Los Angeles's Jazz Roots: The Willis H. Young Family

By Daniels, Douglas Henry | California History, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Los Angeles's Jazz Roots: The Willis H. Young Family


Daniels, Douglas Henry, California History


The historical and etymological origins of jazz are rather murky, although the average fan associates the history with New Orleans and the Deep South and often with African Americans. As it happens, the word "jazz" first appeared in print in a California newspaper in 1923. The term (1) itself was traditionally linked with a style of dance and sometimes with sex. Analysis of the history of jazz in Los Angeles reveals how closely the city was linked with its development and popularization and that it played a singular role in the acceptance of the music in Hollywood's film industry, in southern California night clubs, and in its spread throughout the world. As the Louisiana patriarch of his extended family, Willis Handy Young (1872-1943), bandleader and professor of music, played a signal role in jazz history and its development in Los Angeles. (2)

Studies that focus on key cities--New Orleans or Chicago--fail to appreciate the considerable impact of jazz on the hinterlands and on the West Coast, or, for that matter, the effects of these regions on the evolution of the music. Significantly, jazz did not simply migrate north to Chicago, it radiated from a number of urban centers at about the same time--late in the second decade of the twentieth century.

EARLY LOS ANGELES JAZZ

Despite the usual emphasis on New Orleans, Chicago, Kansas City, and New York in histories of jazz, Los Angeles and San Francisco assumed roles of singular significance in the music's origins and evolution. Typically, a New Orleans citizen reached the West Coast, found a great demand for jazz and sent for enough of his fellow residents to field a band. For example, at least one member of the Original Creole Jazz band, one of the three bands singled out as the creators or purveyors of New Orleans jazz, could be found in Los Angeles as early as 1907, and the band was actually formed on the West Coast and documentation indicates they performed at least as early as 1911. Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton, the self-proclaimed inventor of jazz, included Los Angeles and cities along the Pacific Slope in his wide-ranging travels. He ran shows at the Cadillac Cafe in downtown Los Angeles and in San Francisco and Vancouver in the World War I years. "Jelly Roll" Morton returned to Los Angeles late in 1940. He died the next year and was buried in a Los Angeles cemetery. (3)

The number of jazz personalities in Los Angeles within the first decade of the music's history is impressive. (4) Morton played with "Bricktop" (Ada Smith) at the Cadillac on Central Avenue near Seventh Street before she became the owner of the world-renowned Parisian nightclub that carried her nickname; this red-haired entertainer reached Los Angeles in 1917. (5)

New Orleans trombonist Edward "Kid" Ory arrived in 1919, then formed his Creole Jazz Band with Crescent City bandsmen Thomas "Papa Mutt" Carey, Alton Redd, Ed "Montudi" Garland, and Wade Whaley. Ory discovered the demand for the music was such that he sent for Joe "King" Oliver's Creole Jazz Orchestra to fill one of his engagements in 1921. (6) (Oliver's band also played in the Bay Area in early 1922.) Indeed, the first authentic records of Crescent City jazz were made by Kid Ory's Creole Orchestra and by Ory with singers, in Los Angeles in 1922; this was also the first recording of the music by African Americans, just five years after the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, the white group whose records first popularized the music. (7)

The producers of this session, John and Benjamin "Reb" Spikes, opened a music store at 1203 Central Avenue in 1919; the versatile brothers wrote songs, published music, and provided bands, sometimes "four or five bands in a night," for clients such as Warner Brothers. They also led and performed in bands; saxophonist Reb Spikes was featured in both Los Angeles and San Francisco jazz bands as early as the World War I years. In 1921 the two brothers performed over radio station KFI, then they made records for the soundtracks of Warner Brothers movies. …

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