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January/February 2000

Various Artists
Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles 1921-1956
Rhino

It may be that this set embodies the difficulty of capturing the Zeitgeist-and jazz has been an efficient distillation of the times throughout this landmark century. There is some fine music on these four CDs, along with some curiosities, and a lingering mystery: What does it all mean? It was conceived as a "soundtrack" for the book of the same name, published in 1999. It presents "musicians who tell their stories in the book, as well as those frequently mentioned," in what wants to be a "representative sampling of the most important and popular music and artists who emerged from the Avenue," so reads Steven Isoardi's Introduction to the 92-page booklet accompanying the set.

The program is more or less chronological, and covers jazz and R&B as L.A. experienced them through these 35 years. What emerges in this portrait of the Main Stem is a scene that certainly had its remarkable moments and important personalities, but has its share of the enthusiastic but ordinary. The likes of Kid Ory and Jelly Roll Morton; of Nat Cole, Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray; of Lionel Hampton, Buddy Collette and Charles Mingus; of Gerald Wilson, Howard McGee and the great Art Tatum-these are figures to document, musical characters of dimension-though some had but fleeting connection to Central Avenue and environs. T-Bone Walker, Big Jay McNeeley, Slim Gaillard, Charles Brown, and Johnny Otis are striking elements in this tapestry, with deep and meaningful Los Angeles roots. In many of the remaining selections, we hear local musicians answering the needs of their audiences with music that seems more than a little derivative.

There is some historical interest in the local labels that supported the scene-the recordings made, for example, by Dolphin's of Hollywood, a record store that can claim credit for releasing Mingus' first records. The technical quality of these recordings, however, is as uneven as the performances they document. The airshots of Duke Ellington promoting his revue, Jump for Joy, and of McNeeley promoting spontaneous combustion at the Olympic Auditorium have more of the flavor of history about them than, say, the rather tepid Slim Gaillard selections included.

Even as such, the program seems to struggle with itself: sometimes the artist is the focus. The program lacks the rigor to satisfy the hardcore aficionado, and explores more of the byways of the early Los Angeles scene to play to the tastes of the casual listener. There seems to be a concerted effort here to "make the case" for Los Angeles as a seminal locale in the music's evolution.

Originally published in January/February 2000
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