Sunday, July 16, 2006

Smith’s Great Black Way

The Great Black Way: L.A. in the 1940s and the Lost African American Renaissance
By RJ Smith
PublicAffairs Books

Probably second only to New York’s 52nd Street, Central Avenue in Los Angeles was one the most preeminent thoroughfares in jazz history. Home to clubs, independent record labels, musicians, and their patrons and listeners, Central Avenue was the center of African-American life in the 1930’s and 1940’s. RJ Smith gives readers a breezy cultural and political history of the Avenue and the people who called it home in The Great Black Way.

Although geographically a western city, Smith makes the point that Los Angeles was pursuing a very southern strategy of segregation, often through the collusion of the local government, businesses, and unions. This was particularly the case with the booming shipbuilding industry, which was in dire need of labor meet the demands of the war effort. Unfortunately, personnel decisions were largely in the hands of the white International Boilermakers, Iron Shipbuilders and Helpers, which created segregated auxiliaries for African American workers. According to Smith:

“Flimsy contrivances, the Negro auxiliaries were subordinate to the white locals in matters regarding union policies and expenditures from the treasury. They provided black members with worse benefits than whites received, allowed for no grievance procedures, and gave blacks no representation at national conventions. Dues, however, were the same as those taken from whites’ paychecks.” (p. 96)

Such collusive policies created intense pressures, but from that pressure also came artistic expression. Chester Himes, for instance, could call out both the official power structure and the Communist agitators looking to exploit it. Smith writes: “his second novel, 1947’s Lonely Crusade wasn’t selling—and it wasn’t pleasing the critics, either. Lonely Crusade follows a black activist in an aircraft factory butting heads with communists and industrialists. Himes gleefully caricatured his Marxist associates, and when the book came out it was his targets turn to attack.” (p. 106)

Himes wasn’t the only creative artist to call the Central Avenue area home. The sounds of jazz and R&B flowed out of clubs, bars, and restaurants. Sometimes talent was a victim to circumstance, as was the case of Leo Watson, an influential jazz vocalist who was undone by mental illness and alcoholism. Smith relates an incident when: “the editors of Esquire magazine tried hunting him down; they wanted to give him an award for being one of the greatest jazz singers on earth. It took them three months of searching before they found him, loading trucks in a war plant.” (p. 176)

Central Avenue is more remembered for the jam sessions it hosted, than for any particular style of jazz played. The jam sessions immortalized by Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray in “The Chase” become an extended metaphor for Smith, symbolizing the improvised nature of life on the Avenue. Yet even the jazz session faced opposition, as the musicians union registered its injunctions:

“Naturally enough, the musicians union objected. Players were giving it away free, and the union wasn’t getting its cut. They fined those who jammed, yet their efforts showed all the more how different these sessions were from work and how special places like Jack’s Basket Room were at 3 a.m.” (p.260)

Eventually the union would relent, and the jam session became an accepted part of Avenue life. They were both great opportunities, and great potential pitfalls. Young musicians could make their names at a session, or take a stiff dose of public humiliation. Now most musicians and aficionados often lament the lack of opportunities for Avenue-style jam sessions, recognizing the loss of something special.

Smith makes it clear that 1940’s Central Avenue was far from paradise. It did produce under-appreciated civil rights campaigners, great jazz artists like Buddy Collette and Slim Gaillard, the Exotica of Korla Pandit, the R&B of Big Jay McNeely and Joe Liggins, and the crime fiction of Chester Himes, all of whom Smith examines in detail. It makes for an entertaining and informative history of a particular time and place in American history.