They got their high school diplomas and hit the ground running. By living adjacent to the rich cultural offerings of Central Avenue in South Los Angeles in its heyday, the kids of Jefferson High School discovered the arts in the classroom and in the neighborhood. They made careers, big ones. A recent thrilling Sunday-afternoon showcase of live big-band jazz, staged by MUSE/IQUE, the clever music society whose artistic director is Rachael Worby, paid homage to the Central Avenue scene, as well as to the famous Jefferson High music graduates Dexter Gordon, Barry White, Etta James, Frank Morgan, Chico Hamilton, Don Cherry, The Platters, and more. In the dance world, alum included Alvin Ailey and Carmen de Lavallade.
MUSE/IQUE presented this south Los Angeles tribute as part of L.A. Composed: A Festival of Los Angeles Music, with a focus on a different street and the music associated with it. Central Avenue, happened on an otherwise tragic date, September 11, and two days prior, on Friday, September 9, the schools students, faculty and families got to experience it. That is fantastic community outreach by MUSE/IQUE.
From the 1920’s-1950’s, Central Avenue was the heart of African American cultural life: LA’s answer to the Harlem Renaissance, and the epicenter of the West Coast jazz scene. Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Duke Ellington, and Billie Holiday were regulars in the local clubs. Quincy Jones famously said that when he moved to LA as a young man he didn’t know the Sunset Strip, but he knew Central Ave.
The program, which took place in the school’s Art Deco auditorium, also paid tribute to one man who made a difference: the school’s beloved music teacher, Samuel Rodney Brown. For 25 years, Brown, himself a Jefferson alum who went on to graduate at USC, taught kids and inspired careers. He famously gave Dexter Gordon detention — to practice his scales.
The program’s vocalizing was sensational … out of this world … a dream. Event music director Myron McKinley of Earth, Wind and Fire ruled the roost at center stage surrounded by a kicking band and prominent soloists. A honey of a jazz songstress, Sy Smith, slithered in a sequined gown emitting a fluctuating bell-tone timbre that tickled the inside of my head. In her physical beauty, she recalled Lena Horne. Equally marvelous was a growling LaVance Colley who parried with Ms. Smith through “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got that Swing).” He then channeled Fats Waller in “Ain’t Misbehavin'” slowed to a child’s primer, with a sizzling trumpet solo by Bobby Rodriguez a huge highlight. Strutting the audience like a dominatrix, Ms. Smith laid down Cab Calloway’s crazy anthem, “Zaz Zuh Zaz” (1933), to an enchanted audience. The fabulous backup singers were DC6 Singers. The program got an A++ on its report card for music curation and for Mr. McKinley’s arrangements that dug in like there was no tomorrow. The show closed with “When the Saints Go Marching In.” I was in a state of extreme joy the entire program.
Alas, “Central Avenue” needed simple stage management. House lights remained “on” throughout, which didn’t quite kill the magic — nothing could do that — but it kept us in a high school auditorium on a Sunday afternoon. The fun opening number with local cheerleaders needed those kids to turn around so we could see faces. Someone needed to alert Lula Washington, who choreographed, under commission, an uninspiring homage to Ailey and Carmen, that she would not have theatrical lighting on her dancers so they would not be seen in dark costume. The otherwise beautiful and generous event, replete with yummy snack-boxes for its audience, was led by Muse/ique’s ebullient music director Rachael Worby, who, by use of signature side projections, inserted factoids and data between songs. I was glad that not every song had an intro. There were glitches. The Los Angeles Olympics were in 1984, not ’82. And our dear Carmen de Lavallade, alas, lives not in LA but in New York.
Pictured below, artsmeme‘s Debra Levine, blissed-out to be on the training grounds of so many greats but in particular, Alvin Ailey and Carmen De Lavallade.
Dance critic Debra Levine is founder/editor/publisher of arts●meme.