Over the course of nearly 180 installments of this series, we have traveled to New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans. We’ve heard music recorded live in famed local venues, and gotten to know musicians who contributed to the history and development of Black music.
Now it’s the West Coast’s turn.
Join me on a journey to Los Angeles. The early history of the migration of Black Americans to California, and the establishment of Black Los Angeles, with its active music scene, is fascinating.
Black Music Sunday is a weekly series highlighting all things Black music. With nearly 180 stories (and counting) covering performers, genres, history, and more, each featuring its own vibrant soundtrack, I hope you’ll find some familiar tunes and perhaps an introduction to something new.
Back in 2012, Kelly Simpson explored the history of Black migration to Los Angeles for KCET-TV.
The Great Migration of the 1920s that saw major populations of the Black South move to Northern cities like Detroit, Chicago and New York largely bypassed Los Angeles. It was instead what scholars refer to as "The Second Great Migration" in the 1940s that made the most significant shifts in the city. As World War II commenced, defense production skyrocketed in Los Angeles with more than $11 billion in war contracts, which called for labor in the automobile, rubber and steel industries. Black Americans migrated West in response and the Black population in Los Angeles leaped from 63,700 in 1940 to 763,000 in 1970, making the once small-pocketed community visible to the general public.
Before this grand shift, the Black community in Los Angeles had been rooted in a more complex Black identity with Mexicans of mixed-African descent. By 1821, Mexico abolished slaves as part of the Trans-Atlantic trade and thus were allowed to assimilate earlier into a society that later became America following the Mexican-American War. The Black community in Los Angeles then grew from a successive stream of small migrations, beginning in 1848 with the California Gold Rush during which more than 5,000 Blacks made their way to California by 1860.
Between the 1890s and 1910, large groups of Black Americans migrated to Los Angeles from Texas, Shreveport, New Orleans and Atlanta to escape the racial violence and bigotry of the South with hopes for better access to wealth. Job opportunities were plentiful, including hauling lumber, digging ditches, cleaning toilets, laying brick, scrubbing laundry and shining shoes. Black migrants quickly laid claim to Central Avenue between 8th and 20th Streets in Downtown Los Angeles, and the area became known as "Brick Block" - with clubs, churches black-owned businesses and newspapers like the California Eagle supplying community needs.
Jazz landed out West very early, mostly from New Orleans. In 2017, journalist and essayist Lynell George explored this history for the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Before Morton and Barker, a first-run of New Orleans musicians had cleared a path to California in the early 20th century. Freed from the yoke of Jim Crow, these ensembles began to make their way across country. One of the first was bassist and bandleader Bill Johnson, who set down new roots in Los Angeles. Johnson formed the Creole Band (known also as the Original Creole Orchestra) and introduced the West Coast to authentic New Orleans sounds in the early teens. He sent a call back home for other musicians. They had “warmed up the room” in some sense; there was an audience of re-settled New Orleanians to entertain and a new kingdom to be claimed. At this point, a confluence of New Orleans “firsts” were occurring in Southern California: one of the very first recordings by a black musician with New Orleans roots was made here in the Southland by trombonist Edward “Kid Ory” in May 1922. The session was organized by the Spikes Brothers (Benjamin a.k.a. “Reb” and Johnny), who owned and ran a record store on Central Avenue. Ory and his band set up at the Nordskog Studios in Santa Monica, but the fruits of the day would go to the Spikes Brothers new label, Sunshine Records. The ensemble featured Mutt Carey, Dink Johnson, and Ed Garland. The players recorded six tunes: four vocals and two instrumentals — among them, “Ory’s Creole Trombone” and “Society Blues.” These songs are historic: they are the first specimens of the black New Orleans sound recorded on the West Coast. These recordings are also significant in that they endeavor to replicate a music that has deep roots in a specific place — something that is both authentic and steeped in mood, not sentimentality. The recordings, while “rather laid back” to historian Lawrence Gushee’s ear, were “distinctly New Orleanian in character.”
Just how influential was the music? Was it simply part of the atmosphere, like new languages or dialects converging? That’s difficult to measure — communities of color in Los Angeles weren’t documented with the same precision and care. And yet, what one may not find in mainstream newspaper features or in photographs of the era, we may locate reading between the lines of advertisements. Black newspapers of the time ran promotional ads and announcements for the Creole Band or other Louisiana-themed get-togethers. This evidence suggests that a community of musicians and a curious, if not invested, audience had begun to form across the Southland.
