Jazz ensemble "Black Note" performing at The World Stage. Pictured: Richard Grant (trumpet), Marcus Shelby (bass), Willie Jones III (drums).
Photo by Jason Williams.

Finding a ‘Harlem Renaissance’ in Leimert Park

By Jason Williams

Leimert Park is such an important community for me, as it has become a virtual connection to another era of Black excellence, The Harlem Renaissance. From a very young age, I admired the talents of Langston Hughes, Marian Anderson, Claude McKay and many other amazing Black luminaries of the era. 

Most significantly, the photography of James Van Der Zee caught my eye. He captured the images of people  throughout the Harlem Renaissance and became my role model for his positive portrayals of our political, civic, commercial, and cultural icons.

Around the time that I was graduating college, Leimert Park started gaining a buzz with creatives like myself. Marla Gibbs had an acting academy, there were several businesses owned by Black people like me, and the arts and culture that spoke to me was all around. Leimert Park is and was also a community where all faiths were represented and respected by one another. Rastafarians, Christians, Muslims, and anyone who loved the community were there, with nothing to divide us. 

Leimert Park elder, affectionately known as Queen Tamatria, dancing in a Leimert Park drum circle. 

I started photographing jazz musicians who performed at The World Stage, a space co-founded by the iconic jazz drummer Billy Higgins. He and his partners opened their doors to up-and-coming musicians, poets, and even folks needing a space to voice concerns about the community. 

To vicariously experience the vibe of Billy Higgins’ performance space, one needs only to imagine every sense being present and magnified in this space. Higgins’ drumming is the most textural style that I’ve ever been around. The warmth in the space from all of the love in the building was surreal. The call and response of the musicians and audience was omnipresent and represented what we’ve all heard in churches, mosques, and communities like Leimert Park. Add the scent of whatever incense was burning that night, or jerk chicken being grilled down the street, and you were enveloped in all of the vibrancy of the culture in Leimert Park. 

I was in the best place that I could possibly be, to begin documenting Black excellence around me, hoping one day to have an archive modeled after Van Der Zee and Arturo Schomburg.

Tre Pugh, performing music at one of the Jam Sessions in "Tha Alley" in Leimert Park.

Having photographed Leimert Park since the 1990s, I’ve had the honor of photographing Ron Carter, Dianne Reeves, Harold Land and countless other jazz legends. I was also fortunate enough to meet one of LA’s most inventive hip-hop ensembles, The Freestyle Fellowship, and create images for their first album. 

The Freestyle Fellowship are pioneers in West Coast hip-hop. While “gangsta” rap was the prevailing sound, they incorporated elements of jazz, spoken word and an overall Bohemian aesthetic to their music. They were regulars at a local open-mic session at The Good Life on Crenshaw and have been featured in a few documentaries on West Coast rap. I recall Myka9 asking me why I wanted to shoot their album art, and if I was going to create an image that everyone had seen before. I simply told him that I was going to take what they gave me, and together we’d produce images that were evocative of the improvisational underpinnings of jazz — and their music as well. From there, we spent a few days together making images that would eventually be used for their debut, independent album “To Whom It May Concern.”

I’m so pleased to see the growth of the community, the sustained excellence in the businesses and cultural institutions and the current and future generations taking pride in the community. It’s also amazing to see and interact with other local photographers. There are a few that have passed away, and their archives are now with universities like Cal State Northridge. 

Singer/songwriter Runson Willis and friends performing in Leimert Park (Crenshaw District) Los Angeles.

Guy Crowder was a press photographer who ran his business in a plaza near the Baldwin Hills Mall. He photographed all forms of celebrities but also covered the business, civic, and fraternal organizations extensively. Roland Charles and Calvin Hicks ran a gallery focused on the work of Black photographers. 

Bill Jones covered red carpet Hollywood events, and covered them heavier than anyone before the big press agencies came into existence. Jones was a pretty guarded guy, but I do know that he had a process that was time-tested. Having a military background, he was very ordered in his shooting and processing. We shared a darkroom space for a period of time, and he came in with his film the same way every time, producing consistently sharp and well composed shots.  He shot with a singular purpose, and it served him well. Those are just a few of the older cats. And now there are dozens of young photographers in the community who are creating in this beautiful pocket of Los Angeles. I encourage everyone to know these photographers and others who have created a visual record of our amazing communities like Leimert Park.

Leimert Park is an unapologetically Black space, one with strong connections to our past, present, and future. We met at just the right time, and I found my “Harlem Renaissance” right here in my hometown of Los Angeles.

Dianne Reeves and Billy Higgins performing at The World Stage (1993).

Jazz musician at jam sessions at The Word Stage in Leimert Park.

LA rap group "The Freestyle Fellowship" (1991). Pictured: Aceyalone, James Sumbi, Self Jupiter, Myka9.

African dance lessons in Leimert Park (1994).

Elderly African American man, standing next to paintings of Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay) & John Lewis.

Anthony Jolly, co-owner of Hot and Cool Cafe.

Pan Afrikan People's Akestra, performing in Leimert Park (Crenshaw District) Los Angeles.

Enjoying “Reggae TuesDaze” which features live reggae music in Leimert Park (Crenshaw District), Los Angeles.

African drum and dance in Leimert Park (Crenshaw District) Los Angeles.

Young children riding a scooter and a bike in Leimert Park (Crenshaw District) Los Angeles.

Boxing therapy in Leimert Park (Crenshaw District) Los Angeles.

African drum circle in Leimert Park.