A Proposal for a Dramatic Documentary
Written by Pamela Douglas
Producer: St.Clair Bourne / CHAMBA MEDIAWORKS, INC.

From the 1920s to the early 50s, jazz and its lifestyle flourished in a 20-block area around Central Avenue in Los Angeles. While Hollywood movies were growing from silent films to talkies, from social-conscious Depression-era films to fantastic musical extravaganzas, a parallel world was growing south of the fledgling studios with speakeasies, live revues and theatres, after-hours jams and music clubs, and elegant hotels. Bette Davis, William Randolph Hearst, Marion Davies, Mae West, and a long list of others drove up in Rolls Royces and Pierce Arrows, climbed the stairs to the after-hours jam above the Club Alabam and stayed all night. Through the 30s and 40s, "slumming" on Central Avenue was Hollywood's guilty secret.

Inspired by the style of Frederico Fellini’s classic “AMARCORD”, CENTRAL AVENUE evokes a unique place through someone who came of age at a time of historical change. In our film, the point of view belongs to a woman – Florence “Tiny” Cadrez Brantley, a musician born in 1910 – who remembers the story from the beginning of the “West Coast Harlem Renaissance” in 1920 to the end of the era in the 1950s. As in “AMARCORD,” where the rise of Mussolini casts a lengthening shadow over Fellini’s town, CENTRAL AVENUE, racial realities increasingly shape the jazz lifestyle as the epoch emerges, flourishes and finally is destroyed.

The lure of Central Avenue was its vibrancy. The scene bred well-known musicians including Buddy Collette, Benny Carter, Red Callender, Lionel Hampton, Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Dexter Gordon, Ivie Anderson, Dorothy Dandridge, Lester Young, William Grant Still, Melba Liston, Roy Ayres, O.C. Smith, Chico Hamilton, Ernie Andrews, Horace Tapscott, and a long list of others who spent most of their work-lives here such as Art Tatum, Nat King Cole, Billy Eckstein, and a continuing influx from New York, many of whom came to work on Hollywood films, then hung out on Central Avenue.

But we’re telling this story from the inside. Our consultant, Bette Cox, author of Central Avenue – Its Rise and Fall, has primary sources not available elsewhere, including 25 years of video and audio interviews with Central Avenue personalities, photos from the 1930s and 40s, and contacts with people still living who are articulate about the experience. Her video and audio tapes of Tiny Brantley supply the personal focus to bring this experience alive.

In a community rich with talent and characters, including many who are more famous, why choose Tiny as our guide? Because she lived right there through the entire period, and she was directly involved with every significant event, especially the formation, the glory, and the end of the black musicians union, at a time when Los Angeles had two separate powerful unions, one black, one white . Tiny was there when the wave of musicians from New Orleans reached Los Angeles and began a new era of jazz, was there when Hollywood used black artists to create music for the movies, was there at the birth of R&B recording, was there at the union house the day Nat Cole’s trio was formed, was there when the police raided the clubs in an effort to destroy them, and she was immersed in the struggle when the black union ended through amalgamation with the white musicians union. In style, this film uses a dramatized through-line (scripted and acted) punctuated by documentary elements including archival interviews, current interviews, news footage, photos, and clips from movies. And it’s infused with the music of the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s, from both records and movies. Like “AMARCORD”, CENTRAL AVENUE has both drama and reality.

We’d open smack at the birth of the Central Avenue experience in 1920 through the eyes of ten year old Tiny. On a street of wood-frame houses with tidy lawns just off Central, music pours from every house. We’ll re-visit this street as times change – in the 1930s when the Amos N Andy radio show blasts from everyone’s open windows as Tiny walks the block, later when Hollywood celebrities spill out of limousines, when the record wagon rolls down the block selling R&B songs in the early 40s, when taxis deliver black soldiers returning from World War II, and near the end when the street fills with police raiding the clubs, shutting Central Avenue down.

But at the beginning, the French patois of arrivals from New Orleans collides with children hurrying to the Wilkins Piano Academy. From the earliest time, they compete in terms of music, all the roots intertwining as New Orleans ragtime meets local families schooled in opera, and mixes again with migrants from the gospel-tinged South. In this atmosphere, we meet Tiny defining her place and determined to succeed.She says on a tape, “Everybody was poor – we just didn’t know it. And I wanted to make money to pay for my own lessons. I’d teach the neighborhood kids and then we’d all get together and form choruses. We all wanted to be musicians.”

As an example of mixing documentary with dramatized elements, archival footage of Buddy Collette, or Eubie Blake at 94, or another from the video collection describing his early days would fit seamlessly into the narrative flow here. As Tiny’s story develops, other characters and their vignettes appear. In the later 20s when Tiny was a teenager, the neighborhood flocked to the Lincoln Theatre, known as the “West Coast Apollo” to see Bojangles, Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, Duke Ellington. We’ll see one of those evenings, nearby at the Apex Club when Ellington discovered Ivie Anderson who was a chorus girl. Ellington, who’d come out to do “Check and Doublecheck,” his first picture in Hollywood, made Ivie the singer in his band, unaware she was still in high school by day. Tiny and all the kids at Jefferson High knew Ivie had hit the break they wanted.

