5 Hit Songs to Come Out of Central Avenue’s Swinging Jazz Scene

It was where swing and bebop transformed into R&B and eventually became rock and roll; its cultural legacy still looms large over Los Angeles

[Sean J. O’Connell’s Los Angeles’s Central Avenue Jazz (Arcadia Publishing), the story of Los Angeles’s contribution to the development of 20th century popular music, came out on May 26 and is available online and at local bookstores.]

From the late 1910s until the mid-1950s the neighborhood surrounding Central Avenue was the heart of Los Angeles’s African American community. Restrictive housing laws and a web of oppression confined artists, doctors, ship welders, and jazz legends to a narrow strip three miles south of downtown. Proximity bred creativity and a scene of tremendous creativity developed. It was here that swing and bebop transformed into R&B and eventually became rock and roll.

For nearly fifty years, jazz legends like Charlie Parker and Lester Young passed through the neighborhood while budding local legends like Dexter Gordon and Charles Mingus took copious notes before setting off on careers of their own. The scene peaked during World War II, expanding to the newly formed Bronzeville neighborhood (formerly Little Tokyo) and offered swinging sounds 24 hours a day to appeal to defense industry employees who worked the nightshift. The scene became so popular that LAPD crackdowns became commonplace in an attempt to dissuade Hollywood stars like Orson Welles and Humphrey Bogart from “slumming it.

By the mid 1950s, work was scarce and housing options had expanded. Long after Central Avenue’s music scene faded away it bestowed Los Angeles—and music lovers everywhere—with a cultural legacy that has expanded beyond its original neighborhood to become a global soundtrack. These five influential songs are a great place to start listening.

Lionel Hampton – “Flying Home” (1942)
In 1939 vibraphonist, drummer and aerophobe Lionel Hampton was nervously awaiting a flight out of Los Angeles with Benny Goodman when he came up with the line for his signature tune. When he recorded it in 1942 under his own name, honking saxophonist Illinois Jacquet drove the performance into a ribald frenzy that was a touchstone for the rapid evolution towards rock and R&B that would follow.

Jack McVea – “Open The Door, Richard” (1946)
This novelty tune was based around a vaudeville standard. The narrator pounds helplessly on the door in hopes of attracting the attention of Richard. “How you know he’s in there?” “I got on the only suit!” It was a goof and also an enormous hit that found its way into the repertoire of comedians like Jimmy Durante and Jack Benny as well as the Looney Tunes cannon.

T-Bone Walker – “Stormy Monday” (1947)
Guitar-slinging wildman T-Bone Walker was known for doing the splits and playing the guitar behind his back long before Chuck Berry was a household name. He was a Central Avenue fixture, plugging in anywhere he could find enough electricity to power his amp. In late 1947, DJs flipped his single “I Know Your Wig is Gone” and discovered the inimitable slow blues charm of “Stormy Monday.” The definitive hangdog blues tune became a hit and remains a setlist standard for bar bands across America.

Nat King Cole – “Nature Boy” (1948)
Nat King Cole was a rapid-fire pianist who could swing with the best of them before he became a television personality, swathed in cigarette smoke and Brylcreem. In 1947, backstage at the Lincoln Theater (located at 2300 Central Avenue), a bearded mystery man named eden ahbez gave Cole’s manager a copy of his new tune, “Nature Boy.” Cole struck gold with the tune the following year. It immediately became a permanent part of the jazz repertoire.

The Penguins – “Earth Angel” (1954)
This tune became the soundtrack to more makeout sessions than anyone can count. Originally a B-side, the doo-wop tune dominated not only the Billboard R&B charts but also the pop charts. The tune was recorded and released by Dootsie Williams, a musician and businessman who ran Dootone Records out of his home (9514 Central Avenue). Aside from striking gold with this release, he was also responsible for recording local jazzmen like Dexter Gordon and Buddy Collette as well as up-and-coming comedian Redd Foxx.