Buddy Collette's LA

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This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

Jazzman Buddy Collette was born in Watts in 1921, making him 89 when he died this month.

Imagine how different Los Angeles was then, especially for an African American. L.A. was not the deep south, but blacks here were segregated downtown and along Central Avenue.

Actually we don’t have to imagine too much about the city Collette inhabited. He left behind a record of his memories that hold some fascinating insights.

He recalls Watts as a place where there was plenty of land at a reasonable price for African Americans. And where friends helped each other build their houses.

In a 1999 interview with journalist Barbara Isenberg, he recalled that you lived among Mexicans and Chinese and Japanese and Italians and other blacks.

And that everybody went to the same school, and everybody got along.

He picked up the alto saxophone at age 12 and soon began playing along Central Avenue, often with another future jazz great, Charles Mingus.

They would hang out on Central trying to meet jazz musicians. Collette recalled a place called the 54th Street Drugstore where players would mingle with celebrities like Jack Johnson, the heavyweight boxing champion.

Collette came of age in that segregated world, and went on to help integrate the musician unions in LA.

He also saw up close how Central Avenue, like so much else in LA then, overlapped with the underworld.

John Buntin, the author of last year’s notable history, titled L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City, found a remarkable oral history that Collette recorded.

He describes a night when L.A.'s most notorious mobster… Mickey Cohen…came around to Central Avenue.

It was in a club called The Spot in 1940, before Collette joined the Navy for World War II.

Collette was playing in a band with Cee Pee Johnson, a popular performer who also had a serious drug habit.

Collette remembers that the club would attract white stars such as Orson Welles and Ginger Rogers – and that the dancing girls in the club tended to be light-skinned black girls.

And the night Cohen showed up, things got violent.

Cohen was one of the city’s most feared criminals. He was short but angry, a former featherweight boxer who began robbing movie theaters downtown before he was 12.

The night he came into The Spot, Cohen was the enforcer for crime boss "Bugsy" Siegel. When Cohen and his crew began locking the doors, Collette and the band knew there was going to be trouble.

They fled upstairs to their dressing room, while the gangsters bashed in faces and confronted the club’s staff about stealing liquor.

Suddenly, Cohen himself appeared at the door and ordered the band to go back downstairs and play….while the shakedown continued.

Cee Pee Johnson, though, was already high. He refused the mobster’s order.

Cohen took out his pistol and everybody figured it was going to go bad, especially when Cee Pee refused again….saying "I'm not going to play.”

Looking back, Collette said he guesses Cohen was just trying to frighten the bandleader. But it wasn’t working. So Cohen let him be and went back downstairs.

Come over to LA Observed.com to read more about Buddy Collete, or go to KCRW.com/LAObserved and share your thoughts.

For KCRW, this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.