Monday, February 27, 2006

On Meeting The Prezident @ Club Alabam in La La Land

In his youth my grandfather was an avid lover of music…He preferred blues and jazz…He was also very knowledgeable about the history of the music as well…Engaging my grandfather in conversations about jazz and blues music was like taking a crash course in jazz/ blues history 101…NOT ONLY DID HE KNOW ABOUT THE HISTORY, BUT HE EXPERIENCED A LOT OF THE HISTORY FIRST HAND AS WELL…When my grandfather was stationed at Camp Young out in the southern California desert (the same Camp Young where Gen. Patton trained his 3rd Army tank battalion), he and his comrades would often commute to Los Angeles to have a good time…You could often find them as well as countless other Black folks on legendary Central Avenue Street in the heart of Black Los Angeles…The 1940s was the time that Be Bop not Hip Hop was the youth culture of the day…Young men instead of wearing baggy jeans, corn rolls, bandannas, baseball caps, throwback jerseys and t-shirts would wear baggy suits known as zoot suits with two toned shoes , conked hair and sometimes topped off with flamboyant hats with equally distinguished feather…Instead of dogs, men were called ‘cats’ and to be a hep cat was to be a cool and suave individual, an innovative trendsetter…Central Ave was a jazz mecca and hotbed, it was the west coast version of 52nd Street in New York…The only major difference between the two was that the businesses thriving on Central Ave were owned and operated by financially successful Black entreprenuers unlike The Street (52nd Street) which was run and operated by White business interests including La Cosa Nostra a.k.a. the American Mafia…Some successful businesses on Central Ave included the Dunbar Hotel, one of the earliest and most successful Black owned and operated hotels in the country; Jack’s Basket Room (Jack’s Chicken Basket) and The Showboat, late night restaurant and jazz venues owned and operated by the incomparable Jack Johnson, the first Black Heavweight Boxing Champion; and Lincoln Theater which was called ‘The West Coast Apollo’ after the famous Harlem Theater in New York, it was at one time the largest venue for Black entertainment in the west and was one of the first movie theaters for African Americans in the country which also featured some of the best acts in jazz including Duke Ellington to Charlie Parker… Authentic jazz first appeared in the Los Angeles area in the early nineteen teens and 20s when legendary New Orleans musicians such as King Freddie Keppard, Kid Ory and Jelly Roll Morton came out to the west coast to capitalize off the commercial novelty of jazz music in that particular part of the country…The first stop for many of these jazz legends was the section of Black Los Angeles which eventually became known as Central Ave…Many movie stars such as Buster Keaton, Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino, Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Mary Pickford, and Gloria Swanson frequented the night spots of Black Los Angeles to hear ‘the real hot jazz’…Central Ave was definitely sizzling…By the 1940s The Club Alabam was not only one of the most famous jazz/dance clubs on Central Avenue, but in the entire United States!!! All the top jazz acts from Art Tatum to the Count Basie Band would perform at this fabled venue on a regular basis…My grandfather told me on his first visit to Club Alabam that he planned to see the very popular Nat King Cole Trio…However, upon his arrival and to his displeasure the club announced that the Nat King Cole Trio would not be performing tonight and that Lester ‘Prez’ Young, a tenor saxophonist and Count Basie Band Alum, will be performing in their place…My grandfather wondered who in the hell was this Lester Young cat…Although both were native sons of Mississippi ( my grandfather was born in Como and Lester was born in Woodville) and my grandfather liked Count Basie’s music, he never heard of this Lester cat before…Lester Young was one of the greatest jazz musicians that ever lived period…His unorthodox light, airy, floating tender tenor sound earned him many critics, enemies, admirers and imitators, including among them the great Charlie ‘Yardbird’ Parker who basically taught himself how to play saxophone by listening to and memorizing Lester Young’s records and seeing him perform with the Basie Band at such venues as the Reno Club in Parker’s hometown of Kansas City…From the get go Lester Young was always an individualist….He wore his trademark pork pie hats and his trench coat’s length went to his ankles; The Prez held his saxophone at an extremely high and unorthodox angle when he played; His vocubalury was also very original and personalized…He referred to everyone, including men, as ‘ladies’, he called White people ‘grays’ and when he encountered bigoted and racist people he would say a phrase like ,"I feel a draft"…The eccentric jazzman also walked sideways in small steps and was a prolific chronic weed smoker as evidenced by his sleepingly hypnotic beautiful green eyes …He earned the nickname ‘Prez’ from ‘Lady Day’ herself the great Billie Holliday…Ironically, it was Lester who gave Billie the name ‘Lady Day’ and she named him ‘Prez’ because Lester was her favorite saxophonist and she considered him to be the best or "President of the tenor saxophonists"….However his election to that title for most of his career has been in debate by many in the jazz world…For example, when he replaced saxophone legend Coleman Hawkins (a favorite of my grandfather’s), whose sound was more robust and "macho" sounding, in the Fletcher Henderson Band, many of the band members chastised and criticized Lester for having such, at that time in the early 30s, an ‘un-tenor’ sound…Many preferred Chu Berry, another exceptional tenor who was closer to Hawkins in sound…Even Fletcher’s wife took Lester down to her basement to listen to Coleman Hawkins’ records to get him to sound like "The Bean" (Hawkins), but to no avail…Lester confidently and defiantly stated that "he (Hawkins) sounds fine, but it ain’t me"… So Fletcher Henderson, who saw Lester’s potential greatness, let the future Prez go on his way, but told everyone in the band that Lester could easily outplay every body and that the young brilliant saxophonist was going to be a great one…Lester fulfilled the prophecy…But fast forward to my grandfather, who didn’t or probably didn’t cared to know about Lester’s professional struggles…All he wanted to hear was great dance music, preferably of the Nat King Cole variety…My grandfather was still suspect and suspicious of Lester’s credentials until he heard the first verse of "Lester Leaps In"…Ever since that time my grandfather was a fan of the Prez, probably the only president of anything that he actually truly liked!!!

To learn more about historic Central Ave. please visit the following link:

Central Avenue

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