James Nadal wrote Kid Ory’s bio for All About Jazz:
In 1919 Ory moved to California, forming a new band in Los Angeles, Kid Ory’s Creole Orchestra. They played steady engagements, up and down the coast. This band was the first black band from New Orleans to record. Under the name Spikes’s Seven Pods of Pepper, they recorded “Ory’s Creole Trombone”, and “Society Blues”, for the Sunshine label. The name came from the Spikes brothers who owned the label, and sold the records out of their music store in Los Angeles. Kid Ory also recorded two blues records for them one with Ruby Lee, and the other with Roberta Dudley, this time using the name Ory’s Sunshine Orchestra.
Returning to California in 1930, he went into the chicken farm business with his brother, and did quite well at that. He gigged round Los Angeles in the 1930s, but after playing on television and discs in 1944, his band became the centre of the West Coast 'revival' and he was celebrated as a founding father of jazz. He started to record again with his revived Creole Orchestra, and between 1944 and 1949 did scores of sessions for the Columbia, Crescent, Decca, and Exner labels.
Have a listen to “Ory’s Creole Trombone.”
And here’s “Society Blues” to go with it!
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 the art of jazz 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.
In 2015, writer and historian Hadley Meares took a deep dive into the history of Central Avenue and the historic Dunbar Hotel (Somerville Hotel) for KCET.
Dr. John Somerville was raised in Jamaica. When he arrived in California in 1902, he was shocked by the lack of accommodations for people of color on the West Coast. Black travelers usually stayed with friends or relatives. Regardless of income, unlucky travelers usually had to room in "colored boarding houses" that were often dirty and unsafe. "In those places, we didn't compare niceness. We compared badness," Somerville's colleague, Dr. H. Claude Hudson remembered. "The bedbugs ate you up." Undeterred by the segregation and racism that surrounded him, Somerville was the first black man to graduate from the USC dental school. In 1912, he married Vada Watson, the first black woman to graduate from USC's dental school.
By 1928, the Somervilles were a power couple -- successful dentists, developers, tireless advocates for black Angelenos, and the founders of the L.A. chapter of the NAACP. As the Great Migration brought more black people to L.A., the city cordoned them off into the neighborhood surrounding Central Avenue. Despite boasting a large population of middle and upper class black families, there were still no first class hotels in Los Angeles that would accept blacks. In 1928, the Somervilles and other civic leaders sought to change all that. Somerville "entered a quarter million dollar indebtedness" and bought a corner lot at 42nd and Central. On this lot, in the heart of L.A.'s black community, a $250,000 four story hotel was built. It is said that only African-American labor and craftsmen were used.
The Hotel Somerville boasted 100 guest rooms, 60 private baths, and assorted public rooms, all dressed with $35,000 worth of custom furniture. The opening gala in June 1928 brought out over 5,000 people. "It was a palace compared to what we had been used to," H. Claude Hudson remembered. Like most grand hotels, there were numerous businesses within the building (many run by women). Over the years these included a 100 seat dining room, bar, popular café, flower shop, nightclub, barbershop, ladies' hairdresser, and a stenographer's office. According to the L.A. Times:
The entrance had a spectacular art deco chandelier and flagstone floors and arched windows and tiled floors. The main lobby looked like a regal Spanish arcade, with open balconies and steel grillwork.
KCET depicts scenes from early Central Avenue in this four-minute video, which also includes memories of the people who called it home.
I was fascinated by the history of both Central Ave and the Dunbar, most of which was completely new to me.
Los Angeles writer and filmmaker Eric Craig’s “The South LA Recap” website bills itself as “an online-based documentary project that is dedicated to unraveling the immense history, secrets, and stories of South Los Angeles.” In 2021, Craig released a nine-minute video on the Dunbar Hotel’s history, along with a full transcript. Craig details quite a bit of L.A.’s Black history.
From the transcript:
The Somerville Hotel opened for business on June 23, 1928. From the jump, the hotel was visited by a slew of black aristocrats (Judges, Boyd), and the NAACP used the hotel as its headquarters for the NAACP’s 19th national Conference, and its Anniversary Party.
The monstrous success and high hopes were short lived. By March 29, 1929, 9 months after the hotel opened, John and Vada Somerville lost the property through foreclosure, likely an event triggered by the stock market crash of 1929. Consequently, they were ordered to vacate the managerial role of the property.
The property was seized by a larger non-black company, represented by Harry Kronick. Lucius Walter Lomax Sr., an astute black businessman, bought the Somerville Hotel for $100,000 in 1930, and renamed the Somerville Hotel the Dunbar Hotel, after the Black poet Paul Dunbar. While his investment didn’t save John and Vada’s role in the hotel, it did keep the hotel in Black ownership.
When the jazz scene ended on Central Avenue, it shifted to other area venues, like Billy Berg’s, described here by Sean J. O’Connell for KCET in 2014.
