Hite his pick of the best musicians in town and the band served as an important training ground for many jazz musicians who would go on to make big names for themselves.
Being near Hollywood led to the band making numerous appearances in motion pictures. During the 30s they appeared in 65 films. The 1930 band alone included Lawerence Brown, Marshal Royal, Red Mack Morris, Lloyd Reese and Lionel Hampton who was billed at the time as “the world’s fastest drummer."
LLoyd Reese may not be a household name but he was an extremely important behind the scenes figure as a master teacher. His students though the years included some of the greatest jazz musicians of all time. Dexter Gordon, Charles Mingus and Buddy Collette to name just a few.
Although the band worked constantly there were no recordings made under Hite’s name until 1940. The band did record though in 1930 under the leadership of Louis Armstrong. Louis came to Los Angeles for the first time in 1930 for a nine-month engagement at Sebastian’s Cotton Club. He was a huge sensation which led to a return engagement in 1931.
Louis Armstrong and his Sebastion New Cotton Club Orchestra recorded 10 sides for Okeh in 1930 and 2 more in 1931. Several of the west coast records were hits including I’m a Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas, I’m Confessin that I Love You and Shine.
During the engagement Louis experienced a scary incident. At intermission he and drummer Vic Berton were outside the club smoking pot and were busted by two plain clothes detectives. Louis was worried that the detectives might take them somewhere and rough them up and was concerned it could damage his lip. As he was in the car terrified where they might take him, it turned out the detectives were big fans who listened to him on broadcasts from Sebastian’s. Louis ended up doing 9 days in jail and was released with a suspended sentence.
It was during his time with Les Hite that Lionel Hampton rose to prominence. He was the biggest star of the local jazz scene. People would come just to watch him do tricks with the drum sticks while he was playing. He had also fooled around with the vibes leading to playing that instrument for the first time on a couple of the Louis Armstrong 1930
In 1936 Lionel Hampton was leading his own group at the Paradise Cafe at 6th and Main in downtown Los Angeles. Benny Goodman was in town at the Palomar Ballroom and was brought in to hear Hamp. He was so excited that the next night he brought Gene Krupa and Teddy Wilson where they joined Hamp for hours. Benny was so excited that before long the Benny Goodman trio became the Benny Goodman Quartet and Lionel Hampton soon became an international star.
Les Hite disbanded for good in 1943 and became an agent.