Jefferson High, Muse/ique spotlight L.A.’s Black jazz historical past

For a few hours Friday afternoon, the clocks at Jefferson High Faculty swept backward to an period of old-school glamour, when the twentieth century was in its high-spirited adolescence, and Black people from the Deep South had been fleeing Jim Crow by the tens of 1000’s for the California Promised Land.

These arrivals helped convert a multiblock stretch of South L.A.’s Central Avenue right into a neighborhood the place jazz giants like Dexter and Duke and Etta and Ella strolled the streets not merely as idols however as pals and regulars. Their music was celebrated and debated nightly within the Dunbar Resort lounge and enacted as a holy ceremony within the Alabam Membership, the Chook within the Basket and that secular temple the Lincoln Theater.

So it was, on Friday afternoon, that the singer and actor Sy Smith, shimmering in a floor-length gold-and-silver robe, knowledgeable an auditorium of curious, barely awestruck youngsters that that they had entered a consecrated area. She had come as a part of a collaboration between Jefferson — which boasts maybe extra well-known Black alums than any college west of the Mississippi — and Muse/ique, the Pasadena nonprofit devoted to creating “radically engaging live music experiences accessible for all.” The intent was to highlight the connections between Central Avenue’s starry previous and Jefferson’s illustrious heritage.

Sy Smith sings throughout a present known as “The Songs and Stories of Central Avenue.”

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Occasions)

“As I stand here and perform for you, I feel like I’m performing on sacred ground,” Smith informed her viewers, which included Jefferson’s history-making Black principal, previous and current L.A. Unified Faculty District superintendents and fellow musicians who’ve labored with the likes of Whitney Houston, Stevie Marvel, Sheila E., Tupac Shakur, the Jacksons and Earth, Wind & Fireplace.

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

It was a easy segue into her subsequent quantity, “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” the Gershwins’ 1937 commonplace immortalized by … properly, everybody, together with a number of artists who opened and closed reveals on Central Avenue in its heyday from the Twenties to the Fifties. Smith was a part of a musical ensemble that included Earth, Wind & Fireplace music director and pianist Myron McKinley and his quartet and vocalists LaVance Colley and the DC6 Singers collective. They had been joined by members of the Lula Washington Dance Theatre.

Hosted by Rachael Worby, Muse/ique’s inventive director, conductor and founder, the musicians ripped via an hour-plus program of Fat Waller, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Hoagy Carmichael classics that served each as a live-action encyclopedia entry on Central Avenue’s efflorescence and a tribute to Jefferson’s exceptional alumnae: 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, only for starters.

The music jumped and juked, soared and ally-oop’d via the auditorium, named for Samuel Rodney Browne, who smashed a secondary-school coloration barrier when he grew to become Jefferson’s music instructor in 1936.

The DC 6 Singers Collective sing during a performance with the Pasadena nonprofit MUSE/IQUE

The DC6 Singers.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Occasions)

“This is the Hogwarts of music,” McKinley informed the scholars through the lead-in to “Sweet Georgia Brown.” “So get your wand and start doing all that stuff, because the people that came out of here changed the music industry.”

Amongst these nodding alongside was Dr. Tamai Johnson, the primary Black feminine principal within the historical past of the college, based in 1916. Rising up in close by Lynwood, Johnson knew virtually nothing concerning the bygone Central Avenue scene. However she was studying rather a lot.

“Almost a full semester of history in one concert, right?” she mentioned. “I think I have an obligation to really just expose the students to partnerships like this that will spark an interest in the arts and in learning outside of the classroom.”

Two dancers onstage

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

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Occasions)

Though the members of the category of 2023 could also be as more likely to hail from Zacatecas, San Salvador, Tegucigalpa or Guatemala Metropolis as from Louisiana or Texarkana, Johnson predicted that Friday’s program would translate simply, as a result of “culture is more than just race.”

McKinley, the music director and pianist, who was raised at sixty fourth Avenue and Cimarron, mentioned he too knew “very little” about Central Avenue’s glittering historical past and its alliance with Jefferson High. Then, three months in the past, he related with Worby of Muse/ique, who started filling him in.

“I couldn’t believe that that was such an influential place that we never knew about in our generation,” McKinley mentioned. “And for us to not know that and not celebrate it and have it continue, it really hurt my heart. So I was really invested to be a part of this.”

Worby, a Leonard Bernstein protegee, conceived and curated the live performance as a part of “A Season of Streets,” Muse/ique’s on-site efficiency collection impressed by L.A. landmarks akin to Sundown Boulevard, Laurel Canyon, Whittier Boulevard and Hollywood and Vine, utilizing music to knit collectively a fragmented metropolis.

She approached her pal Austin Beutner, the well-connected former funding banker, deputy mayor, Los Angeles Occasions writer and LAUSD superintendent, who put her in contact with Johnson. Beutner spoke briefly earlier than Friday’s efficiency and put in a plug for Proposition 28, on the poll this fall, which would supply new funding for Ok-12 public college arts and music training.

Sy Smith, left, and Lavance Colley, right, sing during a performance with the Pasadena nonprofit MUSE/IQUE

Sy Smith and Lavance Colley carry out.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Occasions)

So did present Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho, who’d spent the week grappling with a crippling systemwide hacking incident and new take a look at scores displaying that 72% of LAUSD math college students and 58% of English college students don’t meet state requirements.

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

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

“I was a knucklehead. I was like, ‘Why is he always telling me about Central Avenue?’ It wasn’t until I got older that I realized how much heritage there was,” mentioned Story, who described Muse/ique’s live performance collection as a type of cell “social justice.”

After the live performance, college students traded impressions.

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

“This educated me so much,” Daniela Medina mentioned. “I had no idea that this many people went to this school and graduated and had these amazing careers.”

The scholars puzzled if such occasions may occur extra usually. Additionally they hoped that extra children would be a part of the college band, or coloration guard. That can be difficult: Hector Artero, who performs within the group, mentioned he had the college’s solely working alto saxophone.

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

With so many issues besetting LAUSD college students — poverty, declining take a look at scores, COVID aftershocks, beleaguered dad and mom — music and artwork can seem to be luxuries. The glory that was Central Avenue can seem to be a dream.

It makes Worby wish to weep with frustration and fury that a lot of L.A.’s cultural legacy has been bulldozed and buried, a symptom of what she sees as a society recklessly trashing its most sacrosanct belongings. However she vows to return to Jefferson quickly.

“I don’t believe in drive-by education, and so we’ll be back next year and the year after that. We’re not going to make going to Jefferson some great cri de coeur that doesn’t resonate into the future. That just doesn’t work.”

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

Because the final notes of “When the Saints Go Marching In” dissolved, the monstrous warmth wave that had clutched town for days started to crack. Scattered raindrops fell on the scholars as they emptied out of their fame-haunted college.