We’ll follow Ivie up through the next decade when she opens Ivie’s Chicken Shack, which turns into a hot spot for musicians coming from their gigs. In fact, those after-hours sessions bred early R&B which arose here in the 1930s, a decade before moving into the mainstream industry, and we’ll witness all that.

Meanwhile, Central Avenue life was inseparable from Hollywood. While movies grew from silent films to talkies, from social-conscious Depression-era films to fantastic musical extravaganzas, this parallel world was blossoming. The same neighborhood kids who formed their own chorus now sang in movies including “The Great Gatsby,” “Showboat,” “Fugitive from a Chain Gang,” movies by the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy, and countless others. Mostly, they remained behind the scenes. But if they appeared they had to fit a demeaning stereotype. Tiny, who was light-skinned with straight hair, was ordered to apply black-face make-up, pull back her hair and put a bone through it in order to keep her job in a chorus. Jester Hairston, acclaimed director of choirs in “Carmen Jones” and virtually all Dimitri Tiomkin’s pictures was nevertheless told to wear a leopard skin loincloth if he was to appear on screen. In the video archives, Hairston looks back on his international career with the clarity of a proud man who knew precisely what bargain he’d have to strike in order to work.

To the outside world, the contributions from Central Avenue were a secret, but everyone in this community knew. We’ll see a vignette of Tiny watching Kitty Bilbrew White, the mother of one of her friends, playing music for Tiomkin, who wrote it down. He paid her $35 for each score with an understanding she would not receive any screen credit.

Still, the heady life of the Avenue flourished. The Dunbar Hotel opened so traveling black performers who were denied rooms downtown could live elegantly in Los Angeles. The area around it filled with clubs owned by African Americans, sometimes three to a block. As a sense of accomplishment grew, so did the determination to empower this community, even as Los Angeles became increasingly segregated. When Tiny was a child, Central Avenue welcomed people of all backgrounds, and no one locked their doors. By 1940, the whites had moved away and the boundaries hardened, so newly successful blacks wanting to buy homes outside the area were prevented by covenants. Even Benny Carter, whose band was widely credited for creating the basis for swing music, had to battle to buy a home. Times were changing.

Woven through the entire film, the story of Local 767, the black musicians union, reveals how racial politics shaped the destiny of Central Avenue. Formed in 1920, musicians would gather on the wide porch of the beautiful old mansion at 1710 Central, where orange trees dotted the gracious property. For thirty years the building was used as a rehearsal hall and a clubhouse as much as a union. It was here in the rehearsal hall that the famous Nat King Cole trio was formed when a group of musicians happened by while Cole was playing the piano. It was here that musicians jammed and a new music emerged from jazz that became Rhythm & Blues. And certain influential record executives hung out here too, yielding more vignettes.

As Secretary of the union, Tiny was always in the mix. In fact, she tells of phone calls from bands needing a new song, and how she’d make up lyrics on the spot, only to be delighted when she’d hear her song blasting down Central Avenue. All the creative ingredients existed in the neighborhood from lyricist/composers like Tiny to the businessmen who made the records, to the entrepreneurs who distributed them, to the clubs where they’d be performed, and the enthusiastic buyers – a complete music industry whose core was at 1710 Central.
All the news would pass through Tiny’s office at the union. But in the same scene when she learns Marl Young became musical director of the “Lucy” show, she could see outside profiteers in the community. And that was followed by drugs, police raids, crackdowns, and clubs forced out of business.

In this midst, following World War II, came national pressure to amalgamate the two musicians unions - Local 767 with Local 47, the white union. 47 was willing; but the members of 767 had to vote whether to join. Though the terms of the amalgamation included selling the union house, the debate didn't center on nostalgia for the building. The issue was whether African-American artists would benefit more from continuing their autonomy or by integrating fully into Hollywood. Those in favor said the black union had no future. After all, by the 1950s many of tCentral Avenue musicians were working with Hollywood all the time. Collette had been hired at NBC, Young was head of music for the Lucy show, and black musicians worked in major bands in Los Angeles. Collette, Carter and others argued that whatever they might lose temporarily was an investment in opportunities for the next generation who would not be subject to the kind of segregation which had originally created the union.
Those opposed to the merger – including Tiny - said their union was their strength. It had grown from 8 members in 1920 to 800 by 1950. Many of their musicians were first-calls by bookers, well-known and financially stable, and not in need of the other union's help. If they merged, they would not only lose their house but also their seniority, and, to some, their identity.

The debate of 1953 involved issues that are still provocative today – black empowerment versus integration, the independence of African-American culture versus profits to be made in the larger consumer industry, the artist's need for creative autonomy versus the artist as a craftsman for hire. This debate, captured on tape and in documents, will be played out to dramatize the passion of this moment in history.

In the end, Local 767 did vote to amalgamate, and both sides were right: In time, African-American musicians living in Los Angeles, like Quincy Jones a decade later, benefited from the resources and connections of Local 47. But those opposed to the merger were also right: They lost their property which had been their creative home, they lost work as they relinquished their seniority; and Central Avenue died.

Today, Central Avenue’s renaissance is remembered in an annual festival. The Dunbar stands as a museum, but the clubs are long gone. Still, the impact of the film is encouraging. Tiny and the other subjects glow with their memories. And the great music and indomitable characters continue to resonate.