Jazz History: South Central Los Angeles

Billie Holiday and other African American performers stayed at the Dunbar when working in LA.

From approximately 1920 to 1955, Central Avenue was the heart of the African-American community in Los Angeles, with active Rhythm and Blues and Jazz music scenes. Local luminaries included Eric Dolphy, Art Pepper, Chico Hamilton, and Charles Mingus. Other jazz and R&B musicians associated with Central Avenue in LA include Benny Carter, Buddy Collette, Dexter Gordon, Lionel Hampton, Hampton Hawes, Big Jay McNeely, Johnny Otis, Shifty Henry, Charlie Parker (briefly), Gerald Wilson, Onzy Matthews and Teddy Wilson. 

In its heyday, the Dunbar was ground zero for the West Coast jazz scene

Commenting on its historical prominence, Wynton Marsallis once remarked that "Central Avenue was the 52nd Street of Los Angeles. Although Central Avenue is no longer the thriving jazz center it was, its legacy is preserved by the Central Avenue Jazz Festival and a small number of jazz clubs, including 2nd Street Jazz in Little Tokyo.

Lionel Hampton composed and performed a tune called "Central Avenue Breakdown". Dave Alvin's tribute to Big Joe Turner, "The Boss of the Blues", describes a drive down Central Avenue and Turner's reminiscences about the scene.

Central Avenue was a place where barriers were broken, as it was the preeminent place for black jazz musicians to showcase their work. Central Avenue was the heart of music that was distinctly American. You can't really say that about any other type of music, and this is what people will remember it for. Jazz on Central helped to sustain the South Los Angeles region from the 1930s until the early 1950s. This mural was a direct result of jazz scene and depicts famous musicians and prominent African-American citizens in Los Angeles through the 1980s. 

In 1974, the Dunbar became Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument No. 131.

The Dunbar,
originally known as the Hotel Somerville, became known in the 1930s and 1940s as "the hub of Los Angeles black culture," and "the heart of Saturday night Los Angeles." In its heyday, it was known as "a West Coast mixture of the Waldorf-Astoria and the Cotton Club."The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner described the Dunbar this way:

"It was once the most glorious place on 'the Avenue.' At the Dunbar Hotel … you could dance to the sounds of Cab Calloway, laugh till your stomach hurt with Redd Foxx and maybe, just maybe, get a room near Billie Holiday or Duke Ellington."

The Dunbar hosted prominent African Americans traveling to Los Angeles, including Duke Ellington, Joe Louis, Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, and Josephine Baker. The Dunbar was “the gathering spot for the crème de la crème of black society, the hotel for performers who could entertain in white hotels but not sleep in them.”

The Dunbar also became the place where African American political and intellectual leaders and writers, including Langston Hughes, W. E. B. Du Bois, Ralph Bunche, Thurgood Marshall and James Weldon Johnson, gathered. It has been described as “a place where the future of black America was discussed every night of the week in the lobby.” Celes King, whose family owned the Dunbar in its heyday, said, “They were very serious discussions between people like W. E. B. Du Bois (founder of the NAACP), doctors, lawyers, educators and other professionals. This was the place where many of them put together the plans to improve the life style of their people.”

More than anything, the Dunbar is remembered for its role in the Central Avenue jazz scene. The nightclub at the Dunbar was the home-away-from-home for, and the stage for performances by, artists including Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Louis Jordan, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, and Nat King Cole. Even Ray Charles stayed at the Dunbar when he first moved to Los Angeles.

In addition to the main nightclub, former heavyweight champion Jack Johnson opened his Showboat nightclub at the Dunbar in the 1930s. "Jack Johnson … ran his Showboat nightclub in one corner, and black bands practiced on the mezzanine for acts across town later that night."

The hotel was also popular with the white community, and many from Hollywood spent their Saturday nights at the Dunbar and surrounding clubs. Celes King recalled once when Bing Crosby bounced a check at the hotel, and her father (the hotel's owner) kept Crosby's check. "It was a big joke between them."

Duke Ellington at Club alabam 1945. Source: Corbis Images
The nightclub at the Dunbar was the home-away-from-home for, and the stage for performances by, artists including Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Louis Jordan, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, and Nat King Cole. Even Ray Charles stayed at the Dunbar when he first moved to Los Angeles.

Making a night of it with Louie Armstrong at the Club Alabam circa 1945.

The neighborhood was also the home of other famous jazz clubs, including Club Alabam (next door), the Last Word (across the street), and the Downbeat (nearby). Even local musicians who were playing at other Central Avenue clubs would gather at the Dunbar. Lee Young, the drummer who led a band at the Club Alabam, recalled: “The fellows in the band – Charles Mingus, Art Pepper, all of us – would hang out between sets next door at the Dunbar . . . Between the club and the hotel you'd see movie stars and all the big show business names of the day.” 

The Rockettes at Club Alabam, Dunbar Hotel, Central Ave.

Musician Jack Kelson recalled the sidewalk in front of the Dunbar as the most desirable place to hang out on the city's coolest street. He said, "That's my favorite spot on Central Avenue, that spot in the front of the Dunbar Hotel, because that to me was the hippest, most intimate, key spot of all the activity. That's where all the night people hung out: the sportsmen, the businessmen, the dancers, everybody in show business, people who were somebody stayed at the hotel. … by far that block, that Dunbar Hotel, for me was it. And it was it for, it seemed to me, everybody else. Sooner or later you walked in front of that hotel, and that's where everybody congregated."

Another writer recalled the area around the Dunbar as "a place where people love to congregate and have a good time, check out the new models and pick up on the latest lingo." The Dunbar built a reputation in the 1930s as "the symbol of L.A.'s black nightlife," as "regular jamming sessions and meetings in the hotel lobby elevated the structure to a practically mythical status." Lionel Hampton had fond memories of jam sessions and practices on the Dunbar's mezzanine. Hampton recalled, "Everybody that was anybody showed up at the Dunbar. I remember a chauffeur would drive Stepin Fetchit, the movie star, up to the curb in a big Packard, and he'd look out the window at all the folks."

View of the Mezzanine of the Hotel Somerville aka The Dunbar where you could see many of the top Jazz performers of the day. 
In his autobiography, Buck Clayton shared some of his memories of the Dunbar. He recalled the Dunbar as “jumping” with loads of people trying to get a glimpse of the celebrities, and parties thrown by Duke Ellington and his guys with “chicks and champagne everywhere.” Clayton recalled an instance when Ellington and his orchestra came to Los Angeles shortly after the 1932 release of the song It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing).[ Ellington’s band was in the Dunbar restaurant when the song came on the jukebox. It was the first time since leaving New York that they had heard their recording. Clayton described the band's response: “So much rhythm I've never heard, as guys were beating on the tables, instrument cases or anything else they could beat on with knives, forks, rolled-up newspapers or anything else they could find to make rhythm. It was absolutely crazy.”

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