ANGEL CITY JAZZ FESTIVAL 2009: On Sunday Afternoons in 1973
It was like nothing else in my life up to now.
Raymond Carver, “Cathedral”
Pilgrimage Play Theatre, original facade
Nestled in a chaparral-adorned nook in the Cahuenga Pass, the Ford Amphitheatre has had a quintessentially L.A. genesis and lifetime. Originally known as the Pilgrimage Play Theatre, it was built in 1920 by a Philly arts patron specifically for performances of her self-penned religious drama and was used as a site for religious performances for the next 44 years, a run interrupted only by (what else?) a fire and World War II.
Anson Amphitheatre, present day
In the 1960s and 70s, as the property deteriorated and attendance dwindled, L.A. County put on intermittent Shakespeare plays, dance recitals and musical performances. Among them was “Jazz at the Pilgrimage,” a series of free Sunday concerts presented via the Local 47 musician's trust fund. JATP became a destination for a murderers' row of Left Coast jazz artists, including Art Pepper, Mundell Lowe, Frank Rosolino (with Frank Severino on drums), Chico Hamilton, Henry Franklin’s band with Oscar Brashear, Charles Owens, Kemang Sunduza/Bill Henderson and Sonship Theus (plus a rotating spate of guests like Al Hall Jr., Kirk Lightsey, Dwight Dickerson and Kenny Climax), Harold Land (with his son Harold Jr.), Buddy Collette, Carl Burnett, Barney Kessel, Shelly Manne, Don Ellis and George Bohannon.
Many -- if not all -- of these concerts were attended by young musicians who would make up the next generation of LA's creative jazz scene, including two blonde twin teens named Alex and Nels Cline and their high school friends Lee Kaplan (who would later curate the series of memorable concerts at the Century City Playhouse in the late 70s and early 80s) and Michael Preussner (later the drummer for the Nels Cline Trio). “We often bought very powerful Ya-Sin Bazaar incense outside the theater after the concerts from two lovely local young African-American gentlemen who also turned out to be jazz musicians -- excellent ones at that -- Shams U-Din (Ray Straughter) and his brother Hamid (Ernest Straughter)! " recalls Alex Cline today. "We actually at one point wound up visiting the little back house/shed behind their parents' home in Watts where they made the incense themselves.”
Alex Cline [photo courtesy of Peak]
In many ways, when Alex Cline returns with his Band of the Moment to the Theatre Formerly Known as the Pilgrimage next week for the Angel City Jazz Festival, it will be a spiritual homecoming of sorts. Thirty-five years later, many of the same musicians who made their own pilgrimages to the jazz concerts as young teens now return to a revivified, rustic oasis to pay tribute to those summer days as well as the music they discovered during this particular time in their lives, to practice the fruits of a religious experience that had nothing to do with religion but with that first rush of musical transcendence that can galvanize the awkwardness and manic displaced energy of a difficult adolescence.