February 28, 2020- Today's BHM topic is: Central Avenue
From the beginning of the 20th Century, Los Angeles’ Central Avenue was the main thoroughfare of the African American Community. The Avenue itself stretched from downtown all the way to Watts. In the early years the black community was located around 12th and Central where the burgeoning African American music business was headquartered at The Spikes Brothers Music Store.
By World War II the center of the black community had moved further south. The black population of Los Angeles grew substantially during the war with people coming west to work in the defense plants. There were black owned businesses of all kinds up and down the avenue. The locals referred to it as “the main stem.” It was a city within the city, a very tight knit community that had tremendous cultural pride.
Defense workers had money in their pockets and there was a large nightlife district that provided entertainment around the clock. It was all centered around 42nd and Central. The classy Hotel Dunbar was the central attraction. The Club Alabam was the showplace of the avenue with floor shows, chorus girls and a house band that could hold its own against anybody.
Almost all African American celebrities that came to town stayed at the Dunbar. This included traveling bands like Ellington, Basie and Lunceford. When they got off work in Hollywood or Culver City it wasn’t uncommon to find the sidemen sitting in with the locals at the many Central Ave clubs.
And there were plenty of choices.
The Elk’s Auditorium had all kinds of events including big bands and jam sessions plus the likes of T-Bone Walker or Big Jay McNeely. The Last Word featured jump bands like Joe Lutcher and Jimmy Liggins. Jazz combos were featured at The Downbeat. Wardell chasing Dexter and The Buddy Collette, Baron Mingus Stars of Swing among others.
After the festivities ended for the night at those venues the after hours joints continued on till dawn.
Alex Lovejoy’s, home of the big-legged chicken was Art Tatum’s favorite place to hangout. There was also Backstage and Brothers where you brought your own bottle. If you didn’t have one there was always a guy in the parking lot of the market at 53rd St. selling booze after 2AM.
Jack’s Basket Room also known as Bird in the Basket featured late night jam sessions and local live broadcasts. Clora Bryant, Sonny Criss, Teddy Edwards, Gene Montgomery, Art and Addison Farmer, J.D. King, Russell Jacquet and Freddie and Maurice Simon went almost every night. In addition to the music there was their famous fried chicken. If you didn’t like Jack’s chicken there was also ex-Ellington vocalist Ivie Anderson’s Chicken Shack. When Roy Porter formed his bebop big band in 1948 they rehearsed every afternoon at Ivie’s. A very young Eric Dolphy was a member of the Porter band reed section.
Jefferson High School students would drop by after school to listen. It was an amazing scene. Hollywood stars used to show up in their big limousines to hear the likes of T-Bone Walker and Johnny Otis. It wasn’t uncommon to see the likes of Dorothy Dandridge, Joe Louis, Lana Turner and Humphrey Bogart sitting ringside at the Club Alabam.
There was no racial segregation on the avenue. White patrons were welcome, especially musicians. The avenue was swinging nightly for years but totally under the radar to most Los Angeles residents. There were never mentions in the LA Times of happenings on the Avenue yet The Los Angeles Sentinel covered everything from music to sporting events and community functions.
We would know a lot less about what happened today had it not been for some local entrepreneurs who started record companies in their garages to try for the elusive jukebox hit. In doing so small labels like Aladdin, Modern, 4-Star, Exclusive, Excelsior, Bop, Dial, Bel-tone and Dolphin’s of Hollywood documented much of the music that was happening on the stem.
By the end of the forties things were changing and many of the Central Ave. clubs were closing their doors for good.