Music in the People’s Key

How a little room in Leimert Park became an internationally renowned jazz and literary venue

On Sunday, August 24 at the Ford Amphitheatre, multiple generations of jazz’s best and brightest will assemble to pay tribute to the late jazz drummer Billy Higgins. The concert is part of a 25th anniversary celebration for The World Stage, an Afrocentric music and arts venue that Higgins cofounded in Leimert Park. What follows are memories of the internationally renowned landmark culled from interviews with three of its pivotal participants: poet Kamau Daáood, writer and professor Michael Datcher, and singer Dwight Trible who serves as the current executive director.

When he died in 2001, Billy Higgins was one of the most recorded drummers in jazz. A South L.A. native, he took to percussion at age five and later forged a lifelong musical friendship with fellow trumpeter Donald Cherry, who he met at Jacob Riis reform school. In 1978, after a lucrative career as Blue Note Records’ de facto house timekeeper (“Smilin’ Billy” could adopt any style required of him), Higgins returned to Los Angeles from New York and settled with his family in Inglewood. Unfortunately, his neighbors didn’t take too kindly to the sound of a jazz master practicing his drums, no matter how beautifully he did it. Enter a young, radicalized poet named Luther Keyes, who after the ’65 Watts Uprising had changed his name to Kamau Daáood.

KAMAU DAÁOOD: I came out of the Watts Writers’ Workshop, the Pan Afrikan People’s Arkestra, The Watts Media Center and [an arts collective near Western & 45th]in the 1970s called The Gathering… I knew the value that these kinds of storefronts and little community institutions had on the lives of people, giving them a positive outlet to grow and develop their artistic skills. 

Daáood worked for assemblage artist John Outterbridge, director of the Watts Towers Art Center, and as an outreach worker combating in AIDS education. Since the Watts Uprising, white flight had left Leimert Park blighted and mostly dark, save John and Alonzo Davis’ influential Brockman Gallery and the occasional community rally or cultural event.

KD: In the mid-1980s, the Watts Towers was honoring Billy Higgins. I had never met him before, but they asked me to write a piece for him [“The Last Psalms”]… After I read the poem, me and Billy got to talking and he was complimenting me and he said, “Man why don’t we get together? I have other things that I play besides the drums, so let’s just work on some stuff.” I was, “Wow, this is Billy Higgins, the cat that played with [Thelonious] Monk and John Coltrane and Lee Morgan.” Basically, he’d come down to the Towers and I’d bring my little Superscope tape recorder, hit ‘RECORD’… But Billy didn’t come down to play no drums. He would bring these little African instruments that he’d grown quite proficient with. He’d play this instrument called a gambra [and] I’d read my poems. I was in awe of the man. 

Billy told me that if ever I saw a place that we could do something at to let him know. And I was in Leimert Park one day… and there were a lot of empty spaces. One of them was under the control of the Brockman Gallery, and I inquired about it, because I could visualize what we could do with that space.

It couldn’t have begun less inauspiciously: A white, empty brick-and-mortar room.

KD: I immediately began to hit people up for money. Me and Billy, we called on a number of artists who made contributions and we put down two grand, paid the first and the last, and that was the beginning. After we signed the lease and I got the keys. Someone came around and said there were these [theater] chairs out in the alley and they were getting ready to haul them off to the junkyard, so we paid a guy we saw going down the street twenty bucks to throw them on the back of his pickup and drive it over… There was an artist next door named [Kisasi] Ramsess, and Ramsess had a baby grand piano that we asked if we could use. We popped the legs off and put it on his son’s skateboard and just rolled it down the street. Of course, Billy brought his drums.

In those early days, Daáood often slept at the tiny space and every morning had to sweep numerous used condoms away from the street by the front door. (Since the 1970s, the adjacent Leimert Park Plaza at 43rd Place and Crenshaw had been a popular gay cruising spot.) Daáood tossed another set of keys to Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra leader Horace Tapscott, one of his mentors who had relocated to the Leimert Park.

KD: One day Billy was in there playing drums and Horace just walked in off the street, didn’t say anything, and sits down at the piano and he and Billy went into it. That was the first music that really christened the place. In the beginning, it wasn’t all that deep, just cats who did not have place to play or even rehearse… It was a very humble space and I had the audacity to name it The World Stage.

The newly christened World Stage Cultural Center officially opened its doors to the public in June 1989. Its motto: “Seeking Light Through Sound.”

KD: We started doing live things periodically. There was no set schedule or anything. Plus, we had to get people to come down and at the time, the 1980s, the press was bad on the neighborhood. They had drilled this thing into all of us that gangs and crack cocaine ruled South Central, and to some extent that was true, but I think it became stereotypical. So the thought of people coming out at night in South Central was something they had to think about. So I think what we were doing by having concerts at night was a bold gesture. 

DWIGHT TRIBLE: When the Stage opened, I was living up in West Adams and Kamau would literally get on the phone and call everybody in his telephone book: “We’re at the World Stage tonight! There’s so-and-so playing here tonight at the World Stage! Come on down! It’s THE WORLD STAGE.” When Kamau says that with that deep voice of his, it sounds like something HUGE.

