Since a lot of people don’t know much about the history of the Central Avenue jazz scene that happened in Los Angeles, to accompany my last post noting Mama’s passing I decided to expand on it. The neighborhood played such a crucial and historic part not just in jazz history, but in African American history as well, it’s a worthy point to add.
The top jazz club on Central Avenue during its heyday was Club Alabam and *the* place to stay was the Dunbar Hotel, with a guest list that regularly included the likes of Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Lena Horne. Originally known as the Somerville Hotel, the structure was erected in 1928 entirely by black contractors, laborers and craftsmen and black community members helped John Somerville and his wife Vada to finance the entire project.
In 1907 Jamaican-born John Alexander Somerville became the first African American to graduate from the USC School of Dentistry. He earned the highest grade-point average in the class of 1907, and had passed the State Dental Board examination six months before graduation. His wife, Vada Watson Somerville, became the school’s first African-American woman graduate in 1918, going on to achieve distinction as the first black woman licensed to practice dentistry in California. Besides managing a successful practice, the Somervilles were instrumental in opening the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP. John Somerville also contributed to the local landscape by developing upscale properties. He was the second African-American member of the Chamber of Commerce and served on the Los Angeles Police Commission from 1949 to 1953.” SOURCE
After the jump is a video discussing the important role the Dunbar played in American history and a vintage postcard of the hotel circa 1938 (according to the card, the room rates at the time were $1 per day and $5 a week).
Somehow I missed the sad news that on October 3rd we lost beloved Laura Mae Gross, matriarch of Liemert Park’s iconic blues bar Babe & Ricky’s and one of the few participants left from Central Los Angeles’ swinging days of hot jazz.
Before South Central became famous for violence, its main thoroughfare was known worldwide for glamorous packed nightclubs and swinging ballrooms. As late Saxophonist Art Pepper described the scene:
“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.” (SOURCE)
Open for 45 years, Babe’s and Ricky’s moved from Central Avenue to Leimert Park in 1997 after financial difficulties, but the club’s heart and soul always stayed the same. While she never made much money, Mama nurtured (and fed) generations of Angelenos and provided a safe haven for jazz and blues lovers to network with link minded musicians. Babe & Ricky’s remains open without Mama and still hosts their famous Monday night jam session complete with their traditional $10 soul food dinner. (more…)