Jazz in Los Angeles: The Black Experience

By Dickerson, Dwight | Black Music Research Journal, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview
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Jazz in Los Angeles: The Black Experience


Dickerson, Dwight, Black Music Research Journal


Los Angeles has long been recognized as an icon in the United States from the perspective of its social, economic, and historical contributions to American life. The city has provided the United States--and, indeed, the world--with a model for urban development in the areas of assimilation, integration, and diversity. Yet some of the developments, especially those impacting blacks, have had results that can be questioned, particularly from the vantage point of those who might be considered progressive. Jazz in the United States has succeeded as an art form, but does this include Los Angeles--the Mecca of the entertainment world? And what is the definition of success?

Further, if we consider jazz as an art form rather than entertainment, competition with other musical genres has proven to be a formidable obstacle in Los Angeles; the overriding demands of commercialism--as advocated and practiced by the film industry--congeal to make all forms of dance music more accessible to the public than jazz. The tangential questions are these: (1) Has jazz succeeded as entertainment or an art form in Los Angeles? (2) What is the real contribution of jazz to Los Angeles, and Los Angeles to jazz?

How Do I Know This?

I write this essay from the perspective of a professional jazz musician, with over forty years experience, who lived and worked in Los Angeles for many years. My parents migrated to Los Angeles in 1943 so my mother could finish nursing school. She was from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and my father from Jacksonville, Florida. I was born in the Japanese ward of White Memorial Hospital in Los Angeles because this Seventh-Day Adventist (SDA) institution wouldn't allow a black baby to be born in any other ward. When my mother graduated from nursing school, we moved back East, eventually to Philadelphia, where we lived until I was fourteen.

I started piano lessons at age five--hating it; European classics just weren't for me then. We lived in a row house, and it wasn't until a neighbor, hearing me practicing sorrowfully, took me to his house next door and put on an Erroll Garner record. I was about ten years old, and my life "turned on a dime." I spent every waking hour studying and playing (as best I could with SDA parents) the music--jazz, the music of the masters--and have done so, virtually exclusively, ever since. In an interview with Arthur Taylor ([1977] 1982), Nina Simone perfectly describes my life as a jazz musician:

   Max Roach defined the word technically. Jazz is not just music,
   it's a way of life, it's a way of being, a way of thinking. I think
   that the Negro in America is jazz. Everything he does--the slang he
   uses, the way he walks, the way he talks, his jargon, the new
   inventive phrases we make up to describe things--all that to me is
   jazz just as much as the music we play. Jazz is not just music.
   It's the definition of the Afro-American Black. (156)

My family and I returned to California in 1959, wherein I furthered my commitment to jazz through music education--from undergraduate to a terminal degree--all from institutions in Los Angeles. In 1998, after completing my Ph.D. in music from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), I took the hajj to New York, where I spent almost ten years and was fortunate to play with many of the famous serious jazz musicians. In my career, I've played with bands led by some of the most formidable players/leaders from all over the world (see Appendix A). Since receiving my Ph.D., I have lived, taught, and performed in Tokyo, Japan; New York City; and Shanghai, China. At present, I am in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates (UAE). Sharjah is to Dubai as Brooklyn is to Manhattan, or Santa Monica is to downtown Los Angeles. This essay represents my worldview of jazz in Los Angeles, based upon recollections, opinions, life experiences, and memories of the people I am fortunate to know and have worked with in and from Los Angeles.

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