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

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.

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