Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Happy Birthday, Clora Bryant

"Hello, Central. . .:A Legendary Thoroughfare is Heading for a Comeback" was the title of a long article I wrote that was commissioned by Los Angeles magazine in 1995 on the occasion of the release of the film "Devil in a Blue Dress." Somehow, though, it fell the through the cracks during a change in ownership of the publication and has never been published. The new staffers couldn't even find the paperwork for the article, but took my word for it and paid me the rather handsome fee---I seem to recall that it was several thousand dollars--- that had been agreed upon. After the opening paragraph below, written by me, are the quotations in the article from today's birthday girl, jazz "trumpetiste," as she prefers to be called, Clora Bryant. I recycled some of this and other material from the magazine article into my 1998 book, "Hot from Harlem: Profiles in Classic African-American Entertainment."

Once upon a time there was a street in Los Angeles that had all the excitement of New York's Broadway. Chicago's South Side. and Rome's Via Veneto with a little of the Las Vegas strip thrown in for good measure. A jumping thoroughfare that ran from downtown all the way out to intersecting streets numbered in the low hundreds in the then sparsely-populated environs of Watts: a paradise lost of high life and low, hipsters and movie stars, black and white happily sharing the same space, freely celebrating the joy and passion of America's signal musical art form-jazz. The time was the 1940s. The place was Central Avenue. And to hear it from jazz trumpeter Clara Bryant:

"It was an ooo-wee situation. I'd been to New York, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Florida, but I never had the feeling I got the minute I stepped off the Q street car onto Central for the first time. I get goosebumps just thinking about it."

"You could hardly get down Central on a Saturday night for all the big cars. and limos, and the chauffeurs with the hats and jodhpurs and black boots. I mean they were sharp, they were clean. And movie stars like Lana Turner and Rita Hayworth with their beads and diamonds. I could never get over the fact that 'I'm here. Me!' Clora Bryant from little old Denison Texas. Ooo-wee!'"

"I was heavy into be-bop. That was my generation's music. It was a challenge, something new and different, and I was gung-ho to find out what it was about. So when I got off at Central, my brother took me to the musician's union to get my card at the black local. I started walking up to this building and it was like somebody was walking me there. You see from the time I was little, my father indoctrinated me and my brothers about California about coming here. So that first day I knew I was where I wanted to be and where my dad had wanted me to be. All these emotions were just going through my body."

"The movie stars went to Central because it was mysterious, it was adventurous. But Central wasn't dangerous. I could walk up and down the avenue any time day or night. Guys would whistle at you, but they didn't follow it up with stuff like today. You had the pimps standing out on the sidewalk of course, with their fine women to service the white guys. But things wouldn't get nasty the way they do now."

"I was very young, and very aggressive. I had the nerve to get up on stage with AI Killian---a trumpeter who'd played with Basie and Dizzy. I forget now what song we were playing, but he played, then I played, and then the saxophone player laid out and then I started trying to challenge him with high notes. He was courteous enough to let me have the last note, though I know he could have gone three octaves higher."

"Places like the Mocambo, Ciro's, and all those places, they were losing a lot of business with the people coming down in there, coming south to see the shows over there. That hurt. The businesses. . .that's what happened. The businesses were hurting up in Hollywood, so it got to city hall. They couldn't have that, and they closed.. . .That's what helped close Central Avenue down is when they started insulting the whites when they came over."

"It became more than a street, you know. . .It was a spirit.. . .Central Avenue closed down, but I didn't feel any distress or sadness because, by the time it stopped going, we'd moved on over here, and Western Avenue became Central Avenue. Then Crenshaw became Central Avenue, Vine street was Central Avenue. . .Central Avenue was my heaven on earth."

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