Arts And Culture

Spirit of jazz clubs revived during Central Avenue Jazz Festival

July 25, 2012, 6:14 p.m.

The Dunbar Hotel was the "heart of Los Angeles" during the Central Avenue jazz scene, said Central Avenue native Loyd Robinson.

Loyd Robinson compares Los Angeles’ Central Avenue in the 1940s to Las Vegas.

“It was like The Strip - it never did go to sleep,” said the 75-year-old Central Avenue native.

From the 1920s to 1950s, Central Avenue was known as the jazz hub of the city. Deemed “Little Harlem” by some, the street attracted entertainers, performers and Angelenos looking to hear the sounds of trumpets and saxophones.

Robinson remembers the after-hours houses, the gambling and the drinking along the avenue - but most of all the music. The sounds of jazz and blues could always be heard throughout the neighborhoods during this time, he recalled.

“In those days, people were into their music,” Robinson said. “They had record players, turntables.”

But the main draw were the jazz clubs sprinkled along Central Avenue - the remnants of which can still be found along the street. The DownBeat, the LoveJoy and the Hole in the Wall were only a few of the many that were popular during the time.

"This was the street," Robinson said, pointing to Central Avenue from a bench outside of Kilgore Manor, a senior citizen home where he lives.

Today, some of Central Avenue’s soulful spirit has been lost as these historical venues are replaced or forgotten, but efforts like the Central Avenue Jazz Festival work to keep Los Angeles jazz alive. The festival, which is celebrating its 17th year this weekend, will feature jazz performers like the Diana Holling Band and Phil Ranelin, as well as a tribute to Etta James.

"Not only are we trying to appreciate history and celebrate the folks that are still with us, but we are trying to bring in new blood - young people who appreciate jazz," said Councilwoman Jan Perry, whose office puts on the festival.

During the event, one landmark - the Dunbar Hotel at 4225 South Central Ave. - still stands as a testament to the area’s rich jazz history. Major musicians hung out and stayed at the Dunbar, which first opened in 1928 as the flagship hotel for the NAACP’s West Coast Convention, and often performed at its next-door neighbor, the Club Alabam.

“The Dunbar was the heart of Los Angeles,” Robinson said. “The Dunbar Hotel was the most exclusive place.”

He said he was too young to visit the hotel in its prime, but he can remember his father going there and bringing back tales about the stars he had seen.

“If people wanted to find you, they would find you down at the Dunbar,” Robinson said.

Now, the Dunbar Hotel is under renovation to become an affordable housing community for the elderly. Construction crews and scaffolding currently crowd the building’s facade, where Ella Fitzgerald and Charlie Parker once stood.

The building is expected to open sometime next spring, Perry said.

The DownBeat Club at 4201 South Central Ave., along the same block as the Dunbar and Club Alabam, was also a major player in the Central Avenue jazz scene. While the building now looks like a regular business, a placard out front reminds passersby of the club’s former glory.

Across the street from the Dunbar Hotel and the DownBeat were the former sites of the Last Word and Memo Club - two well-known places to hear jazz music along Central Avenue. The Last Word has since been torn down, and there is now a KFC parking lot where the Memo Club once stood.

From Robinson’s current home, he can see the Lincoln Theater - which he also described as the “center” of Los Angeles jazz. Robinson said he can remember as a child going to the theater that was known to some as the “West Coast Apollo” for its movies, theater shows and live performances by leading African-American entertainers.

In 1962, however, the popular theater that once knew performers like Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday was converted to a church, and now serves as a space for the Iglesia de Cristo Ministerios Juda.

“Everything has changed (now),” Robinson said. “But that was a good time, everybody was happy back then.”

Robinson said he goes to the jazz festival every year, and will be paying a visit this Saturday.

While the jazz clubs are gone, he said the festival serves as a reminder of his street’s musical history.

“(The festival) brings back a lot of memories,” he said, smiling. “It brings a lot of people together.”

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