in 1945 at the age of sixteen, trumpeter Art Farmer started playing professionally while attending Los Angeles . Sam Browne headed up a great stage band at Jefferson High School Jefferson and saxophone greats Dexter Gordon and Frank Morgan also attended the program.
in 1952 to join Lionel Hampton’s band for a year of touring. In fall 1953 he settled in Los Angeles , forming a group with Gigi Gryce. He also played with Horace Silver, Gerry Mulligan, and Lester Young, among others. In 1959 he and Benny Golson formed the Jazztet, one of the definitive hard bop groups. A few years later Art teamed with guitarist Jim Hall to lead a memorable combo. New York
In the mid-1960s Art gradually abandoned the trumpet to play flugelhorn. In 1968 he moved to
, married an Austrian, and they had two children. Art has toured the world and returns regularly to perform in the Vienna . He has appeared on dozens of albums, as sideman, bandleader, and co-leader. United States
Art and his twin brother, Addison, were born in
, in August 1928. When they were four the family moved to Council Bluffs, Iowa . Art was attracted to music at an early age, and was studying piano by the time he was in elementary school. He studied and played violin and bass tuba before picking up the cornet at thirteen to play in the school band. Soon he was playing trumpet in a local band and met one of his idols, Roy Eldridge. Phoenix, Arizona
Art gave the following interview as part of the UCLA Oral History Program’s Central Avenue Sounds Project and it has been published in Bryant, et al., Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998].
In his foreword to the book, Steve Isoardi offered the following comments about the book’s methodology:
“We set as our task encouraging the interviewees to share the freest, fullest narratives, told at their own pace and in their particular way of recalling. This approach reminded me of improvisation in Jazz, a symmetry I find compelling and satisfying. We also wanted to avoid hearing the canned answers or accounts some of these artists might have given over the years to repetitious queries about their lives.”
Art’s self-interview is part of a section in the book entitled The Eastside at High Tide. Other subsections are entitled The Emergence of
Central Avenue, The Watts Scene and Drawn by Central’s Magic – New Faces.
What emerges from reading the interviews in this book is an impression of a Central Avenue Los Angeles Jazz Scene that was every bit as vibrant and as hip as the one that took place on New York City’s 42nd Street in the years following World War II.
Although musicians such as Marshall Royal, Melba Liston and Art migrated east to continue their Jazz careers, many such as Gerald Wilson, Buddy Collette and Gerald Wilson continued to be based in
long after the heyday of Los Angeles Central Avenue.
In retrospect, I never cease to be fascinated by learning more about just how vibrant and energetic the Central Avenue Jazz scene was. It is a shame that it’s legacy has remained poorly documented for so many years.
Thankfully, Art Farmer has these reminiscences to share about
Central Avenue, including his meetings with Charlie Parker, Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus, Frank Morgan, Art Pepper and Chet Baker during his time there.
“Artie Shaw’s band came through on a one-nighter, and Roy Eldridge was working with him. I was playing in a little club, and he came by there, and he sat in on the drums first. Then he went to his room and got his horn and brought his horn back and played.
was a great person. The next night, at the dance hall, the Artie Shaw band played the first dance from nine to one, and then our band played from like two to five, because there was a thing then called the swing shift, where there would be a dance held for the people who were working on what is called the swing shift at night—they would get off at midnight. So the guys from Artie Shaw's band, they stood around and listened to us. Roy
When the bands came through, we would go to where they were staying and introduce ourselves and ask them if they would like to come by our house for a jam session. Some of them would, and they were very kind and gentle and helpful. There was never any kind of stuff about "Oh, we're tired and too busy" or something. They would come by.
There's a certain kind of community inside the jazz neighborhood, that's international. And there's a lot of mutual help going on. There always has been. This is what's kept the music alive until now, because it's been handed down from one person to the next. And as long as a young person would show that they were sincerely interested, nobody would say, "Hey, go to hell," you know, "I'm busy!" I never had that kind of experience with anyone. So these guys would come by the house and they would give us whatever help. If you knew what questions to ask, you would get the answers. A lot of time you didn't know the questions. But whatever you'd ask, they would help you.
When Art and his brother arrived in
during the summer of 1945, Los Angeles Central Avenue was still booming with wartime prosperity.
Then when we were around the age of sixteen, we came to
on a summer vacation, and there was so much musical activity here that we just decided to stay. We had one more year to go in high school, which was fortunate. And we just didn't want to go back to Los Angeles , because we knew that we wanted to be professional musicians, and this was where it was happening. And the center of it was Phoenix Central Avenue.
I can remember pretty well the first evening I went to
Central Avenue. That block where the Downbeat and the Last Word and the Dunbar— all those places—are, that was the block. And it was crowded. A lot of people on the street. Almost like a promenade, [laughter] I saw all these people. I remember seeing Howard McGhee; he was standing there talking to some people. I saw Jimmy Rushing, because the Basic band was in town. And I said, "Wow!" I didn't really go into the Alabam, but I passed by there. I heard the big band sound coming out.
