By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 19, 2006
Out of the car and onto the sidewalk, I tracked the sound of jazz notes to the World Stage Performance Gallery, a storefront music joint on Degnan Boulevard in Los Angeles's Leimert Park neighborhood. There, a caramel-colored man sporting a brightly colored dashiki and an Afro was jamming hard on a piano, making wonderful work of "Bitches Brew" and other early Miles Davis tunes.
From there I floated into Zambezi Bazaar, an Afrocentric boutique a few doors away. A "Free Angela Davis" poster hung by the front door and shelves held a selection of vintage publications: a 1963 Time magazine with a cover photo of novelist James Baldwin; a copy of Ebony magazine featuring an article about a rising young Chicago organizer named Jesse Jackson; dog-eared copies of William Grier and Price Cobb's "Black Rage," Stokely Carmichael's "Black Power" and other tomes from an earlier era.
Just about then, the 1970s child inside me was set free. This happens regularly to visitors in Leimert (pronounced la-MERT) Park.
This residential neighborhood and the small village at the center of it sit in the midst of Los Angeles's sprawl, seven miles southwest of downtown. It's one of the country's last strongholds of old-style African American culture and activism, with the happening ethnic flavor of Washington's pre-1968 U Street corridor. A world away from glitzy Hollywood and Beverly Hills, Leimert Park has a following that is solidly loyal, and apparently growing. A village Kwanzaa festival in December drew throngs of celebrants into the streets. Lively bongo drum jam sessions held in Leimert Plaza Park every Sunday are a major scene. Every weekend, fans of jazz or blues pile into the World Stage and other neighborhood music venues.
"People realize that what we have here is a rare scene, a preservation of our culture," said Richard Harris, co-owner of Lucy Florence Coffeehouse. "And so they come from all over Southern California to be a part of it."
Against the tide of rap, bling and other edgy cultural trends, many of the two dozen or so clubs and eateries here offer entertainment and eats more popular in an earlier era. At Babe's & Ricky's Inn, a dark, smoky club and neighborhood hangout, the rum is cheap and the bands favor the raw B.B. King and John Lee Hooker brand of blues. At the Kitchen, a dining spot beloved by locals, there is no miso soup, designer pizza or other trendy California fare on the menu. Instead it features fried chicken, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, and other Southern mainstays.
Many of the Leimert Park regulars were activists in the '60s and '70s who declined to give up the good fight -- like John Caldwell, a criminal defense lawyer in his forties whom I encountered on a street corner. "Other African American neighborhoods across the country have surrendered to gentrification," he said. "Even Harlem is going yuppie. But the revolution is still going on here. Anybody who believes in it can join us."
Despite its compact size (a few square blocks bounded roughly by Crenshaw Boulevard, 43rd Street, Leimert Boulevard and Vernon Avenue), a visitor could easily spend a couple of days hanging out in Leimert Park. Some months ago, I devoted most of a weekend to browsing the boutiques, listening to live jazz and blues, dining and grooving to an open-air bongo drum and dance free-for-all.
This is Southern California without the tinsel. Designed in the 1920s by landscape architect Frederick Olmsted Jr. (whose father brought us Central Park) as a planned community, the neighborhood consists mostly of pastel-colored Spanish stucco bungalows. Leimert Plaza Park is a small triangular space where many locals while away their afternoons. Magnolias, palms, maples and pines line the streets.
But it's the intimate clubs and shops along Degnan Boulevard and 43rd Street, the village's main thoroughfares, that make this place worth the trip for urban explorers. Filmmaker and Leimert Park resident John Singleton, best known as the creator of "Boyz 'N the Hood," has called it "the black Greenwich Village."
Leimert Park was originally an all-white, middle-class neighborhood, but African Americans starting staking out a place in the 1940s, when Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles and other stars bought homes there. In the 1970s, in the wake of the Watts riots, African American entrepreneurs started opening independent arts shops on the main streets. In spite of a recent influx of whites, Hispanics and Asians, black merchants are working to maintain the neighborhood's Afrocentric focus.
