On July 28–29, the Central Avenue Jazz Festival occupied a freshly paved strip of nearly forgotten jazz history south of downtown Los Angeles. Central Avenue was the epicenter of the L.A. jazz scene from the 1920s until the mid-’50s, rivaling New York’s 52nd Street in its heyday. These days nearly all of that history has been bulldozed except for the prestigious Dunbar Hotel, which once played host to touring musicians such as Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong. The free, 17th-annual festival was held in the shadow of the Dunbar, with a block-long tent offering shade to the 30,000 estimated attendees over the course of the weekend.
Saturday featured a headlining performance by the Gerald Wilson Orchestra. The ageless bandleader is a veteran of the original L.A. jazz scene and was an essential contributor to the great oral history Central Avenue Sounds, released in the late 1990s.
On Sunday, vocalist Ernie Andrews defied his 84 years, appearing downright giddy for much of his early set. His seven-piece band—which included trumpeter Bobby Rodriguez, saxophonist Richie Cole and trombonist George Bohannon—swung through a set of standards as the crowd dug into their picnics. Andrews was playful with the crowd, giving a spot-on impression of Jimmy Rushing, and he even got some of the ladies swooning when he dug into a low baritone voice. He closed his set with a gospel-infused version of James Taylor’s “Fire And Rain” that blended genres and cultures.
Later in the afternoon, trombonist Phil Ranelin offered up a deep, modally driven set that was unfortunately mired by a muddy sound mix. Nonetheless, multi-reedist Pablo Calogero provided fiery jaunts on both bass clarinet and flute while Ranelin offered his own brassy wail on tracks from his latest release, Perseverance.
Conguero Poncho Sanchez played the festival’s final set on Sunday night. His lively band, which included pianist Andy Langham and trombonist Francisco Torres, brought up the heat immediately to make up for an extended sound check that at times had the agitated crowd chanting, “Poncho! Poncho!” He opened with the Torres-penned “Promenade,” getting not only the audience on their feet but driving councilwoman Jan Perry and emceess James Janisse and Jose Rizo into their own little boogaloo behind the grooving band. The eight-piece band—always a reliable show closer—didn’t disappoint.
Central Avenue @ DownBeat