Los Angeles has nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to producing Black music makers. Some of the most creative, influential and popular music makers were either born or raised in the City of Angels. There is no way I can cover them all in such a short article, but here are some of my favorites to acknowledge on Black Music Appreciation Month:
Perhaps the most unsung of all Los Angeles music makers is Alma Julia Hightower, a vocalist, musician and music teacher. She was born on Nov. 27, 1888, in Baton Rouge, La., and died Aug. 1, 1970, in Los Angeles at the age of 82. She moved to Los Angeles in the 1920s and taught many Angelenos who then went on to gain national and international recognition. On Nov. 30, 2007, Hightower was one of 32 entertainers honored at the Community Build Park in Los Angeles.
After living in Los Angeles for a number of years, she began her illustrious career. Most of her work was done at her Hightower Music Studio and Conservatory on Vernon Avenue between Mettler Street and Towne Avenue. Hightower students are a Who’s Who in African American music–Charles Mingus bassist, composer and bandleader; Dexter Gordon, tenor saxophonist and actor; Roy Ayers, xylophonist; Chico Hamilton, percussionist; Buddy Collette, woodwind player; Illinois Jacquet, woodwind player; Sonny Criss, tenor saxophonist; Big Jay McNeely, tenor saxophonist; Clora Byrant, trumpeter; Vi Redd, alto saxophonist; and Melba Liston, trombonist, composer and arranger.
Liston was born in Kansas City, Mo., on Jan. 13, 1926, and passed on April 23, 1999, in New York City. After playing in youth bands and studying with Hightower and others, she joined the big band led by Gerald Wilson in 1943. (Wilson is 95 years of age and is still living in the City of Angels.) She was part of the 1940s bebop movement; she recorded with Dexter Gordon in 1947 and joined Dizzy Gillespie’s big band (which included saxophonists John Coltrane, and Paul Gonsalves, as well as pianist John Lewis) in New York for a time, when Wilson disbanded his orchestra in 1948. She toured with Count Basie for a time, and then with Billie Holiday (1949).
Liston’s collaborations with pianist/composer Randy Weston, beginning in the early 1960s, are widely acknowledged as jazz classics. Liston’s musical relationship with Weston began in 1960 when she arranged his groundbreaking album “Uhuru Afrika.”
“After we did ‘Uhuru Afrika,’ which at that time was controversial, it became difficult for her to get work,” Weston later pointed out.
In 1964, the South African government banned “Uhuru Afrika,” but Jamaica and other Caribbean nations came calling and Liston had a profound impact on Black music in that area of the world. “Melba and I went to the then-Minister of Tourism P.J. Patterson (who later became prime minister) and Rex Nettleford (the Caribbean scholar and social critic) and that was it,” said Weston. “Melba liked it so much we got her attached to the University of the West Indies at Mona (Jamaica), and she stayed there five years.”
“She wrote for Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Quincy Jones, Gloria Lynne, the Supremes and reggae legend Bob Marley. The Marley connection was probably quite surprising to most people.”
While Hightower remained in Los Angeles, Liston and other musicians moved often, many working and living overseas.
Eric Dolphy, who attended Dorsey High School, passed on June 28, 1964, in Berlin, Germany. Another Angeleno, Johnny “Guitar” Watson died in Yokohama, Japan, on May 17, 1996, while performing.
Watson was one of many musicians who attended Jefferson High School. Some people maintain that Jefferson High has produced more prominent Jazz musicians/composers than any public or private high school in California. Those musicians include the above named Gordon, Liston and Criss, plus saxophonist Frank Morgan, trumpeters Don Cherry and Art Farmer and pianist Horace Tapscott, creator of the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra (P.A.P.A.). These are only a sample of the talent that emerged from “Jeff,” as the school is often called.
R&B artists who went to Jefferson are legendary. The “Love Man” Barry White; Richard Berry, who composed “Louie Louie;” and Merry Clayton, singer and actress who did duets with Mick Jagger and Bobby Darin, are only three. But rock and roll hall of famer Etta James was probably among Jeff’s best know alumni. She spoke highly of her vocal mentor Johnny “Guitar” Watson and her idol, crooner Jesse Belvin, who died in a tragic highway accident at 27. She had this to say about Belvin and Watson in her book, “Rage to Survive,” which she co-wrote with David Ritz:
“Part of me is thrilled to be recognized, but another part resents the lily-white institution that sends down its proclamations from on high. They decide who is rock and roll and who isn’t; they decide who was important and who wasn’t. Man, I grew up with some cats who should have been inducted years ago–Jesse Belvin and Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson to name two.”
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one of the pioneers of Los Angeles Black music Johnny Otis, born Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes on Dec. 28, 1921, in Vallejo, Calif., of Greek heritage. He died Jan. 17, 2012, in Los Angeles. Otis sang, played many instruments, composed, arranged, led a band, scouted talent, was a disc jockey, record producer, television show host, artist, author, journalist, minister, and impresario. Wiki calls him, “A seminal influence on American R&B and rock and roll, Otis discovered artists such as Little Esther, Big Mama Thornton, Jackie Wilson, Little Willie John and Hank Ballard. Known as the original “King of Rock & Roll”, he is commonly referred to as the “Godfather of Rhythm and Blues.”
Otis discovered Etta James and the great James Brown.
Brown, who died three days after Otis, had this to say about him: “I dug how Johnny Otis reinvented himself as a Black man. People took his Greek shading as Creole, but Johnny took it even further; he viewed the world–and especially the musical world–through black eyes. His soul was blacker than the blackest black from Compton.”
Richmond, who calls himself a “bluesologist,” was among three draft resisters featured in last week’s cover story.