Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles

Place and Personhood

Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles
(University of California Press; $29.95)
by Steven Isoardi et al.

New Dutch Swing
(Billboard, $21.95)
by Kevin Whitehead

Blues Legacies and Black Feminism
(Pantheon Books; $27.50)
by Angela Davis
by Paul de Barros
Copyright © 1998 Paul de Barros

Jazz depends on immediacy and community, so it's not surprising that histories of it often have focused on place. Three new books deal with jazz locations, two about geographical places - Los Angeles and Amsterdam - and one about a musical "site" in the theoretical sense: a "place" where public discourse happens.

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Seattle listeners, aware that jazz on the West Coast often is reduced to 1950s "cool," will heartily welcome Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles. It's a fat, handsome, superbly assembled oral history about the L.A. neighborhood where a vibrant African-American scene flourished before, during and after World War II, much like Seattle's Jackson Street. Though a committee is credited as Central Avenue's "author," U.C.L.A. political science professor (and amateur musician) Steven Isoardi conceived and compiled it, using the university's ambitious jazz oral history project as his central resource.

Consisting of 19 carefully constructed interviews with musicians such as Marshal Royal, Lee Young (Lester's brother), Britt Woodman, Buddy Collette, Gerald Wilson, Big Jay McNeely, Art Farmer, and Horace Tapscott, the narrative is tied together with passages about the politics and sociology of the district, a sort of West Coast Harlem where the Hollywood set pulled up in their limousines to hear some jazz. Studio reedman Jack Kelson vividly describes the glamorous "aura of mysterious wonderfulness" on the block where the Club Alabam and the Dunbar Hotel flourished, making you wish you could step back in time and get a first-hand look.

* * *

Kevin Whitehead, whose name you may recognize from his pithy disc reviews on NPR's "Fresh Air," was a central figure in early '90s "jazz wars," the head-butting confrontation between Wynton Marsalis' neo-conservatives and the avant-garde-inclined New York critical establishment. As Whitehead implies in the introduction to his splendid first book, New Dutch Swing, the strongest riposte to Marsalis was simply to go where the music was more interesting - in this case, Amsterdam. Fans of Vancouver's du Maurier jazz festival will recognize many of the principal suspects - Han Bennink, Willem Breuker, Maarten Altena, Ab Baars and the Clusone Trio, among others - who over the years have created a wacky, irreverent, but highly serious improvised music scene with specific regional characteristics.

Through a meticulous, yet roundabout prose style that owes as much to the modern novel as to criticism - indeed, sometimes reading it is like listening to a very long solo by Bennink - Whitehead brilliantly collages in-depth interviews, historical vignettes, record reviews, present-tense performance descriptions, enlightening background material and analytical passages to develop a lucid picture of a vibrant scene. Gossipy, detailed, smart, dense, fiercely opinionated, and full of a noisy sense of the fun of language, New Dutch Swing is an important addition to jazz literature and, without being boosterish, gives the lie to the notion that there is one, "correct" way to play jazz.

* * *

A healthy movement has surfaced to reframe the life of Billie Holiday as a woman of strength, rather than as a victim. In Blues Legacies and Black Feminism political activist and U.C. Davis professor Angela Davis takes that idea several steps further, proposing that not only Billie, but Bessie Smith and Gertrude "Ma" Rainey represent an "unacknowledged tradition of feminist consciousness in working-class black communities."

Davis makes a good case that the "listen up, sister" lyrics of 1920s blues divas brought issues such as domestic violence, racism - and even lesbianism - into the limelight, but only an academic could construe a song in which a woman vows to poison her rival ("Wringing and Twisting Blues") as an illustration of "working-class women's community-building." She offers a chewy analysis of the relationship between blues and Emancipation. But her assertion that lyrics sung by women are part of a continuum of black feminism is half- baked, particularly since she cites no evidence for such a continuum. Nevertheless, there's food for thought here, and the inclusion of the complete lyrics of Smith and Rainey - for the first time ever - is a lasting contribution.


Paul de Barros is the jazz columnist for the Seattle Times, a contributor to Down Beat magazine and the author of Jackson Street After Hours: The Roots of Jazz in Seattle.

E-mail: debarros@wolfenet.com


C o m m e n t s

Billie as "Victim" 1 of 1
David Whiteis June 16, 01

Whether or not one finds Davis' rhetoric a bit florid, I think she's onto something very important when she identifies songs like the ones she cites as anthems of protest, rather than victims' complaints. I've always thought critics who accused Billie Holiday & others of being "victims" in their songs were missing a very important corollary between songs like theirs & the mostly male "complainin' songs" [as Alan Lomax called them] about the oppressive conditions of chain gangs, work farms, and plantations in the south.

Commentators have long understood that the traditional blues trope, in songs like this, of bemoaning one's hard times, represented the first step in translating that sorrow to anger, & then doing something about it. Men who were forced to masquerate as happy-go-lucky "boys" for the white world were embracing something very empowering and even liberating when they allowed themselves the freedom to say, in song & story, "NO, goddam it, I'm NOT happy & I'm not going to pretend I am!"

I see many of the "victim" songs of women blues & jazz singers in this same light. Remember, in a patriarchal society, women are expected to be "happy housewives", just as Black have been expected to be "happy darkies" when interacting w/ whites. (Even today, women unhappy w/ their "lot in life" are considered maladjusted & ungrateful: they represent our society's major market for anti-depressents & psychotherapy).

In this context, I think we can see that blueswomen sang of abuse & domestic entrapment w/ the same voice of nascent rebellion as their male counterparts sang of sadistic overseers and brutal chain-gang captains. The songs are no less political, no less songs of resistance. Only our culture's arbitrary distinction between "public" & "private" oppression has prevented us from understanding this more deeply.

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