People walk between clubs and night scenes effortlessly with saxophone music and jazz vocals filling the Los Angeles air. It’s the 1940s and Leimert Park is largely populated by Jewish and Japanese people. However, the music scene has started to shift the neighborhoods persona.
“Walter Leimert, the founder of the park, in the 1910s and ‘20s explicitly said he didn’t want black people living here,” said Jeffrey Winston, a music historian.
During the founding of Leimert Park, the neighborhood was almost entirely white. There were covenants in Los Angeles at the time, barring black people from living anywhere West of Main Street. At that time, Central Avenue and the Dunbar Hotel served as a cultural center for the black residents of LA.
The Dunbar was a jazz, blues, and rhythm venue every night; the area was full of life. But, as jazz and blues became popular genres of music, the demand for night-clubs across the city spiked.
"I’m fascinated by the history of the '20s, '30, '40s and '50s,” explained Winston. “There was a massive shift from this white neighborhood to a place filled with the best black artists that have ever lived.”
By the late 1940’s there were more than 10 clubs within a 2 block radius of Leimert Park. As soon as the segregated housing bans were lifted, around the mid-1950s, black families started moving East and an artistic revolution was born.
“This was home. Musicians weren’t on tour or stuck in Hollywood studios here; they were home.”
–- Jeffrey Winston, music historian
Leimert Park became home to Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Ray Charles. And right outside the neighborhood lines were Miles Davis, Richard Pryor and many more. The music clubs in the park weren’t big ticket venues, it was where notable artists lived and breathed jazz, blues and soul.
“Artists came here to try out new songs, meet friends, and just live,” said Winston, “This was home. Musicians weren’t on tour or stuck in Hollywood studios here; they were home.”
Perhaps this concept of home is what makes music such an important part of Leimert Park’s history. But as time went on the neighborhood lost popularity. With “white flight” came the loss of funding and fewer perspective homeowners.
“Even though it’s sort of vibrant now, it’s only a shell of what it was 15 or 20 years ago.” Winston continued, “There aren’t many young people that live here, everyone grew up and no one moved in.”
Notable residents of Leimert Park
Each artist had a unique sound and personal philosophy of music. Scroll over the images and experience each musician through listening.
Fitzgerald lived from 1917 to 1996. She lived in Leimert Park for a time and performed all over Los Angeles, eventually becoming one of the most influential voices in jazz music globally. She won 13 Grammy's and sold over 40 million albums. Fitzgerald was named the "First Lady of Jazz," for pioneering the female jazz voice, and having a widely diverse audience.
A contemporay of Fitzgerald's, Charles lived from 1930 to 2004. He was blind for the majority of his life, and considered a genius in the music industry. Charles was a composer, singer, songwriter, and musician. He is widely known for creating his own genre of music by combining, rhythm, gospel, blues and jazz into what we now know as "soul."
Unlike the other two famous Leimert Park residents, Ellington was a composer more than a musician or performer. Though he played many brass instruments he preferred composition. He lived from 1899 to 1974, often traveling through Europe on tour with his musicians. His scores were sung by Etta James, Frank Sinatra, Edith Piaf, and many others.
The founder of Leimert Park's musical and performing art's center shares his personal story
Fernando Pullum grew up in Chicago, IL. After failing out of highschool to spite his mother, he was offered the opportunity to play trumpet at a nearby college. He then received his GED and went on to get a bachelor's in music education, and master's in trumpet performance. He started the Fernando Pullum Community Arts Center in the 1990s, in Leimert Park, five years after he moved to Los Angeles, CA.
The future home of music
The Fernando Pullum Community Arts Center
It was in Leimert Park that many musical icons were born, but in the past 20 years, the area hasn’t seen the same vibrant life that it used to have.
“I believe we should start them young. It doesn’t matter if they like jazz, or rap, or ballet or whatever, if they don’t have the classes to learn, then they’ll never get good,” says Fernando Pullum, the founder of the Fernando Pullum Community Arts Center, “People are complaining that there’s no new music here, but they’re not doing anything to change that.”
The Fernando Pullum Community Arts Center, founded in the early 1990’s seeks to raise the youth of Leimert Park with a musical education.
“They live here. Music is part of this neighborhood, so the kids have to experience that.”
All of the classes at the center are free of charge and provided for students ages 5 to 20. Since its founding, the school has grown to over 200 students with an impressive resume; aside from one year, every student that has participated at the center has graduated high school and went on to college.
“You know, one man said, and it’s corny: ‘If you believe it, you can achieve it.’ That absolutely true. I think when these kids see the success and feel that satisfaction it encourages them in every way, in every part of their lives,” said Pullum.
The Community Arts Center seeks to use music as a vehicle for change. Pullum explains that because he saw music work in his life, and bring him success after a difficult childhood, he wants to bring that to the students in his school, and the young people of Leimert Park.
“If you can conquer some really hard piece of music, that gives you the confidence to say I can do the next thing, and the next thing. You already know what perseverance is, what work ethic is; you know how to solve problems. I think music just teaches the kids so much.”
–- Fernando Pullum, founder of the Community Arts Center
The students have played at the Hollywood Bowl, the Emmys, opened for the Playboy Jazz Festival four times and performed with artists such as Jackson Browne, Herbie Hancock, and Crosby, Stills, and Nash among many others. The jazz band, led by Pullum himself, has traveled for tours and festivals to New York, Spain, Cuba, and Brazil.
“Mr. Pullum teaches us jazz, but it’s more than that.” says Damani Holland, “When I learn music, I learn discipline. He teaches me to stay in school, and be responsible too.”
The Fernando Pullum school is just one small center in Los Angeles, but the impact that the free programs have made on the youth of the neighborhood and opportunities it has given to the students is changing the landscape of Leimert Park’s music scene.
“We want our kids to be the role models,” says Pullum.
Jazz and Leimert Park’s music venues are no longer just for old men. The Fernando Pullum students have begun performing at the World Stage, appearing at open mic nights at KAOS, and are determined to revive the neighborhood’s arts scene. Because of the school’s placement, free enrollment and juxtaposition of music and life lessons, it looks like a second musical revolution is in store for the neighborhood.
Meet the Students
The Fernando Pullum School has over 200 students between the ages of 5 and 20. Students participate in dance, theatre, film, and music classes. Scroll over the images below to hear four musicians from the jazz band.
Heard, 16, plays tenor saxophone.
Kelly, 15, plays trumpet.
Holland, 17, plays bass guitar.
Powe, 17, plays alto saxophone.
Explore the school
Experience a virtual walk through of the Fernando Pullum Community Arts Center. Turn your sound on and immerse yourself in the experience, while being guided through tap classes, theatre programs, and jazz rehearsal.
To shut sound off, click the sound icon on the ceiling of each room, or return "Outside."
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