EPISODE 6: Central Avenue Breakdown

IN DEFENSE OF DISORDER

LK: So readers, bear with us. If we were going in order, you would now be listening to the family dinner scene that Shannon and M.G. wrote about last time. Well, it isn’t ready. I have some really interesting ideas, and have requested some changes from my librettists, so hopefully by next time….

While working in a linear fashion seems logical, for me it often is not the right way to proceed in creating a work. It is about creating like-minded sections sequentially – pieces, thoughts, themes, movements, larger forms that have something to do with each other, rather than going in what will eventually be the order of the piece.

SH: I sort of think of it like doing the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle. I  get a foothold wherever I can, then work out from the areas that are clear to me. Then the areas of clarity grow wider and wider and intersect until you can see the whole picture.  What works for some, doesn’t work for all, of course, and although M.G. is away for the next few weeks working on deadline, I think you can hear the sound of her eyes rolling. M.G. is our proponent for “time’s arrow,” and likes to keep things moving forward, not, as she would likely say, wandering around, aimless. But, somehow we all balance each other out. Laura pushes one way, M.G. pushes another and I drag them both toward a reconciliation between freedom and clarity, and we all feel the work comes out stronger in the end.

Cecil McNeely, photo Courtesy of Dept of Special Collections/UCLA Library, A1713 Charles E. Young Research Library

CENTRAL AVENUE: SWING STREET, BROWN BROADWAY, THE FRIVOLOUS 40s

LK: Shannon, M.G. and I knew that we wanted a character who was a musician. We wanted to tell the story of Central Avenue – the jazz hub of the West from around the 20’s to the mid 50’s – through the eyes of Oscar Gutierrez.  Central Avenue was the thriving center of the African American community, the home of the California Eagle, the amazing newspaper from which we gleaned the lyrics for Rhythm and News. [MAKE ACTIVE LINK: http://lamag.com/multimedia/vid/2010/rhythmandnews/]

There is a fantastic book and CD set that I picked up at Disney Hall killing time before a concert called Central Avenue Sounds.  Something really moved me in the forward to the book – the authors said “always in our minds was the awareness of how poorly the history of Los Angeles, and the black community in particular, had been documented.” And the authors go on to tell Central Avenue’s astonishing story and the importance of this part city’s history. Everyone played on Central Avenue or “Brown Broadway” – Bird, Dizzy, Lionel Hampton, Mingus…everyone.

[INSERT AV LINK 1- Central Avenue Breakdown]

Caption:  Central Avenue Breakdown, Lionel Hampton and His Orchestra.

Take a listen to Central Avenue Breakdown – Lionel Hampton. The great vibraphone player plays the top register of the piano like a set of vibes – its sounds hot and crazy, partly because the piano is really out of tune, especially in the highest register, so there is result is a fantastic honky-tonk sound. Guess who’s playing the lower boogie-woogie part on the piano…Nat King Cole!

But that was one of the swingingest streets in the world, man, when it was jumping. Because I’ve been to all those places that are supposed to be swinging, like Kansas City, Chicago and New York, and all those places. But they didn’t swing like Central Avenue —Fletcher Smith, from Central Avenue Sounds, Jazz in Los Angeles.

It was a beautiful time. It was a festive time. The women dressed up in frills and feathers and long earrings and hats with things hanging off them, fancy dresses with slits in the skirts, and they wore black silk stockings that were rolled and wedgie shoes. Most of the men wore big, wide-brimmed hats and zoot suits with wide collars, small cuffs, and large knees, and their coats were real long with padded shoulders. They wore flashy ties with diamond stickpins; they wore lots of jewelry; and you could smell powder and perfume everywhere. And as you walked down the street you heard music coming out of everyplace. And everybody was happy…. — Art Pepper on Central Avenue in the 40s from Pepper and Pepper 

CREATING OSCAR

SH: Through Oscar, Laura wanted to show the process of an artist finding his voice, and she wanted him to be not only a gifted musician, but also an innovator. So she sent me searching for Charlie Parker talking about his music. I also wanted some of the character rooted in the West Coast jazz scene. Parker often played on Central Avenue, but was based in New York. I looked to everyone from Ornette Colemen to Buddy Collette and Eric Dolphy for jazz innovators who came out of Central Avenue to create the amalgam that is Oscar’s musical persona.

What I wrote for Oscar was on its surface a cute parlor trick. The singer would be singing his thoughts and voicing his instrument at the same time since he wouldn’t be playing. I “borrowed” Charlie Parker’s innovations to illustrate his forward thinking:

I just can’t play the same old licks like

Every other cat with a reed,

Oscar sings a scat that mimics a sax that plays a classic standard solo passage

If I invert the chords

(he sings an inverted chord)

 

Ba doo doot Doo da doot,

Ba ba doo da boo yah doo doo da, doo da

And double up

And double up

(he sings  double time)

 

double up

double up

double up

double up

double up

Improvise off the changes, not the melody,

I can play any note in the scale,

And if I resolve it, resolve it, resolve it within the chord, it’ll be solid, man.

Laura, I knew, would take it and run with it. And so she did, and the result is more than a parlor trick. It blends music, music theory, and words to become and onomatopoetry. Take a look at the clip below for more on Laura’s creation of Oscar.

[INSERT AV LINK 2: LAURA KARPMAN VIDEO]

Caption: Laura Karpman discusses the music of “Origins of Goo Goo”

Check out the archival video of “Origins of Goo Goo.” Here, Oscar, played by LeRoy Villanueva, is about to get his first solo at Club Alabam at the ripe old age of 16.

[INSERT IMAGE 3: CLUB ALABAM POSTER]

[INSERT AV LINK 3: OSCAR.MOV]

Caption: “Origins of Goo Goo,” with LeRoy Villanueva, baritone, and the Radio Chorus: Karen Vuong, Kyla Page Williams, and Michael Slattery, and Rakefet Hak, piano.

SIDEBAR 1

[INSERT IMAGE 4 – TK]

THE BIRTH OF “COOL”

For inspiration for Oscar’s jazzy language, I needed look no further than Lester “Prez” Young. Young’s sax playing is considered by some to be as influential as Charlie Parker’s, but he was certainly known for being the original hipster, credited with being the first to use the word “cool” to mean good, hip, and, of course, hot. He invented his own slang, intended, somewhat like Cockney rhyming slang, only for the initiated. My favorite was his word for police, “Bob Crosby” or “Bob and Bing” from Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, purportedly from a run in with a cop who looked like Crosby. His “people” were the keys on his sax, and a “molley trolley” was a rehearsal. The bridge of a tune was a “George Washington.” A famous line came from a time Young was at Birdland just enjoying the music. When he was eventually noticed, he high-tailed it of the club with “I don’t dig being dug while I’m digging.” You dig?

[INSERT IMAGE 5 – TK]

SIDEBAR 2

NICKNAMES

The character Oscar has the nickname, Goo Goo Gutierrez. This came from a story told by John Haley “Zoot” Sims on how he got his own nickname. Sims was playing in Ken Baker’s band in LA in 1941 and Baker wanted the players to have jazzy nicknames so he put their names on their bandstands. Sims ended up in the seat with the name “Zoot.” Had fate played a different hand, he recalls, he might have be stuck with the monker “Goo Goo.” “I was one of the lucky ones, I guess.” So I decided that Oscar got to be that unlucky fellow who got to be Goo Goo.

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