The other clubs were not large. They might hold maybe a hundred people at the most. And the stage might hold six, seven at the most. And they had a bar. There was no dancing in these little places. Just tables. Most clubs were like that. I think the first place I went into was the Downbeat. Howard McGhee was there with Teddy Edwards and another tenor player by the name of J. D. King. And Roy Porter was playing drums, and the bass player was named Bob Dingbod. It was crowded, so we just sort of walked in and stood around and stood up next to the wall.
As far as I know, that was the first organized band out here that was really playing bebop. Dizzy and Bird hadn't come out here at that time. I think Dizzy had been out here with other bands, but he and Bird hadn't come out with the quintet yet. Certainly people were playing bebop. We were playing it; we were trying to play it before Dizzy and Bird got here. It just sounded good to me. I didn't have to ask myself, "Gee, what is this? Do I like it or don't I like it?" because my mind was completely open at that time.
This time was the beginning of the bebop era, but it was also the beginning of the rock era in a certain sense, rock-pop, instrumentally. Across the street from the Downbeat was a place called the Last Word. I went in and listened to Jack McVea, who had more of a sort of a jump band entertainment type of thing, which wasn't as interesting to me as what was happening with Howard's group. There was a guy in
by the name of Joe Liggins. He had a group called Joe Liggins and the Honeydrippers. I guess you might call this like a jump band. Well, they had this very popular record called "The Honeydripper," and it was very, very simple music. It didn't have any of the harmonic complexity that bebop had to it, but it was very popular. So while the bebop thing was going in one direction, which was musically complex and had some quality to it, I would say this other thing was going in a completely different direction. Very simple. The average person could get something out of it without any effort. So that's where things started going in a different direction. Los Angeles
Well, that kind of music didn't have any interest to me. Not at all. My attraction to music basically was the swing era with the big bands—Jim-mie Lunceford and Count Basic and Duke Ellington—and that was a high level of music to me. It had a lot of things going on. And things like "The Honeydripper" was just completely watered down. It's like TV; it's watered down to the lowest common denominator, something that's made for idiots, you know, for morons. That's what the whole pop music has become.
But the music I liked was more complex. The big band music had a lot of depth and profundity to it to me. So it was a natural movement from big band to bebop as far as I was concerned. It really pleased me. Plus the fact that at the end of the war, big bands started fading away. And one of the reasons was the music became too complex for the audience, for one thing. The economic situation was against it—the cost of moving a band around the country. Plus the fact that the record companies and the promoters thought that they could make as much money with five pieces as they could make with sixteen or seventeen. So the big bands faded away. And in order to stay in music, you have to be able to work in the small group. To work in a small group, you had to be able to play a decent solo. My first ambition was just to be a member of that sound in a big band. I would have been very happy just to be a second or third or fourth or first trumpet player, whatever. At that particular time, I would say it was beyond my dreams that I would ever become a soloist.
And there were a lot of people our age hanging around. One thing led to another; we would meet guys. But that was the heart of it right there.
When school opened, we went over to
and enrolled. Jeff to us was a great school, because we had gone to the schools in Jefferson High School , which were totally segregated then and very limited, which I never will be able to overcome. Because I wanted to study music. There was nobody there that could teach me. I never had a trumpet lesson. I developed bad habits. And when you develop bad habits at an early age, and playing the trumpet is a physical thing, it's hard to overcome that. Like pushing the horn into my mouth, you know, pressure and all, when your teeth get loose and you get holes and sores on your lips. Well, I had to pay for that later on. Arizona
So we came over here and it was a whole new world, this big school with all kinds of white people, black people, Chinese, Mexican. Everybody was in this school. They had classes where you could study harmony. They had this big band. You could sign up for the big band and go in there and learn how to play with other people. It was just completely different for us. And you'd meet people your age who were trying to do the same thing, and we would exchange ideas, of course. So it was great.
And Samuel Browne was a nice guy. He was really ahead of his time in training kids to be musicians. To my knowledge, this was the only school in the country that had a high school swing band, and that was part of the curriculum. Well, see, this kind of music wasn't regarded as serious music in the education system. But at Jeff maybe a couple of hours a day were spent on music at school. I remember big band and harmony—I would say harmony and theory. But other guys were studying arranging, also. Some of the students were making arrangements for the big band. You know, guys who had been there for a year or so in front of us—they were at the level then that they could write arrangements for the big band. And they could hear their stuff played then. We also not only learned to play in that type of a setting, but we would have exposure to audiences also, because we would go around to other schools in this area and play concerts. So they were really at least thirty years ahead of the rest of the
. United States
Sam Browne was a very quiet person. He kept order by his personality. He never had to shout at anyone. He never had to say, "Do this or do that" and you didn't do this and you didn't do that. Somehow you just felt that you should do it. Otherwise you just felt that you were in the wrong place. This was a serious thing. And everyone who was there really wanted to work. They wanted to play music, otherwise they wouldn't be there. You know, he loved music, and he wanted to help kids.
