Jazz and hip-hop seek compromise in Leimert Park

The Regency West Supper Club is a mainstay in old Leimert Park. Its shimmering gold napkins, thick scarlet carpet and flickering tea candles illuminate decades of famous visitors, which earned the neighborhood national renown in the 1960s and 70s for its jazz, blues and African art traditions.

These customs still thrive in iconic institutions like blues bar Maverick’s Flat and arts consortium The World Stage. And the Supper Club still hosts the Living Legends Jazz Series, which brings jazz’s elders back to Leimert Park every summer. The next show will take place Aug. 30. image

But the venue on 43rd Street only tells half the neighborhood’s story. Leimert Park’s new generation, now in its early 20s, includes rappers and Twitter accounts. Storeowners say teenagers and 20-somethings are absent from Dengan Boulevard on weekday afternoons, but they flood the town center on Thursday nights for hip-hop open mic Project Blowed and on Sunday mornings for the community’s monthly Art Walk.

If the jazz generation will let them, then these young musicians are ready to make Leimert Park their own.

“I’m one of those people that actually want to see Leimert Park… get renovated, if you will,” said Jamaal Wilson, a Leimert Park native who released his first rap album, The Cool Table, in March. Wilson is a 21-year-old junior studying psychology at the University of California at Merced. “I want to see it come up with the times and kind of embrace the hip-hop community a little bit more and just get a bit more new and current.”

Changes in Communication

Community Build tried to implement one of those changes in January. Its weekly community meetings considered a proposition for public Wi-Fi access in Leimert Park Village, where historic shops line Dengan Boulevard and a small fountain gurgles in the center of the park.

Community Build reviewed the suggestion for a few weeks, but has tabled it indefinitely.

“If Wi-Fi is something they want, it’s easy for them to get,” said Eddie North-Hager, who founded the neighborhood’s online forum, Leimert Park Beat. “If businesses think it’s worth the money, I bet they’d do it. But if you’re shopping for clothes or a hat or gifts at Zambezi [Bazaar], who’s going to need Wi-Fi?”

North-Hager estimates that 75 to 85 percent of Leimert Park residents at least have an email address. And Leimert Park Beat has 1,475 registered users – more than 10 percent of the neighborhood’s population, according to the L.A. Times’ Data Desk.

But most of Dengan’s famous shops haven’t entered online conversation. Zambezi Bazaar, for example, doesn’t have a website – just a Facebook page it updates about once a month. Eso Won Books, which does have a website, started posting on its Twitter account regularly at the end of February.

imageDrummer Al Williams, one of the Living Legends Linda Morgan (second from right) celebrated in April

The jazz community is also largely offline. When Linda Morgan, 50, assembled the first Living Legends Jazz Series in 2010, she featured 11 artists at four concerts. Three of them showed up in Google searches that summer.

“If you’re not using technology, it’s really hard to describe,” said Ben Caldwell, who toes the line of Leimert Park’s generational divide. The 66-year-old founded KAOS Network in 1984 to teach film and music production. Since then, he has been leading teleconferences, burning CDs and spreading videos online before any of those practices were commonplace. But most of his peers are unenthusiastic about technical innovation.

“It can be tough for me, and I like computers,” Caldwell admitted. “But unless you were raised in that [technological] world, you probably won’t use it. And then, the old world dies around you while the new world takes over.”

But Morgan said some of her series’ performers, who she fondly calls “my legends,” reject the changes Caldwell described altogether.

“One of my legends was so outdone with all the photography at a show that she was like, ‘I don’t want to take another picture in my life.’ I can’t allow that to happen,” Morgan said. “This year I have legends like Gerald Wilson, who’s 92. I don’t want them overwhelmed.”

Out of respect for the performers, Morgan tailors her monthly Supper Club shows to their wishes. But to reach young audiences, Morgan also makes all her legends Facebook fan pages and works with their families to secure copyrights for their music. If families are unable or uninterested, she does the work herself – meaning she still manages 22 Facebook pages and owns dozens of domain names.

This year Morgan turned the project into a nonprofit. Eventually, she wants to televise the concert series and open a museum.

“They’ve given so much to the music that we need to make sure that their legacies continue – and not only that they continue, but that they’re protected, promoted and preserved,” Morgan said. “That’s the only way the next generation of hip-hop is ever going to know anything about them.”

“The Newness that is Hip-Hop”

Leimert Park’s median age is 38, and most of Morgan’s audience members are older. “Legends” must be 65 or older to perform in the series. At the same time, though, Morgan wants to hire a young, Internet-literate staff to help her put these records and biographies online. She hopes their work will inspire a whole generation of sign-ups for piano, saxophone and drum lessons.

More than digitizing their parents’ records, however, Wo’se Kofi hopes his peers will fuse jazz traditions with their own. The 24-year-old son of an African dance instructor and African drummer already uses their rhythms in his rap songs.

“The funny thing is, everything in hip-hop comes from that beat, you know? That’s the ancestor. Drums are our ancestors,” Kofi said.

But it’s not only possible for rappers to honor their roots, Kofi said. It’s necessary. At its birth, rap was about cultural pride. Only in recent decades did lyrics become degrading and divisive.

“When people first started rapping, rap had more of a revolutionary aspect, more of a change, more of a substance,” Kofi said. “I feel like the younger generation kind of lost a sense of culture and a sense of togetherness. We just have to find a culture in general, something that we are all unified [in], something that is already in us. We are a revolutionary culture. Or we should be.”

But even if the hip-hop generation embraces their jazz roots, Wilson worries that their elders won’t reciprocate that respect.

“I feel as though they aren’t reaching out to the young hip-hop community. Whenever somebody thinks of Leimert Park, they want them to think it’s the jazz epicenter,” Wilson said. “It’s not really recognized for jazz music anymore and I think that is kind of rubbing them the wrong way, maybe, and they haven’t embraced the newness that is hip-hop.”

Wilson said Leimert Park is garnering some clout among his generation of rappers. Neighborhood native Dom Kennedy played at indie festival South by Southwest in 2011 and has appeared on songs with J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar. People know him, Wilson said, so they see Leimert Park as a hip-hop epicenter – a young, rapidly expanding one.

“You can almost see and hear the difference between artists that come from the Leimert Park area,” Kofi said. “They’ve been around the cultural aspect of Leimert Park, which was African ancestors, the African culture, people dressing in African clothing… People who grew up around that positivity continued to keep the positive in their lyrics.”

Compromise and Adaptation

Morgan wants to preserve the jazz culture that made the neighborhood famous two generations ago. She and Kofi agree that culture involves more than music, though – it’s about family ties, visual art and a common neighborhood experience, like rebuilding after the riots in April 1992.

“I want it to grow. I want that area to flourish. It’s culturally rich, especially in jazz,” said Morgan, who also gives Leimert Park historical tours on Art Walk Sundays. “I want to keep that whole society going.”

Wilson was born a few months after the riots ended. He belongs to a different era than the places Morgan points out on her tours. But he and Kofi said their generation wants to take responsibility for the neighborhood’s past as well as its future.

“You have these new kids with the new ideas and the new energy, and you have the older people who have worked their whole lives to try to make this a success and to give it a personality and a character,” North-Hager said. “They’re not always going to agree… [while] passing on the mantle of leadership and responsibility and activism.”

Wilson just isn’t sure Leimert Park’s elders are ready to hand over the reins.

“That’s awesome that they pride themselves on their history, but if you don’t adapt, you run the risk of dying,” Wilson said. “And then you take so much pride in your history that you become history. And Leimert Park is too great of a place to become history.”

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