Billy Berg was a nightlife impresario. He didn't just work as a promoter. He was a successful club owner, an MC and the grinning face of his franchise (he put it right on the matchbooks). The Berg brand meant music and dancing and drinking, a hip crowd and hipper bands. 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.
Berg ran integrated institutions, one of the first to disregard the color barrier onstage and at the tables and he booked big jazz musicians. Lester Young returned to Los Angeles in the early 1940s to play lengthy residencies at both Trouville and the Club Capri with his brother Lee. Louis Armstrong spent a month with Jack Teagarden and Big Sid Catlett in the summer of 1947. Billie Holiday described the 5-4 Ballroom in her autobiography -- "a different kind of place, -- not high class enough to be high class and not low class enough to be a dive." Holiday also rang in 1949 at Billy Berg's, a gig that trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and alto saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker likely did three years prior.
To get a sense of the atmosphere at Billy Berg’s, check out sides A and B of Charlie Parker’s “Bird In LA.”
Bird In LA chronicles Parker’s first three trips to Los Angeles (1945-1952). Side A consists of Dizzy Gillespie and his Orchestra performing live at Billy Berg’s Supper Club in Hollywood. It feels like formative bebop (mostly captured in concise numbers and snippets) i with “hipster” MCs (reminiscent of Lord Buckley) doing intros. “I Waited For You/How High The Moon” showcases Gillespie, Parker and Milt Jackson with breakout solos. The jamming gets edgier on “Cement Mixer/Blues” with sudden tempo changes and the melody “takeout”. On “Groovin’ High”, Dizzy and Bird are sublime and Al Haig shines on piano. Things get amped up on Side B with the syncopated rendition of “Shaw “Nuff”. Parker cuts loose on the first solo, then Gillespie matches the ferocity. They finish in tandem. “Dizzy Atmosphere” concludes the Berg performance with Bird and Diz playing in unison and counterpoint. “Salt Peanuts” with crazy swing patterns (and chant) is anchored by Ray Brown’s muscular bass and Stan Levey’s propulsive drumming.
The Lighthouse Bar and Restaurant opened in Hermosa Beach in 1940. According to the venue’s website, “the club first began showcasing jazz music on May 29, 1949, when owner John Levine permitted bassist/band leader Howard Rumsey to start a recurring Sunday jam session on a trial basis. The experiment was a success.”
Similar to the live recordings from East Coast clubs like The Village Vanguard, the “Live at the Lighthouse” recordings are a treasure trove.
As All Music explains, The Jazz Crusaders recorded live at the Lighthouse in 1962.
Back in 1954, Houston pianist Joe Sample teamed up with high school friends tenor saxophonist Wilton Felder and drummer Stix Hooper to form the Swingsters. Within a short time, they were joined by trombonist Wayne Henderson, flutist Hubert Laws, and bassist Henry Wilson and the group became the Modern Jazz Sextet. With the move of Sample, Felder, Hooper, and Henderson to Los Angeles in 1960, the band (a quintet with the bass spot constantly changing) took on the name of the Jazz Crusaders.
Have a listen.
In 1965 The Ramsey Lewis Trio recorded “Hang on Ramsey” at The Lighthouse—which included a hit for the group in “Hang on Sloopy.”
RELATED STORY: Black Music Sunday: Ramsey Lewis made all of us part of 'the in crowd.' May he rest in peace
The Modern Jazz Quartet recorded Live at the Lighthouse in 1967.
In 1970, trumpeter Lee Morgan recorded there. John Bergstrom wrote this review for Pop Matters:
Live at the Lighthouse is unlike any other Lee Morgan album. It is his only official live recording as a bandleader. While Morgan wrote nearly all the material on his studio albums, Live at the Lighthouse features only two Morgan compositions; most of the rest were written by his bandmates. That is likely partly because Morgan was trying to break away from his highly melodic boogaloo and hard-bop past. At the very beginning of the first set on the first night, he asks his audience for patience and understanding: “You will be hearing a lot of new material, so please keep this in mind. We are recording. All the things we already have out, you can’t be asking us to play because that wouldn’t make too much sense.” On the contrary, even jazz artists routinely released live recordings of their best-known material. Morgan didn’t want to, and therein lies most of Live at the Lighthouse’s fascinating nature.
Here’s Morgan’s contribution to The Lighthouse’s canon—and his final album.
RELATED STORY: Remembering Slugs' Saloon, the hippest jazz joint on New York City's Lower East Side
I’ll close our live album artistry with drummer Elvin Jones. He recorded this on his birthday—51 years ago this month.
I hope you’ll join me in the comments for more on SoCal’s Black history and Black music ... and please feel free to post your favorites!