And he would bring other people. If somebody came into the town that he knew, he would go around and tell them to come around and talk to the kids. He would get the people to come around and play what we'd call an assembly for the whole student body and then talk to the band. Leave themselves open. You could ask them any questions that would come to your mind.
Art was also surrounded by many students just as interested in music as he was, and in some cases just as talented.
Sonny Criss was there. Ernie Andrews, the singer, was there. There was a drummer by the name of Ed Thigpen, who was the year under us.
There was a tenor player named Hadley Caliman, who is now a teacher at a conservatory up in
. Another tenor player by the name of Joe Howard. I don't know what happened—I think he's dead now—but he was writing very nice arrangements by then. Alto saxophone player named James Robinson. We called him "Sweet Pea." He was a very good player. He's not alive any more, either. Seattle, Washington
You know, meeting these guys and exchanging ideas was just a great thing. Big Jay McNeely was there. I think he was in the class in front of us. But I was in the harmony class with him. And my memory is not so clear, but somehow the story is there that he asked the teacher, "Well, how much money do you make?" And the teacher told him. And he said, "Well, I already make more money than you. How do you think you can teach me anything?" But he had his little group, and he was working around town. The scale was sixty dollars a week, you know, for a side-man. Sixty dollars. And that was big money. So he was getting that much, because the union was strong then.
When we first got here we took what jobs we could get. I remember having a job in a cold storage plant, [laughter] Stacking crates of fruit and vegetables. We were kids, you know; we didn't take anything seriously. A lot of the time we didn't have any money, and we got thrown out of rooms and things. We got fired from that job because we started throwing these potatoes at each other, [laughter]
Art was soon playing in regular bands at night, while attending
Jefferson during the day. Word quickly got around about the young trumpeter.
The worst thing I remember was hanging out all night. Of course, the clubs would close around one or , and then the first class in the morning was physical ed. And I remember the lowest thing to me was trying to climb a rope.
A lot of good players were still in the army, and there were still some big bands around getting some shows. I think the first job that I got in
was with Horace Henderson, Fletcher's brother. I don't remember how I met him. I think that he came by Jeff one day, and I was out on the playground. Los Angeles
He said, "Come over here."
I walked over there, and he said, "You're Arthur Farmer?"
"Well, I got a band. I need a trumpet player." I don't know how that happened. I got some work with him. And one thing leads to another, and I would work with Floyd Ray.
It wasn't that easy, because sometimes we would work and wouldn't get paid, you know. Things started getting weird. I remember I went down to
with Horace Henderson and didn't get paid. And I remember working somewhere around here with Floyd Ray and didn't get paid. That would happen sometimes. Club owners skipped out, or the people who would put on the dance, they skipped out. That was part of the business, and it still is. But it didn't take much to stay alive. Rent was very cheap, you know, and food was cheap. If you could get a gig every now and then, you could make it—if you didn't have any habits. We were too young to have any bad habits, [laughter] San Diego
Sometimes I had to go out of town for a week or two. Well, my brother and I, we were living by ourselves. So when we couldn't go to school, we would just write our own excuses. I'd say, "Please excuse my boy today because he has to do such-and-such a thing." And sign it "Mrs. Hazel Farmer," you know. Because the school didn't know we were living by ourselves.
When I got an offer to go on the road with the Johnny Otis band, the school year wasn't out yet. And my mother had told me I've got to get that diploma. So I went to the principal and I told him. I said, "Look, I have this chance to go on the road with this band. This is the beginning of my career, and I really don't want to lose it. I really need this. If my work has been okay, I would like to be able to get my diploma. I would like you to please consider this and write a letter to my mother to that effect." And the guy was nice enough to do it. And I said, "Would you put that diploma in the safe just in case you're no longer here?" I came out here with Gerry Mulligans group around '58. This was in ‘46 when I left. I came back in '58, and that diploma was in the safe, and I went over there and got it.
Johnny Otis had a big band that was sort of styled after the Count Basie band. They had been working at the Club Alabam for some time. But when they got ready to go on the road, some of the guys didn't want to leave, so that left an opening in the trumpet section. He sounded me and asked me did I want to go, and I said certainly. So that was my first chance to go back east.
Charlie Parker— 'He was out here just like everybody else."
I met Charlie Parker and Miles Davis when they first came out here. I actually met Miles at the union, 767. And he said, "Yeah, I came out here with Benny Carter’s band because I knew Charlie Parker came out here, and I'd go any place where Charlie Parker was, because you can learn so much. I would go to
Africa." Well, our image of Africa at that time was people with bones in their nose, you know. Nobody would have thought about going to Africa. He said, "I would go to Africa if Charlie Parker was there because you could learn so much."