"We're not clinging to the past. We prefer to think of it as keeping the light of hope burning," explained Mary Kimbrough, co-owner of Zambezi Bazaar. A stylish woman with the allure of black singer and film star Lena Horne, she's a fixture in this village. As we stood chatting on the sidewalk, a half-dozen locals shouted out greetings.
To be sure, many of the arts and political venues in the neighborhood work at blending contemporary voices and styles into their presentations. Gallery Plus on Degnan Boulevard offers pieces by aspiring young artists. Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a well-known L.A. radio commentator, hosts a regular Saturday morning round-table discussion on current social and political issues at Lucy Florence Coffeehouse on West 43rd Street. KAOS, a multimedia complex on Leimert Boulevard, stages a hip-hop open mike every Thursday night. And at the World Stage Performance Gallery, the nightly shows include a good share of young neo-soul artists. But there's also an air of nostagia about the place.
While exploring the neighborhood I felt an urge to take something back home. That's pretty easy to do. A shopper could easily overhaul a wardrobe or fill a gift list here. Ahneva Ahneva, whose namesake store is on Degnan Boulevard, custom-designs fashions -- anything from evening gowns to beachwear -- for men, women and children. For those who want to sew their own quilts or other garments, Africa by the Yard, down the block, is the place to go, with fabrics and fashions from Ghana, Sierra Leone and other African countries lining the shelves.
Sika Master Jeweler, a few doors away, features a dazzling array of rings, necklaces and other ornamentals, with the best pieces made of amber, shells and silver. Nearby, Zambezi Bazaar has a carefully chosen selection of black-themed greeting cards, dolls, candles, earrings and housewares.
Lucy Florence, the coffeehouse, is a multipurpose gathering spot with the feel of a salon. There's a gallery featuring the works of several young Los Angeles painters, a stage where plays and spoken-word presentations are produced, and a cafe selling java and homemade pies. Richard Harris, a co-owner with his twin brother, Ron, said, "We're trying to offer a venue for every aspect of the black experience, including spoken and visual arts. And we have created a space where everyone has a place."
Back on the street, night was settling in and the village was becoming a cacophony of music. The sonorous voice of Ann Mack, a local vocalist, wafted out onto the street from Augustine's, a fine-dining spot on Degnan Boulevard. A bongo drum player staged an impromptu gig in the park. A jazz trio played sets at Fifth Street Dick's, a popular cafe and music spot.
But a friend and I passed up these scenes for blues at Babe's & Ricky's Inn. Inside, neon signs blinked, a small crowd sipped Coronas at the bar and Cab Calloway tunes played on the jukebox. Laura Mae Gross, the eightysomething proprieter, gave us the short version of the place's history. It opened in 1964 on Central Avenue, then the center of L.A's jazz scene, and hosted many jazz and blues greats -- Count Basie, B.B. King, Duke Ellington. It moved to Leimert Park in '97.
The night's two acts, soloist Mickey Champion and Bill Clark and the Mighty Balls of Fire, easily met my high expectations. With its Delta blues tunes, the quartet took the whole place to a roadside blues joint somewhere deep in Mississippi. But the star of the night was Champion, a crooner in her seventies with a deep voice and the style of jazz giant Dinah Washington. As much entertainer as singer, she moved from booth to booth, serenading each table with chatter and song.
The next day, I returned to Leimert Park to attend a free open-air jazz concert organized by the World Stage in a parking lot. All afternoon, trios, quartets and larger bands filed one after the other onto a makeshift stage, blaring saxophones, keyboards, clarinets and vocals. As the afternoon wore on, the crowd swelled into the hundreds. Even as the concert wound down, most of the fans stayed on, calling for encores, clinging to the moment.
Gary Lee will be online to discuss this story Monday at 2 p.m. during the Travel section's regular weekly chat onhttp://www.washingtonpost.com.