How “La La Land” is saving jazz in Los Angeles
In a recent interview, Damien Chazelle (Director of “La La Land”), said that his initial impression of Los Angeles being a cultural vacuum changed after he moved here from the East Coast. He found that LA is a fascinating city, rich in history and beautiful. Thanks to the methodically creative compositions of Justin Hurwitz, the original soundtrack of “La La Land” is a splendid mix of memorable award-winning music. The film “La La Land” is a musical love letter to Los Angeles and is shining a beacon on jazz music.
In “La La Land,” the character Keith (John Legend) critically lectures Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) in a scene at a recording studio; “How are you gonna save jazz if no one is listening? … You’re playing to 90-year-olds at The Lighthouse. Where are the kids… the young people? … You’re holding onto the past, but jazz is about the future.” Jazz is a true American art form that began in New Orleans during the 1800’s and is an evolutionary music genre, from which many of the popular genres we listen to today have developed. Even in “La La Land” John Legend’s character Keith combines jazz with modern electronic pop music to appeal to a younger and bigger music buying audience.
Once upon a time, Los Angeles was all about West Coast jazz and there were many clubs all over the city and adjacent neighborhoods. The Sunset Strip had so many jazz clubs back in the early 1950’s that you could park your car in one spot and walk to a choice of several clubs to hear live jazz within a four block radius. Hermosa Beach (20 miles southwest of Downtown LA) has been home to The Lighthouse Café jazz club since 1949 and was featured in “La La Land” as a location and important character of its own as part of the story. The ninety-year-old that Keith refers to in the scene I noted is Gloria Cadena (91) who is the jazz booker for The Lighthouse Café. In the past, jazz was played there seven nights a week, but in recent years Gloria books jazz bands only on Wednesday nights and Saturday and Sunday afternoons. To attract more customers to the club on the other nights, local bands and artists that play music from rock to reggae are booked through another manager at The Lighthouse Café. Gloria’s late husband, Ozzie Cadena, was a jazz record producer and promoter in Los Angeles. He promoted The Lighthouse and is credited with helping to popularize jazz in Los Angeles.
Since “La La Land” was released in early December 2016, The Lighthouse Café has become a popular destination for tourists, fans and locals alike. Just about a month before this phenomenon occurred, Mark Sonners opened his art gallery, Gallery Exposure, in the front portion of his fine art printing company, Print and Show. His gallery and shop are located in the quaint Old Town Village in Torrance, California about four miles southeast of Hermosa Beach where The Lighthouse Cafe sits. Mark Sonners has been very successful in the commercial printing business for many years, but after the Northridge earthquake destroyed his shop and the rise of digital image formats and decline in the traditional printing, he moved from the San Fernando Valley to the South Bay region of LA and settled in Hermosa Beach, just a few blocks from The Lighthouse Café and was delighted to have a club where he could enjoy live jazz. When he lived in the SFV, he used to be a regular at jazz clubs like Charlie O’s, Dante’s (both closed) and occasionally The Baked Potato which is still there.
Being an ardent jazz fan and photographer, Mark began taking pictures of the brilliant jazz players who perform at The Lighthouse and got to know Gloria Cadena and saw the legendary Howard Rumsey (bassist) who started playing jazz with his band at The Lighthouse in 1949. Mark’s knowledge of jazz from its roots through its evolution into many new music styles is only exceeded by his passion for jazz music itself. His photography exhibit reflects his love for jazz played at The Lighthouse Café.
The Lighthouse – café was added to the name of the club many years later – was a very important establishment in West Coast jazz with famous players like Miles Davis, Ramsey Lewis, Art Pepper, Shorty Rogers, Mose Allison, Stan Getz, The Jazz Crusaders, Cal Tjder, and more. These artists I listed all recorded live albums there. Mark Sonners has been snapping the current players at The Lighthouse and his show is a reflection of the club today. Also showing at Gallery Exposure are some select prints from photographer Chuck Koton who has dedicated the last fifteen years to documenting jazz musicians with his photography.
Mark Sonners, jazz musicians, fans and I would love to see a resurgence of the popularity of jazz, particularly West Coast jazz. When Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) declared to Mia (Emma Stone) that jazz was dying he wasn’t kidding. In America, the land of its birth, jazz clubs are
closing and becoming other types of venues; jazz radio stations are switching their format to other genres, and even at the Grammys, the jazz categories of awards are not televised. Gregory Porter won his second Grammy Award for Jazz Vocal Album of the Year in 2017 for “Take Me To The Alley” and he happens to be a Californian. His first Grammy Award was in 2014 for “Liquid Spirit.” Yet Gregory Porter was not part of the live performances during the televised Grammy Awards. None of the jazz nominees performed for the “main” show. Al Jarreau passed away on the day of the Grammy Awards and he was barely mentioned during the live show. Music fans in other countries like Japan, Italy, Germany and The Netherlands seem to revere jazz more than we do and they keep it alive. Young jazz musicians from those countries make their way to the USA thinking that jazz still thrives here, but find themselves among a minority of young people who appreciate and know the rich history of jazz in America.
If “La La Land” has sparked a renewed interest in jazz and a curiosity among Millennials to listen and learn about it then let the spark burst into a flame that will help save jazz in the USA. So far, the multi-award winning film has shined a beacon on The Lighthouse Café and people are following the beam of light to the club to hear jazz in numbers they haven’t seen there in years. If the crowds continue Gloria might be able to book jazz artists there more than three days a week and attract the big names in jazz to play there again. The Lighthouse can also help guide music fans from all over America to have an interest in West Coast jazz and recognize it for the revolutionary and evolutionary cultural art form that it is. That is the La La Land dream for this LA native and many other dedicated jazz lovers.
This story was also published on The Good Men Project.
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