I met Charlie Parker at Gene Montgomery's house. He was a tenor player and was a close friend of Teddy Edwards. He used to run the Sunday afternoon matinee jam sessions at the Downbeat on
Central Avenue, and he was what we would call the session master. The club would hire one man to coordinate the session, to see that there weren't too many guys on the stand at one time, and keep things moving along.
On the way home from school, well, we just got in the habit of stopping by his house. And I met Charlie Parker over there. He was a very nice, approachable person. To me he was not really a monster at all; he was just a nice guy. Well, my brother and I, we had a sort of a large room on Fifty-fifth and Avalon, and eventually Charlie Parker was over there staying with us sometimes. We had two twin beds and a couch, so he was sleeping on the couch.
We would walk the streets on
Central Avenue. One night we went up to Lovejoy's. He always had his horn with him. There was one guy playing the piano, playing music that would fit the silent movies—stride music, or stride piano and stuff. And he just took out his horn and started playing. After that, we were walking back to the house, and I told him, "Hey, you really surprised me playing with somebody like that," because Charlie Parker was regarded as the god of the future. And he's playing with this guy, who's just an amateur. He said, "Well, if you're trying to do something, you take advantage of any occasion. Go ahead, ignore that other stuff. That doesn't mean anything. You have to concentrate on what you're trying to put together yourself." So I always kept that in my mind.
And none of us had any money. My brother was working sometimes because the bass players would get more work than trumpet players, you know, because many little places would have a trio. Sometimes Charlie Parker would say, "Loan me five dollars" or "Loan me ten dollars. I'll pay you back tomorrow." He always paid him back. Always. He developed a reputation of being a sort of a swindler, borrowing money and never paying people and all sorts of negative things like that. But that never happened.
And I remember one night we were walking on
Central Avenue to go to one of those movie theaters. Well, you wait until the last feature had already started and then go to the doorman and say, "Hey, man, we don't have any money. Why don't you let us in to see the end of the movie?" [laughter] It worked sometimes, [laughter] So there was the great Charlie Parker, who didn't have enough money to buy a ticket to go in a movie. But he was a human being, you know. He was out here just like everybody else.
Charlie Parker was supposed to be a drug addict. Well, at that time he didn't have any drugs, and he was in pretty bad shape. I remember one night there was an incident, and he was about to have a nervous breakdown. We were on the second floor. There was a French window from the ceiling to the floor, and he opened it up, and he was standing there like he was going to jump out. And before that he'd been taking oft, putting on his clothes, and taking them off and putting them on, taking them off. He was just going off. So I took him out of the window and I said, "Let's go for a walk." So he put on his clothes and we went right across the street. It was
. We went and walked in the park. And he had a bad cold, like his lungs were falling apart. I said, "You ought to do something about this." He said, "Not a goddamn thing!" I mean, he was really down. We took him back to the room, and he finally went to bed. But he was having a hard time. He was starting to come apart, because he had nervous tics. His nerves were really shot. I guess it was just stress from the withdrawal, because he didn't have any drugs at that time. And he wasn't working. No money. At that time, in the forties, he was the first guy that I heard of that had a narcotics habit. Of all the younger guys I knew, nobody was into hard drugs. Avalon Park
In late 1945 Bird and Dizzy Gillespie arrived in town for a long engagement at Billy Berg's club in
. It was their first foray to the West Coast and opening night attracted a large crowd; but when the turnout fell, Berg canceled the rest of the gig. Hollywood
Yeah, I was there the first night. It was crowded at the opening, but then it kind of fell off, because the music was too far advanced for the general audience. And Billy Berg's had two other acts there also—Slim Gaillard and a guy named Harry "The Hipster" Gibson. And they were very, very entertaining. Billy Berg decided to give this new thing a chance, but when he saw the audience reaction, well, I think that he actually cut the engagement short a couple of weeks. So Dizzy went back east and Charlie Parker stayed out here.
I remember one time, Howard McGhee was part owner of a place called the Finale Club in the Little Tokyo area. Howard McGhee worked there with his band, and Charlie Parker worked there one time with his own group, which Miles was in. Miles was working with Benny Carter and Charlie Parker. Benny Carter had a job at some dance hall or something. So there was a lady working for a weekly black newspaper called the Los Angeles Sentinel, I think. And she came and checked out the group and wrote a review in the paper, and was very negative. She said, "This group has this saxophone player who carries himself with the air of a prophet, but really not that much is happening. And he s got a little wispy black boy playing the trumpet who doesn't quite make it," you know, [laughter] "It has a moon-faced bass player with an indefatigable arm," speaking about my brother. She didn't have anything good to say about anybody.
Well, I saw that paper, and I went over to where Bird was staying at Genes house and said, "Hey man, wake up!" [laughter] I said, "Wake up, man! You have to read what this bitch is saying about you, man!" He's still laying in bed. [laughter] Well, we couldn't get him to move unless you gave him a joint. You'd have to baby him. Anyway, he read this and said, "Well, she's probably all right. Just the wrong people got to her first." And then he got kind of in a self-pitying mood and he said, "Well, Dizzy left me out here, and I'm catching it." You know, "Dizzy got away, but he left me out here, and I'm catching this from everybody." That really brought him down, because he didn't see nothing strange about his music. His music was very melodic. And for somebody to say something like that— You know, he was proud to get good reviews. He liked that and would send the reviews to his mother.
