There was plenty of feet tapping and finger snapping during the weekend of July 30 and 31 when thousands of music lovers flocked to the 21st Annual Central Avenue Jazz Festival to groove to a spicy brew of hot, cool and swinging jazz, blues, Latin and Brazilian sounds.
Held in the “New 9th” District and hosted by Councilman Curren Price, Jr. the festival, which featured over two dozen acts, is the musical “crown jewel” of the summer, attracting jazz aficionados from all over Southern California.
“For more than two decades, the Annual Central Avenue Jazz Festival has been a staple for the community—celebrating the area’s rich cultural past, present and future,” said Price. “It gives me so much joy to see people of all ages and backgrounds embrace this community event year after year.
“I love seeing our seniors get up and dance to jazz legends like Kenny Burrell and Ernie Andrews, and our youngsters gain a new appreciation for jazz with emerging talents like Ray Goren. This is a festival that truly has something for everyone,” he said.
For many Angelinos, the Central Avenue Jazz Festival was a “homecoming” back to legendary Central Avenue, where the African American community once thrived with dozens of shops and businesses during a time when restricted covenants limited blacks from settling beyond the street.
Despite the restrictions, Central Avenue rapidly became the epicenter of West Coast jazz during the ‘30s through the ‘50s. The roll call of iconic musicians who performed in dozens of jazz clubs on the legendary street reads like a “who’s who” of jazz: Dexter Gordon, Duke Ellington, Kid Ory, Eric Dolphy, Chico Hamilton, Charles Mingus, Benny Carter, Dexter Gordon, Lionel Hampton, Lester Young, Johnny Otis, Big Jay McNeely, T-Bone Walker, Little Esther Phillips , Wynonie Harris, Hampton Hawes, Billie Holliday, Cab Calloway, Nat King Cole, Billy Ecstine, Count Basie, Dinah Washington and Charlie Parker, just to name a few.
The jazz festival, which featured three stages of live music, continued the legacy of the finest jazz with some of the best musicians on the West Coast, both young and old.
The legendary guitarist Kenny Burrell, a musical jazz icon for over 60 years, entranced the crowd as he led his L.A. Jazz Orchestra Unlimited through a number of swinging jazz tunes. At the end of his set, Price bounded on stage and surprised Burrell, whose 85th birthday was on Sunday, July 31, with a certificate for his achievements in jazz.
“It feels great to be honored,” said Burrell.”I love coming to the festival. This is a fantastic affair that celebrates jazz music, which is the best music in the world.”
The legendary Dunbar Hotel was packed as the LAUSD Beyond the Bell All-City Jazz Big Band, comprised of high-school students from all over Southern California, played swinging jazz to the delight of the audience.
On Sunday, jazz lovers got a treat when the legendary 89-year-old Ernie Andrews, a Central Avenue Festival favorite, crooned, scatted and wailed through a number of jazz tunes that got the crowd clapping and standing on its feet.
Trumpeter Jimmy McConnell and his Super Big Band got toes tapping with songs like “Cornbread Got Some Money,” and “April in Paris” and his featured singer, Lucidia Ball, belted out classics like “All Right, Okay, You Win” and “All of Me.”
Twenty-year-old Aaron Shaw and his jazz group the Black Nile serenaded the crowd with a medley of mellow jazz tunes.
“I feel very gratified to share my gift with the world with people who believe in me,” said Shaw, who plays saxophone and flute and who was returning to the festival for the third year. “I was nervous to play at first, but I’m very happy I got a good reception from the crowd.”
The fiery Katya Moraes and her band the Brazilian Hearts dispensed a flavorful brew of exotic tunes that had audience members dancing in the aisles.
Moraes captivated the audience by breaking into the samba and at one point dropped to her knees while belting out a song.
“I love these people,” Moraes said after her lengthy set. “They’re cool, because they listen and they appreciate the music.”
The phenomenal nineteen-year-old Ray Goren and the Soul Fixers got the crowd rockin’ and flocking to the stage as he performed a litany of electrifying guitar tunes that were a mixture of gut-wrenching blues and soaring Jimi Hendrix-like riffs.
Joining him on stage were 69-year-old legendary blues singer Sammy Lee, who sang the old chestnuts “Every Day I Have the Blues” and “Sweet Home Chicago” and vocalist Gigi, who sang a soul stirring rendition of “Bluebird.”
Goren ended his set with a nod to the recently departed musician Prince with a soulful version of Prince’s signature “Purple Rain.”
“Being here at the festival is an honor for me,” said Goren, who was returning for the sixth year. “I’ve been listening to jazz and blues since I could talk,” he said, adding that he recalls accidentally hearing the music on the radio at the age of three.
Lee, who has been singing jazz and blues for 40 years, hoped that the weekend of jazz would help “heal” the turbulence surrounding the widespread gun violence that has recently rocked the country.
“The way things are now, we need a lot more unity and love,” he observed.
Drummer and band leader Ramon Banda of the Banda Brothers reflected, “I’ve been playing at this festival ever since it started. It feels good to come back and pay tribute to the musicians that came before us like Dexter Gordon, Buddy Collette, Teddy Edwards and Gerald Wilson.”
Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who attended the festival with his son, Assembly member Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, reflected; “The Central Avenue Jazz Festival is a great event. This is what culture is all about.”
“This is like coming home,” said Michael Dolphin, who helped organize the event. “This festival is about preserving the legacy of this community and we all worked hard to stay legitimate to that legacy.”
Eighty-year-old Billy Pruitt, who grew up near Central Avenue and who once sang with the ‘50s do wop group Don Julian and The Meadowlarks, said he thoroughly enjoyed the festival.
“This is great. It brings back old times,” he nodded. “I was here when they had the old Lincoln Theatre where all the jazz men like Sammy Davis, Jr. and Louis Armstrong performed. And yes, I definitely hope to come back next year.”
Other performers at the festival included Marvin “Smitty” Smith, Jazz America, Black Music Diaspora, Justo Almario Afro-Columbian Jazz Ensemble, The Clayton Family Jam Band, the Michael Session Quartet, Christopher Astoquillca, T C Carson, the Banda Brothers, the Bravo High School Latin Jazz Band, Bobby Matos Latin Jazz Ensemble, the L. A Music Teacher Experience, vocalist Nedra Wheeler, Sweet Baby J’Ai, LAUSD Youth Jazz Combos, A Place Called Home, Devin Daniels, and the Jazz America Youth Jazz Combo.