BOOK REVIEW: Peter Vacher - Swingin’ on Central Avenue: African American Jazz in Los Angeles



Peter Vacher - Swingin’ on Central Avenue: African American Jazz in Los Angeles
(Rowman & Littlefield, 346pp., £37.95. Book Review by Chris Parker)


Of all significant periods of jazz, the pre-war Los Angeles scene is, arguably, among the most poorly documented; the post-war jazz history of the city, its cool, breezy west coast sound epitomised by the likes of Shorty Rogers and Chet Baker, is relatively familiar, but the world described in these sixteen in-depth interviews by Peter Vacher is, by comparison, almost a vanished one.

Central Avenue was the pre-bebop hub of the LA jazz scene, attracting musicians from Chicago and the south to play in the swing bands that proliferated there, and Vacher has done jazz history a valuable service by tracking down surviving unsung heroes of this scene and allowing them space to talk about everything from clubowners and their habits, booking practices, the ‘mob’ and its involvement in the music scene, racial segregation, studio work etc. etc. He is clearly a good listener (an undervalued skill), and so his interviewees become expansive on all manner of topics – from the necessity of taking uncongenial daytime jobs to the unreasonableness of jazz leaders – not generally covered by jazz histories.

Vacher’s choice of subjects is also revealing: the likes of trumpeter Andy Blakeney, drummer Monk McFay, pianist Chester C. Lane et al. are by no means household names, even in the specialised jazz world, but this only serves to render their testimonies all the more pertinent. Hard work, struggle and neglect are the seams that run through this stratum of jazz history; the world of plush nightclubs with white clienteles is tellingly contrasted with the after-hours joints where the music was incubated; the occasional ‘big name’ (Billy Eckstine, Earl Hines, Jimmie Lunceford) generally mentioned solely in the context of comparative wages (‘Count Basie pays $8 a night and we make $12 over here’ … ‘[Cab Calloway] wanted me to go to New York and he said he would give me $50 a week, but I’m … probably making $100 a week [… and] would have to join Local 802, the New York local, and I didn’t want that’ are typical examples, both from trombonist ‘Streamline’ Ewing).

Anyone who has read Vacher’s other books (2012’s Mixed Messages: American Jazz Stories, published by Five Leaves, is a perfect example) will already be familiar with his quiet erudition and respectful courtesy; Swingin’ on Central Avenue is another fine addition to his oral-history oeuvre.

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