Almost 99 percent of the younger guys really loved this new music. The disagreement came with the older guys, some of the older guys, who were more firmly entrenched in the swing era, and they just couldn't see anything else happening. But bebop was an outgrowth of big band, because all those guys had worked with big bands and they went into bebop because they were able to play more. It presented more of a challenge to them. If you played in a big band, you didn't get that much chance to really play. You jumped up every now and then and played a short solo. But if you were working with a small group, well, you had much more time to play, and you could play different kinds of tunes that were more challenging. There was more flexibility than in a big band.
So lets see. That was my introduction to bebop. So when I got this offer to go back east with Johnny Otis, I think Bird was already in the institution [
], or else he went in shortly after that. And the next time I saw him was when he first came back to Camarillo State Hospital . Someone had fixed a job for him, a one-nighter up at a place called Small's New York City Paradise in Harlem. So I went by to see him. He said, "Hey, Arthur Farmer, we're in , man. You can get anything you want in New York !" [laughter] He was so happy to be out of New York , [laughter] California
Jam Sessions and Gigs on Central
After a few months on the road with Johnny Otis, Art returned to
. Los Angeles
But there were sessions, jam sessions, on
Central Avenue. The Downbeat and Last Word. Monday night was the off night, so there was always a session on Monday night in these clubs. Then the after-hours clubs— Lovejoy's was an after-hours club. And then there was a place called Jack's Basket Room, which was farther north. That was a big session place. And farther north from that, there was a little place called the Gaiety. That became the Jungle Room. We'd go from club to club.
These jam sessions were a great part of life, because that's the way you learn. They were well attended and the music was still a part of the ordinary people s community. People would come into the jam session. They liked music. You'd go into the restaurant and you'd have a jukebox there. There would be bebop tunes and tunes by swing bands and things. So we still hadn't reached that gap where the general audience sort of lost interest. So it was a different thing, because now the average person doesn't know anything about jazz at all, or they know very little. They go to a place like the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl for the spectacle. I played one in
at a place called Randall's New York Island years ago. Every attraction was given a bulletin about what to do and what not to do. It said, "No ballads." [laughter]
In the late 1940’s, the
police increased their presence on Central. Los Angeles
The police started really becoming a problem. I remember, you would walk down the street, and every time they'd see you, they would stop you and search you. I remember one night me and someone else were walking from the Downbeat area up north to Jack's Basket Room or the Gaiety or some other place like that, and we got stopped two times. And the third time some cops on foot stopped us, and I said, "Hey, look, you guys are going the same way. Do you mind if we walk with you?" [laughter] We'd been stopped so many times we were getting later and later. So they said, "Okay." But we didn't have anything. It would be insane to be carrying some stuff on you on
Central Avenue, because you'd get in trouble. You could get put in jail. You didn't have any money for a lawyer. If you had one marijuana cigarette, you could get ninety days. And if you had one mark on your arm, you'd be called a vagrant addict. Ninety days. The police were very obnoxious around there.
I remember working at a place, somewhere in the Fifties on
Main or Broadway, some years later, in the late 1940’s or early 1950’s. It was a nice club, what we would call black and tan, because black people and white people went there too. I was working with a band that was led by Teddy Edwards. People went in there, and we could have stayed there a long time, but then the manager said we had to go, because the police said that they didn't want this racial mixing there, and if the club didn't change its policy there was going to be trouble.
This mixing thing, this thing about white women and black men, was really a hard issue. When the war came, all the people from the South came in, and they brought their racial prejudices with them. And that's why we've had the problems here.
And then there was a lot of prostitution going on. There were some cases where black men were pimps, and the white women were prostitutes. And the police, they would rather kill somebody than see that happen. And every time they saw an interracial couple, that's what they thought was going on, which was not the case. As far as they were concerned, the only thing they saw anytime they saw any interracial thing going on was crime. This was a crime. If it wasn't a crime on the books, it was still a crime as far as they were concerned. So their main worry was this interracial mixing, because it was a crime leading to prostitution and narcotics.
They weren't worried that much about robbery, because that wasn't the problem then, because people were working. The economic picture was better then than it is now. The people had a chance to get a job. And more people had what we call the work ethic. People would rather get a job that they were overqualified for than not to work at all. The members of the black community then felt more that it was a disgrace not to have a job.
Then everybody had a job, everybody was working, and if they were working they figured that they should be able to enjoy the fruits of their labor, and that would include entertainment. There were no TVs. The clubs were thriving. Johnny Otis's band would go into the Alabam and stay there for months, [laughter] At Joe Morris's Plantation Club in
Watts, well, Count Basic would come out, and Billy Eckstine would come out. And they were supported by the community. Some white people would come in, but the white people were not enough to keep this going. They were really the fringe. It was the black audiences that supported these places.
