By: James Bartlet
From around 1910 until the early 1950s, a series of segregation policies aimed at Los Angeles’s rapidly expanding African American community accidentally led to one of the most cultural thoroughfares in the United States.
Central Avenue runs from downtown Los Angeles to Watts in the southern part of the city, and at that time it became the center of the West Coast jazz scene.
As well as homegrown talents like Charles Mingus, Dexter Gordon and Buddy Collette, its many clubs hosted touring legends such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday.
Even with downtown L.A.’s recent resurgence as place of tony apartments, coffee joints, cocktails clubs, art galleries and refurbished Art Deco hotels, it’s still hard to imagine that there was a time when live jazz wafted out of nightclubs, restaurants, hotel lobbies, music schools and anywhere else a combo could play.
But for journalist Sean J. O’Connell, that time is still alive and kicking. The author of the lavishly-illustrated 2014 book Los Angeles's Central Avenue Jazz, he contributes to a number of magazines, newspapers and radio shows.
But what’s his story? And what’s his connection to that noted Irish last name?
Just back from a trip to Tokyo with his family, he admitted to being a “a bit delirious from the travel – and the kids,” but he was happy to talk to The Irish American Post.
O’Connell lives with his wife and two children in Long Beach, and question one and two revealed that the “J” in his name stands for James, and that his Irish connection comes from his father’s side of the family.
“My grandmother was from Sligo and grandfather from Galway,” he explained, but then admitted that there was no one left today who still lived in Ireland.
“They all set out for Ellis Island over a hundred years ago, and the family was never particularly big. I don’t know if it was my family that hyped up the Irish side or just living in Massachusetts that did it, but my grandmother’s two sisters had a great fondness for the country.”
Either way, all the family members have made the trip – “the pilgrimage” – back to Ireland.
“I expect to take my kids at some point too,” says Sean. “It's a beautiful and romantic place, so far from my daily life. I think about it often.”
As for his own time spent in Ireland, O’Connell went there after finishing his college courses.
“I arrived by boat and left by boat, visiting Dublin, Sligo, Galway and Clifden over the course of a week. It was a tremendous trip that I’ll always remember for the hospitality and abundance of live music. It was reassuring to see teenagers learning traditional tunes in late night sessions in the corner of a pub.”
O'Connell 37, was born in Massachusetts, and spent the first dozen years or so of his life on the east coast before the family moved cross-country to Los Angeles.
His love of music – and connection to jazz especially – had started long before that. “I have played piano since I was 5, then I pursued the performing arts in high school and then continued on to UCLA’s jazz program.”
Sean says that the scene today is just as alive and vibrant now as it was when he first arrived.
“I have always stayed up with who’s who, and now I find myself reflecting back on the late 1990s in Los Angeles and appreciating what a great time this is for jazz in L.A. right now. The musicians of this town have worked hard, and I am lucky enough to be in some of the warmest and most intimate rooms to witness these great talents.”
O’Connell explained that few people realize how significant Los Angeles was as a home for some of the 20th century’s most important jazz originators like Kid Ory and Jelly Roll Morton.
“But L.A. also nurtured great innovators like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and even budding musical adventurers like Dexter Gordon, Charles Mingus and Eric Dolphy. Even today and it continues to be a hotbed, with local musicians like Kamasi Washington and Terrace Martin carrying the flame into the 21st century,” he said.
O’Connell’s occupation as a jazz journalist and writer seems like a dream come true, and he admitted that interacting with people he considered heroes on a regular basis and “engaging in conversations with some of the best to ever tackle the music” was undeniably rewarding.
There was a real standout moment for him though, in terms of his career at least.
“When jazz journalism took me from New York to Cape Town to Montreal to Hollywood in the span of two months. Talking to musicians, listening to music: everything was just at its best.”
As for the future, he is sure to be kept busy here in Southern California.
“Los Angeles will always nurture great jazz talent,” he said.
O’Connell plans to continue his jazz history walking tours, the next of which takes place in early June. “Stumbling on A Star” is a ¾ mile walking tour in Hollywood that sees Sean “pointing out the long-lost ghosts of Hollywood’s 20th century jazz scene.”
They run throughout the summer and showcase locales such as the Chinese restaurant where Kid Ory came out of retirement to play, thanks to the urging of his greatest fan, movie titan Orson Welles, and where pianist Art Tatum played the mob-owned Royal Room. There’s even a curated playlist to hear.
As for writing projects, his main focus will be a “deep dive” into Duke Ellington’s time in Hollywood. “That was when the maestro at his peak, pursuing more opportunities than he had time for,” according to O’Connell.
When he’s away from the piano, the laptop or the music venue, he like to relax by flicking through flipbooks, something that he admitted he has “an upsettingly large collection of”
Then, if all else fails, taking a long drive up the coast (Pacific Coast Highway), is something that he said “cures all problems.”
“Pick a spot anywhere between Mexico and Big Sur, open up the windows and keep a steady supply of music going.”
His Los Angeles jazz recommendation?
“Anything by the Hampton Hawes Trio.”