Note: First published on Blogger on May 4, 2007
Unfolding the Map
Though Jack doesn't say where he is on Central Avenue, I've taken the liberty to mark his visit to the area at 42nd and Central, the site of the Dunbar Hotel and the home of the modern day Central Avenue Jazz Festival. Central Avenue was the heart of the jazz scene in LA in the 1940s and 50s, and Jack was a jazz lover, so this makes sense. If you want to see where we are, click the map.
"Terry came out and led me by the hand to Central Avenue, which is the colored main drag of LA. And what a wild place it is, with chickenshacks barely big enough to house a jukebox, and the jukebox blowing nothing but blues, bop, and jump. We went up dirty tenement stairs and came to the room of Terry's friend Margarina, who owed Terry a skirt and a pair of shoes. Margarina was a lovely mulatto; her husband was black as spades and kindly....The wild humming night of Central Avenue -- the night of Hamp's 'Central Avenue Breakdown' -- howled and boomed along outside. They were singing in the halls, singing from their windows, just hell be damned and look out."
On the Road, Chapter 13
Central Avenue, Los Angeles, California
Of all the stops that Kerouac makes on his trip, I think this area must have been one of the most interesting places to be. This area has long been associated with the African-American population of Los Angeles, and has been the focal point for a couple of infamous news stories in the 20th century. It was in this general area, a little farther south, that the Watts riots took place in 1965. It was also in this general area, South Florence and Normandie, that the Rodney King riots happened in 1992.
However, in the 1940s, Central Avenue was the home of some of the most electrifying jazz and R&B in the country. Many of the biggest names in jazz music established themselves and helped create a Central Avenue sound that was unmatched. A night on Central Avenue must have been a night to remember. Jack describes the sounds Sal hears as he waits at Terry's friend's apartment. He describes hearing Lionel Hampton, "Hamp," an amazing jazz musician who established the vibraphone as a bona fide jazz instrument, in the "humming night." I'm sure that any modern jazz aficionado would have killed to be at that moment in time on Central Avenue.
I became aware of the Central Avenue sound when I purchased for my wife a four CD set called "Jazz on Central Avenue." Highlighting jazz from the 1920s through the 1950s, the set covers jazz luminaries from Jellyroll Morton to Miles Davis to Charlie Parker to Charles Mingus. All of these performers were either frequent visitors to Central Avenue, or residents of the area who most certainly performed there. It is a great CD set, and one that I've enjoyed in the years since we've had it.
In this day and age, when jazz has largely been confined to aficionados due to the overwhelming presence of pop and rock, it is easy to forget that jazz in the 40s was the pre-emininent American musical artform, and influenced the pop sounds of the day. People were as passionate about Miles Davis or John Coltrane then as they are about Britney and Justin, the Shins and 50 Cent, today. I know that I'm showing a lot of my ignorance of pop music by highlighting people who are not the flavor of the day, but I think you'll get my point. For Jack, who is in the middle of this scene at the right time, smoking "tea" and listening to the sounds of the Central Avenue night, it must have seemed like heaven.
If you want to know more about Central Avenue and its music scene
Central Avenue Jazz Festival
Central Avenue Sounds
Robert Gordon's Blog on West Coast Jazz
Wikipedia: Central Avenue
Some musicians of Central Avenue
Big Jay McNeely
Lionel Hamption: Life and Legacy
Wikipedia: Lionel Hampton
Next up: Arcadia, California