KD: I felt that anywhere you went, there was the center of the world. Anywhere you are is the center of the stage and even in this small, funky little room, magic could happen with the right intentions. 

DT: After about three weeks of him calling, I told my wife, “We gotta go down there and support the place. We can’t let a brother go down in flames.” So one night we came down and it so happened that [saxophonist]Michael Session was playing that night… On this particular Friday night there was noooothing on this street. None of the stores you see now. It was empty, and the World Stage didn’t yet have any lights out front, so it was dark in front of the place too. It seemed kind of… seedy. There was about ten of us listening and [the]band was smoking, and then, Michael said, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re gonna welcome Mr. Horace Tapscott.” But Horace didn’t play with the band, he got up onstage and just played the piano all by himself. I never saw anybody give so much of themselves before. This meek skinny man turned into a lion right in front of our eyes, and it was so intense that it was becoming too much for me. I was ecstatic and disturbed at the same time… That moment changed my concept of music… After that, we would come here regularly, because a lot my friends started playing here. So we’d get through with our gigs at the other clubs and come down here at one in the morning and find the jazz session would just be getting started.

Almost from the beginning, Billy Higgins presided over the World Stage’s long-running Monday night drum workshop. His students ranged from veteran musicians looking to learn from a master to children so tiny that when Higgins sat them on the drum seat their feet could barely reach the bass pedal. 

MD: [I saw him teach his drum workshop] many, many times. He was very patient and very loving. I am a professor and teacher myself, and what I learned from Billy Higgins is that love is a technology. It can help you negotiate everything from your marriage to raising your children to how to play your drums. He loved those kids in such a vulnerable, honest way that they felt confident enough to make a mistake or at least to try something new, and they just blossomed around him. Watching him and Kamau and with the kids, it would make you cry. 

DT: The number one [graduate of Billy’s drum workshop] was Kharon Harrison. Kharon was this big [holds his hand four feet from the floor] when Billy got ahold of him, and now Kharan’s a grown man and playing drums professionally. Michael Session’s son Mekalacame up under Billy… and of course there’s Willie Jones III. His whole style and concept of drumming was based off the work he did with Billy… It was a royal combination when you put Billy and Kamau together.

Thanks to Daáood and Higgins, other participants emerged to donate their time. For nearly a decade, a man named Brother Don Muhammed booked acts, ran the door at shows, and swept up afterwards. Drummer Cornel Fauler actively went around to established jazz clubs to coax their marquee acts to run the occasional Saturday music workshop. More importantly, Fauler started the Thursday night jam sessions that still run to this day. Rose Gales, a soft-spoken pianist from Houston whose husband Larry backed Thelonious Monk in the 1960s and who ran her own sessions in the ’70s at a Hyde Park club called L.B. West, also hosted jams on Saturdays that drew the elders of the nieghborhood. Gales continues to run the Sisters of Jazz jam sessions for female musicians on Sunday nights. Daáood also called upon poet friends Nafis Nabawi, Akilah Nayo Oliver, and Anthony Lyons to start a writing workshop. 

KD: At first the crowds were smaller but next thing you know you start having butts in the seats, and then about a year and a half later, 5th Street Dick’s came around and Richard Fulton, who was originally down there facilitating an Alcoholics Anonymous place, wanted to have a coffeehouse because it was one of his dreams… and he saw what we were doing and thought, I could probably do live music in there too.

The destruction of the Rodney King riots of 1992 reached as far as Leimert Park. A mosque was burned to the ground. A market on the corner was leveled. But something interesting happened: People descended on the area to protect new spots like the relocated Museum in Black, even moving its artifacts to safer locations, when they were threatened with destruction. Suddenly, there was something worth saving. The Leimert Park renaissance had begun.

MD: I was in graduate school [at UCLA]living in Westwood and hating it and looking to move… I was driving on Crenshaw and I turned left at 43rd Place and Degnan. I’m a big jazz fan, and I thought, What is that sound? It was this very loud Afro-type beat coming from down the street. It was a Saturday afternoon and people were crowded in front of this little door. The band was just blowing up so hard and people were yelling, “Blow man blow!” So many people were excited about it. So I went in an asked, “Whose place is this? What is this place? Who’s in charge?” and Don Muhammed… explained to me what the World Stage was, but he also said that their poetry program had been suspended. He told me the guy who was the co-founder was a poet and he had this awesome record shop around the corner called Final Vinyl. 

I stepped inside the record shop. There was a salt-and-pepper-bearded brother sitting on the staircase, talking on the phone. His eyes followed me in. I browsed through the large collection of used jazz records, waiting for him to finish his call. “How can I help you, brother?” a deep baritone inquired behind me… I told him my name is Michael Datcher and I was a graduate student in African-American studies at UCLA. Brother Muhammed at the World Stage just mentioned that there used to be a writer’s workshop at the venue. 

