Local jazz: cool school to latent renaissance

The sumptuous music bassist Charlie Haden has composed and recorded with his Quartet West pays allegiance to a romanticized vision of Los Angeles, the one seen in film noir and detailed in the novels of Raymond Chandler. It’s a vision of Los Angeles that Haden just missed, having moved here in 1956 to work with pianist Hampton Hawes before he eventually established new concepts of jazz with Ornette Coleman at such venues as the Hillcrest Club.

“When I came to L.A., there were a lot of clubs and jam sessions, and that all comes into play in my music now,” says Haden, who returned to L.A. 15 years ago from New York and created the jazz studies program at CalArts. “It’s not about playing nostalgia but being inspired by the beauty of what was happening at that time. … I want the listener to be able to imagine walking down Sunset and going into Ciro’s in 1947.

“People don’t realize how important L.A. is to the art form.”

Haden’s fanciful time-travel bolts for pop days of Jo Stafford and trumpeter Chet Baker, who was all of 24 when he emerged as the epitome of West Coast jazz in the early ’50s. Defined by his cool and understated style, with good looks to boot, Baker was the ideal for Hollywood’s version of the white jazz cat as matinee idol — a view that the Italian film industry acted upon.

More importantly, Baker and West Coast cronies Russ Freeman, Shelley Manne, Shorty Rogers and Gerry Mulligan were creating a calm sound accessible to the mainstream. Not only did it distance L.A. from New York, it created a new stop in the New Orleans-Kansas City-New York lineage of jazz. Los Angeles, Baker told Time magazine in early 1954, was a place “to get away from the obvious. We play things that fit together. … This is where the new sounds are coming from.”

But the Gotham-heavy jazz world discounted the sound associated with beach-front clubs such as the Lighthouse and Hollywood spots like Shelley’s Manne Hole and Zardi’s as lightweight. And as jazz lost much of its direction in the ’70s, the West Coast’s history was buried further. Even Central Avenue, home of legendary black jazz and blues artists of the ’40s and ’50s, dropped from the ranks of important jazz breeding grounds.

Thankfully, the underappreciated history of jazz in Los Angeles has seen a growing renaissance of late, through academic research and publishing, the rerelease of recordings, reunion gigs, educational programs and oral histories. It appears the historical L.A. scene, whether it be beach-front or South Central captured in the photographs of William Claxton and Ray Avery, is getting its due. And in the hands of some artists, historical Los Angeles and Hollywood’s legacy are a source of considerable inspiration.

What has held true since that heyday is the attraction of film and television work; as any jazz musician will tell you, in New York you learn, in L.A. you earn. “I can afford to be a jazz musician now because I was the musical director of ‘The Arsenio Hall Show,’ ” says pianist Michael Wolff, who has just finished his third trio album, this one for Beacon/MCA. “By doing a talkshow I got to use jazz, although by no means was that a jazz gig. But by being a composer and a big-band leader, the two really helped each other as I moved (into TV and film work).”

Wolff, who currently lives in New York, bears out the common tale — musician gets set up with studio work and moonlights at jazz clubs. Virtually every member of the “Tonight Show” bands — from Conte Candoli to Kevin Eubanks — has had his fair share of local gigs as a leader and sideman. Flutist and L.A. native Buddy Collette, who recorded in 1995 a two-hour L.A. jazz history CD that included tales of Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker and Dexter Gordon, established himself in Chico Hamilton’s band and worked in the orchestra for Groucho Marx’s “You Bet Your Life.” Others with musical day jobs have blossomed into major stars.

Lee Ritenour, who attracted major label attention performing at the Baked Potato in the early ’70s, says one of the hippest things in the ’60s was being both a studio musician and a jazz musician. “There’s a long lineage that includes (studio and jazz guitarists) Bonnie Kessel and certainly Howard Roberts,” says Ritenour. “And of course I was hugely attracted by that.”

Dr. John, who as Mac Rebennack left New Orleans in the early ’60s to work as a studio guitarist in L.A. and shared soundstages with many a jazz musician on Phil Spector dates, was shocked by the formality of the recording sessions. “It was culture shock to me.”

