Jefferson High, Muse/ique highlight L.A.’s Black jazz history

For a few hours on Friday afternoon, Jefferson High School’s clocks were turned back to an era of old-school glamor when the 20th century was in its rollicking youth and blacks from the Deep South fled Jim Crow by the tens of thousands for the California Promised Land.

These newcomers helped transform a multi-block stretch of South LA’s Central Avenue into a neighborhood where jazz giants like Dexter and Duke and Etta and Ella roamed the streets not just as idols, but as friends and regulars. Their music was celebrated and debated nightly in the Dunbar Hotel lounge and performed as a sacred rite at the Alabam Club, the Bird in the Basket, and at that secular temple, the Lincoln Theater.

It so happened on Friday afternoon that singer-actor Sy Smith, shimmering in a floor-length gold-and-silver gown, announced to an audience of curious, slightly awed teenagers that they had entered a sacred space. She was part of a collaboration between Jefferson — who perhaps boasts more famous black alumni than any school west of the Mississippi — and Muse/ique, the Pasadena nonprofit dedicated to making “radically immersive live music experiences accessible to all.” . The intent was to highlight the connections between Central Avenue’s starry past and Jefferson’s illustrious legacy.

Sy Smith sings during a performance with the non-profit organization MUSE/IQUE in Pasadena

Sy Smith sings during a show entitled The Songs and Stories of Central Avenue.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

“As I stand here and perform for you, I feel like I’m stepping on sacred ground,” Smith told her audience, which included Jefferson’s storied black principal, past and present superintendents of the LA Unified School District, and other musicians who worked have belonged to the likes of Whitney Houston, Stevie Wonder, Sheila E., Tupac Shakur, the Jacksons and Earth, Wind & Fire.

“And that’s a legacy of Jefferson High School,” Smith continued, “and they can’t take that legacy away from you, okay?”

It was a seamless transition to their next number, “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” the Gershwins’ 1937 standard immortalized by… well, everyone, including several artists performing shows in their heyday of Central Avenue opened and closed from the 1920s through the 1950s. Smith was part of a musical ensemble that included Myron McKinley, music director and pianist for Earth, Wind & Fire, his quartet and vocalists LaVance Colley, and the DC6 Singers collective. They were joined by members of the Lula Washington Dance Theater.

Hosted by Rachael Worby, artistic director, conductor and founder of Muse/ique, the musicians performed a more than hour-long program of classics by Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Hoagy Carmichael, both featured as live-action encyclopedia entries on the Central Avenue served efflorescence and a tribute to Jefferson’s notable alumni: Ralph Bunche, Alvin Ailey, Dexter Gordon, Carmen de Lavallade, Stanley Crouch, Juanita Moore, Roy Ayers, Etta James, Dorothy Dandridge, Barry White, Rickey Minor, and Kerry James Marshall, just to get started .

The music jumped and itched, floated and itched through the auditorium, named for Samuel Rodney Browne, who broke a secondary school color barrier when he became Jefferson’s music teacher in 1936.

The DC 6 Singers Collective sings during a performance with the non-profit MUSE/IQUE in Pasadena

The DC6 singers.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

“This is the Hogwarts of music,” McKinley told the students during the introduction to “Sweet Georgia Brown.” “So grab your wand and start making all that stuff because the people who came out here changed the music industry.”

Among those who nodded was Dr. Tamai Johnson, the first black principal in the school’s history, which was founded in 1916. Growing up in nearby Lynwood, Johnson knew next to nothing about the bygone Central Avenue scene. But she learned a lot.

“Almost a whole semester of history in one concert, right?” she said. “I think I have a duty to really only expose students to partnerships that inspire an interest in the arts and learning outside of the classroom.”

Two dancers on the stage

Kozue Kasahara and Danny Guerrero of the Lula Washington Dance Theatre.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Though members of the Class of 2023 are likely to hail from Zacatecas, San Salvador, Tegucigalpa, or Guatemala City as much as Louisiana or Texarkana, Johnson predicted Friday’s program would translate easily because “culture is more than just race “.

McKinley, the music director and pianist who grew up on 64th Street and Cimarron, said he too knew “very little” about Central Avenue’s glittering history and its alliance with Jefferson High. Then, three months ago, he got in touch with Worby at Museique, who began informing him.

“I couldn’t believe this was such an influential place that our generation didn’t know about,” McKinley said. “And that we don’t know that and not celebrate it and move on has really hurt my heart. So I was really interested in being a part of that.”

Worby, a protégé of Leonard Bernstein, conceived and curated the concert as part of A Season of Streets, Muse/ique’s on-site performance series taking in LA landmarks like Sunset Boulevard, Laurel Canyon, Whittier Boulevard and Hollywood and Vine was inspired by music to stitch together a fractured metropolis.

She reached out to her friend Austin Beutner, the well-connected former investment banker, deputy mayor, editor of the Los Angeles Times, and LAUSD superintendent, who put her in touch with Johnson. Speaking just before Friday’s performance, Beutner included a proposal for Proposition 28, which would be on the ballot this fall and provide new funding for arts and music education in K-12 public schools.

Sy Smith (left) and Lavance Colley (right) sing during a performance with the non-profit organization MUSE/IQUE in Pasadena

Enter Sy Smith and Lavance Colley.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

So did current Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho, who spent the week grappling with a crippling system-wide hacking incident and new test results that showed 72% of LAUSD math students and 58% of English students did not meet state standards .

“In my world, democracy and America are one and the same, jazz and America are one and the same, which means that jazz is a form of democracy,” Carvalho told the students.

Another guest was multi-instrumentalist and composer Dexter Story, whose father went to Jefferson and named his son after Dexter Gordon.

“I was a crackhead. I thought, ‘Why does he keep telling me about Central Avenue?’ It wasn’t until I got older that I realized how much legacy there is,” said Story, who described Muse/ique’s concert series as a form of mobile “social justice.”

After the concert, the students exchanged impressions.

“It was quite magical,” said Rafael Rosas. “You don’t usually see this stuff in real life. It’s usually on TV.”

“That educated me so much,” said Daniela Medina. “I had no idea that so many people go to this school and graduate and have these amazing careers.”

The students wondered if such events could not take place more often. They also hoped more kids would join the school band or color guard. This will be a challenge: Hector Artero, who plays in the group, said he has the school’s only working alto saxophone.

“Most of the equipment we have is old and really run down,” he said.

With so many issues LAUSD students face — poverty, plummeting test scores, COVID aftershocks, distressed parents — music and art can seem like luxuries. The glamor of Central Avenue can seem like a dream.

It has Worby weeping in frustration and anger that so much of LA’s cultural heritage has been bulldozed and buried, a symptom of what it sees as a society that ruthlessly trashes its sacrosanct estates. But she vows to return to Jefferson soon.

“I don’t believe in drive-by education and that’s why we’ll be back next year and the year after. We’re not going to make it great going to Jefferson cri de coeur that doesn’t swing into the future. That simply does not work.”

“Something about those walls and hallways could breathe possibility,” she added.

As the final notes of “When the Saints Go Marching In” faded away, the monstrous heat wave that had gripped the city for days began to crack. Scattered raindrops fell on the students as they exited their glory-stricken school. Jefferson High, Muse/ique highlight L.A.’s Black jazz history

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