Another important influence on Art was Roy Porter’s big band. Porter also appeared on Charlie Parker's sessions for Dial Records in
. Los Angeles
The Roy Porter band was important to us, to the younger guys. Roy Porter was the drummer who had played with Howard McGhee when I first heard Howard McGhee on
Central Avenue at the Downbeat. Then later on Howard McGhee went back east again, and Roy Porter organized a big band. The members were younger guys like myself, mostly. A lot of us had gone to Jeff. Eric Dolphy was in the band. There were other good players. So that was like a training ground. The charts were patterned after Dizzy Gillespie's big band. By then Dizzy had come out to California with his big band, and that was the next earthquake, [laughter] Well, some of the kids that had gone to Jeff, who learned how to write arrangements at Jeff, were writing arrangements for this big band. We made some recordings for a company called Savoy Records. They're out now in an album called something like "Black Jazz in ." California
Eric Dolphy was a prince. You know, he was an angel. He really lived for music. He lived for music, and he loved music. Twenty-four hours wasn't long enough for him. Eric was always a very enthusiastic guy, but he was 100 percent about music. He was a nice, nice, friendly, warm person, but he just loved to play. During that time I didn't feel it was necessary to spend all that time playing. I figured it would just come naturally, [laughter] I figured if I spent a couple of hours on it, why, heck, that's great. Somebody like Eric would practice all day long. All day.
At that time he was very much under the influence of Charlie Parker, as all the young guys were. Then later on, when he went back east, I think he got involved with Charles Mingus, and I think Mingus broadened his boundaries. It wasn't that he stopped loving Charlie Parker, but he started being interested in more of a less-structured type of music thing. He used to imitate the sounds of birds and things on his horn, on his flute. He'd listen to bird calls and play them, do things like that. Then he got hooked up with John Coltrane, and John Coltrane was the same way. It was like his wife said: he was 95 percent saxophone. They were really kindred spirits.
Charles Mingus, a graduate of Jordan High School in Watts, had been a mainstay on the Avenue until he left for
in the late 1940’s New York
I never played with him in
, but I knew him. That was the first bass player that I heard of when I got here. They said, "Yeah, there's a guy here named Charlie Mingus. He's got a bad temper, too." [laughter] "Last week he took his bass stand and chased the vocalist off the stage with it." That was the first I heard of him. He didn't like the way she was singing, [laughter] He was a bad boy. [laughter] So nobody messed with Charles Mingus. Everybody was afraid of Mingus. California
When I got to
, I started playing with Mingus. I developed a reputation of being able to play anything that anybody put in front of me. So there was a certain group of guys back there who were getting into very difficult music. They were stretching out, venturing into areas where it wasn't just ordinary jazz. That's how I happened to have hooked up with Mingus out there, because that's the way his music was. You just couldn't play it the way you played everything else. You really had to work with it. You had to have the time to give it. New York
I remember one night he came into a place where I was playing. He had this fearsome reputation. And he was sitting in this club, and he hollered up to the stage, "Hey, Art Farmer, play a C scale!" And I'd say, "Oh, man." I didn't want to get any stuff. And I hollered back down, "I really don't know how you want it played." I got out of it some way. And then I found out later that he had told some people there with him, he said, "This guy here, he can play a C scale and make it into music."
Nights on the Avenue—"it was like the Wild West."
When rhythm and blues began to attract a large appreciative audience, some jazz players, including Big]ay McNeely, made the transition from bop to r&b.
I remember one night I was in the Downbeat, and Big Jay McNeely was working across the street at the Last Word. He came out in the street with his horn and came all the way across Central Avenue and walked into the Downbeat with his horn, playing it, honking, whooping and hollering, [laughter] And the owner, a little bald-headed guy, he must have been about seventy years old. I think he was an immigrant, European Jewish guy, with a heavy accent. He said, "Get the horn! Get the horn! Someone get the horn!" [laughter] It was like the Wild West, [laughter] That was the funniest thing, [laughter] Because the Downbeat was the bebop club that night, and this guy—he was like the enemy!
Well, Jay, part of his act was complete, total abandon. It was like somebody who had become completely possessed by the music. He throws off his coat and throws that down, then he jumps on his back, and he's playing the horn, he puts his legs up in the air, and he's playing all the time. So there was a place called the Olympia Theatre where he would play on Saturday night, a show. I'm working with Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray. They had a band—and these are highly respected jazz stars, and I was working with that band. We got a job there one Saturday night, and we figured, "Well, gee, this is a step up." [laughter] Dexter decides that he's going to pull a Big Jay. So he's up there, and he's playing his thing, and all of a sudden he starts to come out of his coat, and War-dell had to help him out with the coat. Wardell takes the coat and very civilly takes it and folds it and puts it on his arm. There's Dexter, and he's honking a la Big Jay, and he finally gets down on his knees a la Big Jay. And then the people in the audience, these kids, these teenagers, are looking up there like, "Gee, when is he going to do something?" He stayed down there so long like that. He stayed down there on his knees like he's praying, like he didn't know what to do then. So he finally got up off his knees, and the show went on. But that Big Jay, he was something else.
