It was just after 9 p.m. on Sept. 2 and Los Angeles’ Degnan Boulevard was a ghost town. The former home of the World Stage, drummer Billy Higgins and poet Kamauu Daouud’s original Leimert Park artistic assembly point, was in darkness along with nearly every other business on the street. From a gated fire exit a block away, light and sound blared equally.
The new home of the World Stage (wider, louder, roomier) has been in full swing lately. After 26 years at its original home, the World Stage made the move amid a tumultuous shift earlier this year: A new train station is being dug out of the neighborhood and a land-grab has made the once bustling South Los Angeles arts community tilt toward losing its identity.
As faceless collectives buy up many of the buildings of the Crenshaw District’s once artist-rich strip, the World Stage opted to leave the nest for a space that can hold twice as many people and twice as much sound along with the security of a reasonable rent.
During a Sept. 2 show, cornetist Bobby Bradford brought his Mo’tet to engage the crowd with some quick-witted performances. Tenor saxophonist Chuck Manning and trombonist Michael Vlatkovich rounded out the horns. Manning, an in-the-pocket Coltrane-esque blower, searched through Bradford’s harmonies for just the right level of honk while Vlatkovich summoned hums and whale calls over the thumping rhythm section of pianist Don Preston, bassist Henry Franklin and drummer Christopher Garcia.
Two Bradford originals served as a contrast in light and darkness for the ensemble. “A Little Pain” provided a nice bounce, while “She” was a dirge with ample room for Vlatkovich. Bradford, 82, is far removed from his early L.A. days with Ornette Coleman, but he remains a lighthearted frontman, chatting with the crowd and conducting his ensemble through his convoluted charts. In between, he blew meditative lines and knotted phrases for the modest crowd.
The following night was more crowded with a diverse collection of folks there to catch saxophonist Azar Lawrence. Along with pianist Theo Saunders, bassist Andrew Livingston and drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith, the quartet tore the roof of the room, adding an element of storefront church amid the folding chairs.
Lawrence performed almost an entire set of Coltrane originals starting with “India” on soprano saxophone. The 20-plus minute performance elicited hoots and hollers from the audience as Lawrence compressed his energy into a fiery squall.
“Lonnie’s Lament” saw Lawrence switch to tenor saxophone and ratchet the intensity even more. As Smith pounded away at his kit with a perpetual smile across his face, a man came running up to the opened fire door screaming, “Coltrane! Coltrane! Coltrane!,” relishing the tornado the four musicians were heaping on the receptive audience.
Saunders got a chance to shine with a lengthy intro to “Naima” as Smith displayed his brush chops, forceful and swinging. While Lawrence was in top form, cutting the room in half with his horn, Smith was the real revelation, digging in deep with a precise flick of the wrist.
“My vision when we moved to this new space—because we have more room now—I want us to be one of the major jazz rooms in Los Angeles,” said artistic director and vocalist Dwight Trible. “I know every musician at some point or another has been touched by the World Stage, so I don’t think it’s too much to ask everybody to do a gig once or twice a year.”
And in the next few months, Trible’s wish comes true. The forthcoming lineup features such masters as reedist Bennie Maupin, trombonist Phil Ranelin, percussionist Munyungo Jackson and Rolling Stones bassist Darryl Jones—all of whom are scheduled to appear at the venue before Halloween.
“This is something that is not owned by anybody,” Trible said in regard to the bare-bones organization. “This place is run on volunteer labor and that includes me. Everybody has talents in some way. You don’t have to be there every day or be there every month. Remember and understand that this place doesn’t exist by some rich person making sure that we stay in existence. It’s a contribution from everybody and we all have to remember that.”
Trible is optimistic about the future of the World Stage. The long-running all-ages, Thursday night jam session, currently hosted by local jazz DJ James Janisse, still fills the house.
In the late ’90s, the jam was a haven for upcoming L.A. students like Kamasi Washington, Terrace Martin and Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner. Higgins (1936–2001) served as mentor to them all and provided an invaluable space for so many musicians to pound out standards into the wee hours for an audience that was merciless in their opinions.
Now, as those musicians have become embraced in L.A. and around the world, they are continuing to engage with the World Stage. Martin, a tireless promoter of his hometown jazz scene, recently brought in keyboardist Robert Glasper to make some noise. That show attracted young, curious listeners who were familiar with the connections both artists have to the current state of black music. Fifteen years after Higgins’ passing, his legacy continues on, introducing a new generation to the ever-evolving state of jazz.
“We want the younger [artists], the upcoming giants,” Trible said. “I want to leave room for them as well. We want to make sure that when somebody comes from out of town, they [feel that they’ve] got to come to the World Stage.”
With a new sound system, larger capacity, sizable parking lot and a robust calendar, the World Stage seems more than ready for that next swinging phase.