At the most human scale Los Angeles is defined by the scenes along legendary streets: Sunset Boulevard, Melrose, La Brea, and Central Avenue. Beginning in the 1920s, Central Avenue was the place to hear jazz, later R&B and bebop. For the late tenor sax player Big Jay McNeely, the scene began on Central Avenue.
Big Jay McNeely: All the great cats came out, like Lionel Hampton played there, Billy Eckstine, Count Basie. Then downtown they had the Shepp Playhouse, Dizzy Gillespie’s big band would come there, Miles Davis. I was born in Watts. You probably heard of it, we had the riots out there. It was a very nice little town.
Nick Spitzer: And what year was this?
BJM: Well let’s see I was born in 1927. The first time I really got interested in playing music, my cousin had gotten killed, and they gave us an alto saxophone.
NS: Oh that was his horn.
BJM: Yeah, and then my brother, who was an excellent musician-
NS: This is your brother, Bob?
BJM: Yeah Bob. I was 16 years old; I was working at Firestone Rubber Company.
NS: Making tires?
BJM: Yeah, you know, cutting the stuff, yeah. And the first four hours were cool, but I said, “There has to be a better way.”
NS: The first four hours.
BJM: It was all right to work, but that eight hours was too much for me. It just rested on me, I was sixteen, you know. So I rode uptown on a bike and got the alto saxophone– my brother had left it with a guy– and I started playing. I started taking lessons for twenty-five cents a lesson with Mrs. Hightower. People were just mad because I was staying up night and day playing because I was determined to play it.
NS: What do you think got you moving from being able to make this music on the saxophone to getting out and being a performer?
BJM: Well I always loved to entertain. In fact, I thought I was going to be a comedian.
NS: Do you still tell a few jokes?
BJM: You know, at that time, everything was Downtown Los Angeles; there was no Disneyland or nothing. And you could go to a show for ten cents and see ten movies. And they had a burlesque place right across the street, and my father and I used to clean up the theater. So I used to go over there and listen to the comedians. I remember the first time I tried to go on, they had the amateur hour, so I went on as a comedian and I got shot off the stage. I came back with my saxophone, and I won second prize.
NS: I’m looking at a photograph of you at the Olympic Auditorium from sometime I guess in the late ‘40s, early ‘50s, and you’re laying on the floor with your saxophone, and there’s a whole bunch of white kids, look like they’re in their late teens, early 20’s in t-shirts, screaming, watching you lay on the floor playing your saxophone. Where did this showmanship come from?
BJM: Well what caused me to lie on the floor, I had a band– I always tried to entertain the people– but I was working in a town called Clarksville, Tennessee. I’ll never forget it. We were upstairs, and I thought we had a real sharp band, but the people just didn’t respond. They just sat there and said, “What are you going to play next?”
NS: Is this a white audience or a black audience?
BJM: No this is a black audience. So I said, I’ve got to do something to get to these people, so I marched through the place, and I got on my knees, nothing. I lay on the floor, and that did it man, they went wild. And so it broke that spirit that was in there, and they began swingin’. People downstairs ran upstairs to see what was going on after hearing all that.
NS: You lay down on the floor, and you’ve got nice clothes on, they think you’re serious then.
BJM: And so what happened, I got to Fort Worth, Texas, and it went over so big, and so when I got to Los Angeles, I started laying on the floor, and that’s where you got all the– we used to play for like five and six thousand kids, white kids. So what we would do, I’d put a show together with singers, and we would go to a local theater after 12 o’clock, close it down and pack the place.
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