Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

A Thin Blue Line Down Central Avenue: The LAPD and the Demise of a Musical Hub

Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

A Thin Blue Line Down Central Avenue: The LAPD and the Demise of a Musical Hub

Article excerpt

Before Los Angeles's South Central had become indelibly linked in the public mind with gang wars and riots, its main strip, Central Avenue, boasted glamorous nightclubs and swinging dance halls that rivaled the great African-American music centers back east. Saxophonist Art Pepper paints an idyllic picture of "the Stem" as he remembers it from the 1940s:

   It was a beautiful time. It was a festive time. The women dressed
   up in frills and feathers and long earrings and hats with things
   hanging off them, fancy dresses with slits in the skirts, and they
   wore black silk stockings that were rolled and wedgie shoes. Most
   of the men wore big, wide-brimmed hats and zoot suits with wide
   collars, small cuffs, and large knees, and their coats were real
   long with padded shoulders. They wore flashy ties with diamond
   stickpins; they wore lots of jewelry; and you could smell powder
   and perfume everywhere. And as you walked down the street you heard
   music coming out of everyplace. And everybody was happy....

      [T]here were all kinds of places to go, and if you walked in
   with a horn everyone would shout, "Yeah! Great! Get it out of the
   case and blow some!" They didn't care if you played better than
   somebody else. Nobody was trying to cut anybody or take their job,
   so we'd get together and blow. (Pepper and Pepper 1994, 41-42)

Less than ten years after reaching its dizzying height during the war years, however, the Central Avenue club scene was on its way to extinction, and fifty years later, little remains of its former glory.

What caused the precipitous decline of this vital and vigorous musical culture? Clearly, a number of factors--social, economic, and political-propelled Central Avenue on its downward trajectory. The downsized postwar economy threw many out of work, and unemployment hit the African-American community particularly hard, leaving little money for cultural or recreational activities. After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1948 that housing covenants were illegal, upwardly mobile black families moved out of South Central in droves, seeking more commodious living conditions on the west side of the city. The merger of the black Musicians' Union 767 with the white Musicians' Union 47 opened up opportunities for black musicians to play in other venues throughout the city and diffused the musical talent on Central Avenue. Nightclubs in general suffered as the rapid adoption of television kept their clientele at home.

While acknowledging the deleterious effects of these factors on the clubs, many musicians from the era point to the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) as the real culprit behind the demise of Central Avenue. As singer Ernie Andrews (1993, 71) remembers, the police "harassed the people--tear up their joints and put them in jail, you know, just keep harassing them, harassing them, harassing them, and putting them in jail and whatnots." Trumpeter Art Farmer (1995, 57) concurs: "The police started really becoming a problem. I remember, you would walk down the street, and every time they'd see you they would stop you and search you." Jazz trumpeter Clora Bryant (1994, 252) maintains, "They'd catch you over there, and you'd better not have a ticket out or something, you know, the least little thing and you were going down." In his autobiography, Raise Up off Me, pianist Hampton Hawes conjures up a dystopian snapshot of Central Avenue after the invasion of the police: "On any weekend night on Central Avenue [along] the forties [numbered blocks] you could probably see more blinking red lights than on any other thoroughfare in the country. Seen from a distance you'd think it was some kind of far-out holocaust, a fifty-car smashup, Watts '65. But it was only the cops jamming brothers" (Hawes and Asher 1979, 29). Increased police presence on the avenue transformed street life from a festive to a nightmarish scene in only a few short years. …

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