Earlier, Big Jay and Sonny Criss, the alto player, had a bebop quintet together. And he was getting gigs. But then his brother came back from the army and told him that he was going in the wrong direction. He said he wouldn't be able to make a quarter playing that. With Big Jay it was either one thing completely. Because when he was playing bebop, it was extreme. It was either everything had to be the hippest or the most corny with him. We called him "bebop" because everything he played sounded like bebop, like he didn't give a damn about any other aspect of music than that. So he changed. He made a radical change.
But Sonny was strictly a jazz player. The trouble with Sonny is that he never really studied. He took some lessons from Buddy Collette, but he never really learned how to read that well. He never learned how to read good enough to play with the big bands and things like that. He said, "I shouldn't have to do that. I'm a jazz player." So that just closed down a lot of possibilities, because if you play jazz, well, a lot of your income is going to be from making records. And you go into a studio, you have to be able to play whatever is thrown in front of you. If they call you one time and if you hold up the thing, they're not going to call you anymore regardless of how great a solo you play. And then most saxophone players double. They play flute or clarinet or something. He said, "Well, I'm an alto saxophone player." So he didn't get as far as he should have.
As a teenager, Frank Morgan was an extremely promising saxophonist. Unfortunately, his drug addiction led to his first prison term in the mid-1950’s. Not until the 1980’s was he able to realize his full potential.
I first met Frank Morgan in the late forties, and I guess
Central Avenue was on its way down, but there were still some things happening then. Frank was about sixteen years old. Frank went to Jeff also. We were quite close. But then, when I left here in '52 with Lionel Hampton, after then, well, he started getting involved with narcotics and really got too deep into it, and spent a lot of time in prison.
But the tragedy is that a lot of guys didn't survive this narcotics thing. Too many. Between narcotics and the prejudice thing and I don't know what— The prejudice thing might have led to the narcotics in some cases, just feeling like the avenues are blocked anyway, so we might as well get high. Guys spent years and years in prison, and then they're just out of the music thing completely. Or else they take an overdose and they're dead. So a lot of guys didn't survive. Of the students who went to Jeff in Samuel Browne's band, when they left there a lot of them got hooked on narcotics, and they just fell by the wayside. Talented people.
But the narcotics killed white people, too, some talented white people. For instance, there was a saxophone player named Art Pepper. I used to make gigs with Art sometimes. We'd work in Latin bands around
sometimes, playing montunos and things. Well, he got hung up in narcotics. It was sad because he said, "I'm a junkie, and I'll be a junkie till I die." You know, that's it. That's the reality. And Chet Baker is another one, too. I met Chet and guys like that coming into this part of town to participate in jam sessions. Los Angeles
It was a scourge. They'd get hooked, and they'd get arrested by the police. You go to jail, you come out, you have a record, and if the police want a promotion, then they arrest other people. They know who to come to. Like if they want to put another star behind their name, they look down the list and say, "Oh, here's so-and-so. He's been arrested before. Well, we'll go see what he's doing." Sometimes they might even manufacture some evidence, because you already have the record. If you go before the judge and you've already been arrested for narcotics and the police say, "Well, we found such and such a thing in his pocket," the judge is going to believe the police before he believes the criminal who has this record of being a narcotics offender. So guys started going in and out of jails. And the next thing they know, it's all over, because the music is highly competitive, and you have to be able to do what you're supposed to do. It's hard enough then, you know. But if you lose a year here and a year there, it's just impossible.
So Frank—I give him credit for at least being able to survive somehow, because he was a rare one from
. He's not without scars from all the stuff he's been through. It's changed him. He's not the sixteen-year-old kid that I used to know. After you spend some years in San Quentin, you develop something else. He's hardened. He has hardened a lot, which I guess you'd have to do in order to survive. But he still plays very well. California
Union Musician — ' We figured that's part of being a professional musician."
I joined the union in
first, and I even had a problem getting in there because of race. When me and my brother and other guys had this little band and we were getting jobs, well, we decided we wanted to be in the union. We figured that's part of being a professional musician. So we went there and told them we wanted to be in the union, and they said no. There were no blacks in the union. So we wrote to the headquarters in Phoenix . That's where Caesar [James] Petrillo’s office was. They said they have to let us join the union. So we joined the union in Chicago , because the federation told the local that they had to let us in if we were qualified. So we got in. Phoenix
When we came over here, we transferred to Local 767. The first time I heard Gerald Wilson was at the union. They had this house and the rooms on the second floor were used for rehearsal rooms.
By the late 1940’s the amalgamation movement had begun.