With an upcoming live album that will introduce the Sure Fire label, Dr. John has spent close to a decade leading big-band recordings that balance the funkiness of New Orleans and the sheen that came to define L.A. in the ’50s through artists such as Charles Brown and Nat King Cole.

Brown, a favorite among the Hollywood set at that time, had a healthy following on the Sunset Strip. Other SoCal artists, careers revitalized in the artists’ 60s and 70s — Teddy Edwards, Gerald Wiggins, Horace Tapscott and Collette among them — are models of progress. Not one performs in a style that could be considered dated, though they have kept alive the memory of Central Avenue through events such as last year’s Central Avenue Jazz Fest and the Hollywood Arts Council’s annual Jazz Pilgrimage programs at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre.

The music of Central Avenue provided the backdrop in the Denzel Washington starrer “Devil With a Blue Dress” and the cool side of West Coast jazz spices up Regency’s September release “L.A. Confidential.” Which isn’t to say freshly composed jazz isn’t making it into films.

“The best part of writing jazz for movies,” trumpeter Mark Isham says, “is being able to re-create eras that pre-date your life.” Isham has even created a working ensemble from scoring Alan Rudolph’s “Afterglow.”

Jazz, says film composer Patrick Williams — who left commercials and jazz work in New York in 1969 for Hollywood — works as an element in movie music. To use it exclusively in a film score “is next to impossible. But in jazz you need to generate a lot of ideas, and that certainly carries through.”

It’s the improvisational element, says pianist Wolff, that eases the transition into film work for jazz musicians. “Composing is improvising — you are forced to come up with a lot of ideas quickly.”

Williams, who most recently scored the Fine Line pic “Julian Po” and arranged the two Frank Sinatra “Duets” recordings, has balanced composing for film, orchestras and jazz groups with teaching, most recently as composer-in-residence at the Long Beach-based Henry Mancini Institute. On Aug. 23, the institute’s orchestra will debut his “Some Notes for Hank” opus.

In 1976, when Williams was active in the U. of Colorado burgeoning jazz program, he debuted his “American Concerto,” which mixed jazz ensemble and chamber group. “Now that jazz is accredited, we’re seeing a whole slew of programs, and that’s affecting the types of musicians and composers entering jazz and film music today.”

On the jazz education front, the Music Center of Los Angeles County has sounded the loudest notes of late, trumpeting its association with the Thelonious Monk Institute, through which jazz will receive a prominent role at the downtown complex. Herbie Hancock is artistic director of the unit, which will present concerts as well as educational programs.

“Affiliating jazz with a classical organization can do nothing but help the cause,” bassist Haden says. “I would love to see jazz musicians perform with string groups and large and small ensembles. It’s important to bring the jazz audience out of their elitism and into music that’s honest and very deep.”

“Deep” is Haden’s word choice in describing the film music of Johnny Mandel and Lennie Niehaus that the Quartet West, along with the American Jazz Institute, will perform Aug. 23 at the John Anson Ford Theatre. The institute, incorporated in February, is the brainchild of jazz DJ Ken Poston and arranger/band leader Mark Masters, who founded
the org to archive the legacy of jazz and present concerts. The AJI most recently presented a four-day affair in Redondo Beach focused on the big bands of Stan Kenton, another West Coast stalwart.

“It’s a shame there has never been a central place for this music,” Masters says, noting the institute currently holds more than 30,000 recordings as well as books, periodicals, films and sheet music. “We were able to put on a four-day festival and sell out. The goal now is to get corporate sponsorship and expand.”

The institute is working on developing a concert series for this year and next, setting up office and research space and securing music libraries that currently are underutilized or tucked away in the attic of a composer’s relative. Eventually, the institute wants to set up a repertory orchestra that will expose music “outside the jazz mainstream,” Masters says.

Haden sees it all as a collective effort. “The answer is to bring people into a larger vision of the arts. Make people think on a higher level.”

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