[Per our previous post about the upcoming group photograph of L.A.'s jazz community in front of UCLA's Schoenberg Hall (the date has been changed to Sunday, Oct. 12 at 1:30pm), the following is an unpublished short piece I wrote a few years back about a group photograph of local L.A jazz and cultural luminaries from Leimert Park on Saturday, May 13, 2006. Once we track down the photo in question, we'll try to put it up. Enjoy!]
The fascinating headwear began to gather around noontime Saturday before the giant stone fountain in Leimert Park Village: tams, skull caps, straw fedoras, pork pies, Chinese coolies, top hats, fezzes. For passers-by curious enough to ask, the mélange was described as this: “Remember the ‘Great Day in Harlem’?” ?" The reactions were either that of recognition or feigned recognition. "Great Day in Harlem? What does that have to do with this?”
Jesse Sharps searches for The Oneness before the Leimert Village fountain
The reference was to Art Kane’s now-famous 1958 Esquire group photo that captured 58 jazz masters, from Lester Young and Thelonius Monk to Art Blakey and Mary Lou Williams, on a Harlem staircase and later became the subject of a book and a documentary film. What distinguished that image was that nobody—certainly not Kane or those who posed for it—really thought much of what it portended at the time; only later did filmmakers and writers seem to glean some sort of zeitgeist-defining moment.
Such group photos seem to have become cultural hallmarks in African-American life, particularly in the intersection of music and the visual arts. Thirty years after Kane's photo, Anthony Barboza’s photo of a 15-person collective helped to define the "New Black Aesthetic" in the 1980s, from George C. Wolfe and Russell Simmons to Spike Lee and Chris Rock, shot on a staircase at the Brooklyn headquarters of Lee’s 40 Acres and a Mule production company and currently the subject of the documentary Smart Black People. "I use the photo here...because, for me, it captures the spirit of the time like a charm," wrote critic Nelson George. "Barboza’s photo is the future of our collective past."
But in many ways, what happened at the village fountain was quite different from those decidedly Gotham-centric scene. The Leimert Park group photo, assembled by photographer and Malcolm X festival co-organizer Torre’ Brannon-Reese, was the latest addition to a project called “cultural renaissance classic photo series.” It will be unveiled in all its sepia glory on May 18 at the Lucy Florence Cultural Center, exactly ten years to the day of the first photo of 60 local jazz legends standing, sitting and kneeling before the World Stage performance gallery.
In other words, this wasn’t just a single moment captured for posterity but an ongoing documentation of the comings and goings of generations in a city that was never a single city but a crazy quiltwork of them, each with their separate rhythms and identities, split by traffic and hamstrung by time—in many ways, a rebuke to the very idea of artistic interaction, musical or otherwise.
So, for exactly two hours, at least 84 musicians, artists, writers, dancers and poets who defined the African-American arts in South (Central) L.A. for the past half-century converged from all over the area: artist John Outterbridge and poet Kamau Daáood, graduates of the area’s first cultural flowering following the 1965 riots; trumpeter Clora Bryant, the only female to play with Charlie Parker, and Aman Kufahamu, host of the influential KUSC radio show Greg's Refresher Course; Dale Davis, co-owner of the first African-American owned business in Leimert Park, and Bob Watt, assistant principal french horn for the L.A. Philharmonic and the symphony’s first African-American; David Ornette Cherry and Harold Land Jr., pianist sons of great Los Angeles horn masters. (Louis Gossett Jr. was a no-show as was Buddy Collette, Arthur Blythe, Dr. Art Davis, Sonship Theus and Gerald Wilson.)
As usual, it was musicians who dominated the scene. Jackie Kelso arrived looking regal in a gray suit and sea-blue blouse, holding his soprano sax like a proud brass totem. Roberto Miguel Miranda showed up with his bass and jammed with the drum circle whose pulse created the backbeat for the reminiscing and joking, the raucous laughter and salty cajoling of people who haven’t seen each other in years, days or weeks. “We're dealin’ with jazz people here,” chuckled Reese. “When I said ‘arrive at twelve noon,’ they hear ‘one o clock.’” As the entire mass of people assembled itself on the lip of the fountain, or knelt before it with their instruments, homeless men crept up to the edge of this warm chaos and stare in wonderment, too taken aback to approach anybody. On the other hand, a dark-suited political hopeful materialized out of nowhere to shake hands and purr a teletype shpiel about supporting music in the schools. He was not run out on a rail.
It was a fun crowd but a prickly and self-assured one as well: They had somewhere else to be. Clora Bryant, sporting a halo of purple, pink and blue carnations in her hair, marched up and announced: “I want somebody to take my picture now!" Young bassist Nick Rosen glanced around distractedly, “This is such a great scene, but I gotta go help my mom put her dog to sleep.” Folding chairs were brought over from the World Stage and placed on two large rugs that had been laid at the south end of the fountain. ("Are we gonna have to bring these chairs back?" someone called out.) Reese pointed to a gray-bearded man who wandered by, looking both dazed and keyed up by all the familiar faces and voices. "Hey, I want you in the front of the photo ‘cause you missed it ten years ago!" A long three branch kept dipping into the corner of the shot until someone broke it off. After the photo was taken, some ventured over to a jam session at the Farmer’s Market down the street. Most, however, dispersed and melted back into the city as quickly as they came.
Reese seemed to recognize both the fleeting quality of the moment as much as the ghost trails left by those who had passed on since the original photo. (The next one, whenever it will be taken, many here will be noticeably absent.) Before he centered his subjects in the camera lens, Reese stepped up and addressed them with the exhorting musicality of a Baptist preacher: "We are standing on sacred ground, where Horace Tapscott and Billy Higgins once walked, where Richard Fulton started 5th Street Dick's and the Davis Brothers started the Brockman Gallery. We thank the Divine Creator for our lives. We thank you for the struggles of our ancestors. We thank you for being able to stand with our art in this spiritual village. We pledge to you oh God we will do all we can to make this world a better place for our children than it was for us.” He asked the crowd to repeat after him: “We are Focued! Powerful! Gifted! Tolerant! In Love!" Cheers and fists went up in the sun.