“Yes, because of staffing issues it’s been on hiatus for the last six months.”
“Well, I currently conduct a workshop out of my apartment. I live in the Palms but I’m considering moving here to Leimert Park. I would love the opportunity to help the workshop get up and running again.”
Kamau didn’t say anything. He’d been studying me closely since we’d been talking.
“Michael, may I call you Michael?”
“Michael, please don’t take this the wrong way. I don’t know you. I don’t know the kind of person you are and how you approach business. It’s a little awkward for me really because you just walked in off the street and asked to be involved in something that’s very, very important to me and other people in this community. What I’m saying is that if things work out in such a way that you can come and lend your energy here, you have to understand that the World Stage is a sacred space and we approach the work from a sacred space.”
From Raising Fences: A Black Man’s Love Story by Michael Datcher

Datcher proved his mettle by bringing a core group of about 14 budding writers from his own workshop. Datcher took over what he would eventually name The Anansi Writers’ Workshop (after the West African spider-trickster god) in 1993 and applied a new, rigorous approach he had gleaned from his undergraduate days at Berkeley.

MD: There was a bit of a pushback at the intensity of the feedback… Writers and poets are notoriously sensitive about their work. Most of them read to their mothers or grandmothers, who are loving it—You are one bad motherfucker with that poem! Woo!—but for the workshop we added very honest but not harsh feedback. Because of that feedback, those who came in here began to grow artistically, so their work became this really powerful collection of poems. Also, the conversations we’d have, so many great stories, and it was a really safe space to have them. 

Between Higgins’s contacts and Fauler’s efforts, The World Stage became a have-to-drop-by spot for musicians coming through town. Max Roach, Charles Lloyd, Elvin Jones, Ron Carter, Joe Henderson, Roy Hargrove, Kenny Burrell, Kurt Elling, Bennie Maupin, Freddie Hubbard, Robbie and Alice Coltrane, Jackie MacLean, Pharoah Sanders, Barry Harris, Buster Williams, Herbie Hancock, Dr. Art Davis, Cedar Walton, Branford Marsalis, Don Cherry, and Bobby Hutcherson all visited. The growing reputation of Datcher’s workshop drew esteemed writers like Jayne Cortez, Keopisitle Kgositsile, Sonia Sanchez, Jervey Tervalon, Saul Williams, Yousef Komunyakaa, and prototypical rap groups The Watts Prophets and The Last Poets.

KD: We were able to survive as long as we did because what we gave was something you couldn’t get anywhere else: freedom of expression, sincerity of expression, and at times such a high level of virtuosity. There were things that I saw happen in that room that were just incredible. Oh man, I thought that the walls had just vaporized, the stuff would be so high. I felt like the place was just lifting up in the air, the cats onstage were gone. In that little 50-seat-at-most environment if you ate garlic and belched everyone else would know it. You never knew who was gonna show up. I walked in one night and Chaka Khan’s onstage sitting in. Another time, it was around dusk, I was walking past and there were only two people inside. Billy helped mentor this trumpet player who’s still down there, Richard Grant…Richard was around seventeen, and he was on the stage doing a solo, no piano player or anything…and sitting in there watching this seventeen-year-old boy was Nina Simone.

The late ’90s were a golden age of creativity for the village and The World Stage. In 1997, Kamau Daa’ood released the spoken-word album Leimert Park, an evocative capsule of the neighborhood. Groups like Black/Note and the B Sharp Jazz Quartet, made up of young up-and-comers who first connected under Higgins’s tutelage, reinvigorated L.A.’s unsung history with acoustic hard bop. Jazz and hip-hop interfaced through the efforts of pianist Billy Childs, who formed the funk group Prophecy with poets from Datcher’s workshop, which was producing dividends of fresh talent: A. K. Toney, Conney Williams, S. Pearl Sharp, Pam Ward, and Pulitzer-nominated novelist Ruth Foreman.

DT: Guys like Billy and Horace mentored by example. Sometimes it wasn’t so much what they said as it was what you saw them do. If you just hang around and watch then you’ll get all the lessons that you need. One thing that I still miss to this day is every Friday at about 3 p.m. after they would go to the JamaBilly would come down to the Stage and hold court. We’d just sit here and listen to him tell his stories about working with Coltrane, Miles, Sonny Rollins… After all of those conversations, he’d talk about how the drummer fits in with everything: “The drummer can make or break everyone else in the group because it’s the loudest instrument,” or “When I go into a room that I’ve never played in before, I always start with brushes ’cause the room is gonna tell you what it needs. Then once I get hip to the vibrations of the room, then I pull out my sticks.” We’d say, “Billy, man, you need to write a book” and Billy would say [affects a hepcat whisper] “Hey man, I’m writin’ a book right now!” 

KD: Horace did a gig in there one night and afterward I walked up to him and said, “Horace, man, we only made twenty dollars tonight.” Horace just laughed. He wasn’t trippin’ off no money. He took ten dollars and said, “It’s so good to be able to work in your own community and then walk home afterwards.”

For the complete text of this article, please go to StompBeast.

The World Stage 25th Anniversary Celebration Honoring Billy Higgins starts 6pm on August 24th at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre. Go here for more information on tickets and performers.