LOS ANGELES, Calif., March 14, 2014: Today we make a jazz detour, to Central Avenue and Jack’s Basket Room in Los Angeles, to a time when Los Angeles had a jazz scene that was as hot as Harlem in its prime or Storyville in New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century.
Central Avenue – Harlem Jazz in Los Angeles, echoes of Storyland
Beginning in the late 1920s, and continuing for a little more than twenty years, Central Avenue was a hotbed of jazz in Los Angeles. Swing musicians mingled with boppers, hipsters interacted with Hollywood stars, jazz combos graced nightclub bandstands, and after-hours jam sessions lasted until sunrise; just anyone with serious jazz chops was welcome on stage.
“Hey there, Gate. You make it to the Shepp’s Playhouse last night? I hear Basie sat in with Wardell and Helen Humes.”
“Man, too bad you had to work last night. I was at the Last Word and Nat Cole was jamming with the trio for a few numbers.”
“You free? We could head up to Billy Berg’s in Hollywood and catch Slim Gaillard.”
Central Avenue, The Floyd Ray Orchestra and Lady Will Carr
One of the most respected members of the Central Avenue jazz was a woman named Lady Will Carr, under-recorded but praised by those who spent time on Central.
During the mid-1940s she was one of three female refugees from the Floyd Ray orchestra, one that had folded due to the draft. The group was known as The Vs, and while they may have faded into jazz history, their music lives on film.
In a telephone interview (November 1997), the combo’s drummer, Ivern Whittaker, related that The V’s had its genesis as a vocal duo in the Floyd Ray big band.
Central Avenue and the formation of The V’s
“So, it was sometime in 1938, I suppose, and Floyd had heard me and Willie Lee Von Floyd sing, I don’t recall where, but he convinced our parents to allow us to travel with him on a series of one-nighters and theater dates.”
“We got to Texas, and Ivy [Ivy Anna Glasko] joined us, making it a trio. Ivy had a great voice, and she would get solo songs with the band, along with singing with the trio. We recorded some sides [for Decca Records] in 1939, although I haven’t heard them in years.”
“Now we were billed as The Vs, and we played many top locations with Floyd’s orchestra, including the Apollo (twice, once with the Nicholas Brothers) and the Palladium in Los Angeles. I think we recorded with the band when we were in New York City.”
On Central Avenue, Lady Will Carr joins The V’s
After the Ray orchestra broke up the women stayed together, working as a vocal trio, and then taking up instruments as a matter of convenience and necessity. (Whittaker received encouragement, and perhaps some tutoring, from Lionel Hampton.)
“Around this time Lady Will Carr joined the group, making it a real jumping quartet. We were really hot,” she added, “and we played throughout the city, including Hollywood and Central Avenue.”
“We played Billy Berg’s Swing Club in Hollywood, also the Streets of Paris. I think the Streets of Paris was on Hollywood Blvd.”
“We also made it down to Central Avenue and I recall playing at The Last Word and Jack’s Basket Room. Lady Will was by far the best musician in the group, and she would sit in on piano. The men all respected her playing.”
Lady Will Carr, from Texarkana to Central Avenue
Born in Texarkana in 1922, Carr was a working professional while still in her teens. She played with Al Adams’s Los Angeles-based orchestra in 1941, then moved to the Floyd Ray band where she met the vocalists who would become The Vs. Later she performed with an all-woman quintet billed as The Queens of Swing.
Carr was popular with the Central Avenue crowd, and Buddy Collette noted that,
“She was a very polished pianist, quick and light.”
Britt Woodman further recalled that she was popular at dances and house parties.
Thelma Lewis, who was the trumpet player in the Queens of Swing, stated,
“She was always well dressed, very attractive, and very mysterious, but she could sure play the piano.”
Carr’s recorded legacy is limited, making even more important her film appearances. In 1947 Carr reportedly gave up playing for a while, concentrating on composing, but soon returned to active performance.
During the 1950s she became increasingly dependant on alcohol, recording for the last time with the Harper-Brinson band in 1959. Sometime in the 1960s she fell from a boat, probably under the influence of alcohol, and drowned.
Central Avenue and featured pianist Gene Rodgers
With credentials that stretched back to the 1920s and early 1930s, recording with the likes of Mamie Smith, Clarence Williams and King Oliver, it is Gene Rodgers, who joins the women in our featured film.
Rodgers was an Art Tatum-influenced pianist who was strong, if not particularly individual, soloist. He could play boogie-woogie, and he often incorporated this style into his solos.
Rodgers was in Los Angeles in the mid-1940s, appearing in three feature films, and a series of jukebox shorts.
Central Avenue on film – as close as it gets to Jack’s Basket Room
While there are still images of Central Avenue, sadly no film clips exist. However, a series of SOUNDIES can take us back to 1944 to get the feel of Central Avenue in its heyday.
So, take a moment and dig the sounds of Lady Will Carr, Gene Rodgers and The Vs, with one of their signature songs, “My, My, Ain’t That Somethin’.”
Mark Cantor is a film and music historian and the curator of Celluloid Improvisations Music Film Archive, one of the largest private collections of jazz, blues, and American popular music on 16mm film worldwide.
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