Certainly I was supporting it. Everybody from a certain age group was, certainly. They didn't see any reason not to support it. Because it was a matter of territory, also. You see, Local 47 had the larger part of
. There were certain territories that were allotted to each local. And we figured if we were all in the same local, then we would be able to play anyplace in town. And this whole studio thing, like the movie studios—that was Local 47 territory. In order to work in the studio, you were supposed to be a member of Local 47. But if you were black, then you had to be in Local 767. The white people could come and work on Los Angeles Central Avenue, but the blacks had trouble coming to work in . They could work in some places, but there would have to be some kind of special dispensation to work like at Billy Berg’s or a place like the Swing Club. Hollywood
The Legacy of Central
I stayed in
until '52, when I left with Lionel Hampton. So during that time, that's when Central went into history. I remember the Alabam was still going, and I heard Josephine Baker there one time. Sweets Los Angeles Edison was the musical director of her show. That was probably one of the last big events at the Club Alabam—that I was aware of, anyway. And things were just thinning out generally. I was working with Gerald Wilson or Benny Carter or whoever had a job. Dexter Gordon or Wardell Gray or Sonny Criss, Frank Morgan—people like that. You see, the downfall of Central Avenue was more than anything else economics. When the war ended, people didn't have money to be going out into clubs. Then television came into being and they would go home and watch TV. The attendance at these clubs became sparse and they eventually had to close.
Also there was a migration from the Eastside to the Westside. We would call
Central Avenue the Eastside. The people who had work and had some kind of equity and property in that part of Los Angeles, they made a step up the ladder and moved to the west of Los Angeles, say, around Western Avenue or Normandie, places in that part of town. And what was left on the Eastside were people who didn't have the money to move. People were able to buy houses in what had until then been exclusively white neighborhoods. There were a few key cases that opened the thing up. There was something out here called restrictive covenants that were eventually beaten. So people were able to buy in other neighborhoods. And they got out of that neighborhood.
Then there were some clubs opening up over there on the Westside, like there was a place called the Oasis on
Western Avenue and some other smaller clubs. It was nothing like Central Avenue, because Central Avenue was more compact. That's where everything was going on. The real center was located around where the Alabam and the Dunbar Hotel and the Downbeat were. Yeah, that was the real center. But then after that, as Los Angeles is, you have one place here and another place thirty miles over there, so there's nothing like Central Avenue.
Central Avenue was the neighborhood where I could go and hear people play and meet people. On
Central Avenue, Count Basic and Duke Ellington were more accessible. They were part of the neighborhood. I got to meet people and got to hear them play, and I could go there any night, stand around and listen, and see what was going on. It was a matter of getting experience. And you could get that on Central Avenue more than you could get it anyplace else. Central Avenue was the main thing for . After you left Los Angeles , you had a long way to go to Los Angeles or Chicago . By the time you got there, you were really supposed to be ready. But here you could start off. New York City
Central Avenue was important also to groups that were really not regarded as jazz groups—like Roy Milton, blues groups, things like that—because they had a lot of work. I wouldn't want to give the impression that Central Avenue was just a jazz place, because it really wasn't. You had Roy Milton and Pee Wee Crayton and T-Bone Walker and Ivory Joe Hunter, Big Joe Turner. And they were much more successful than the jazz was, without a doubt, [laughter] This was their happy hunting ground, [laughter] But you see, groups like that had jazz players playing with them. That was certainly a big part of the street.
My final thoughts are kind of sad, because when you go there now, I feel like I'm stepping into a graveyard. It's very emotional to see something that played such a large part in your life, and now there's nothing left there. Nothing would give you the impression that this place had ever been anything other than what it is right now. And you have to stop and ask yourself, Well, is it all an illusion? Is it all an illusion? And that's the big question. You know, I'm sixty-three years old, and when I first went there I was, say, sixteen or something like that, and what happened then at that age has influenced me until now. But if I look at that street now, what could have influenced me? What was there? There's nothing there that would influence anybody now. Nothing at all. Not one brick. I mean, there's no sign of anything ever happening of any value or importance to anyone in the world.
It's a loss, because the kids come up and they don't have any idea. All they know is crack and shoot somebody, that kind of stuff. Basketball. Basketball is okay, but there's more to life than basketball. You know, everybody can't be six, seven feet tall and make a million dollars playing basketball.
So the kids come up, and their role models are so limited that they don't see any alternative to what's before them. And what's before them is almost totally negative, almost totally negative, in the black community. That's the pity. That's really the pity. And not enough is done to make the people aware of what could be, of what was and what could be.
One day things that happened here will be looked on with more interest than there is now. But the people who did it will be long gone. Some people made a great contribution, like Sam Browne. He is a good example for others to live by, to try to do something to pass on some knowledge to people who didn't come in contact with it. And that's about the best thing that we can do.”
The following video features Art Farmer's quintet performing Mox Nix.
The following video features Art Farmer's quintet performing Mox Nix.