Felix In Hollywood

A Blog for the Smart Set

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Day Hollywood Went Bop! And More.....

Well I guess I'll never stop learning about this history-rich neighborhood of mine!

On the southeast corner of Vine St. and DeLongpre Ave (1 block south of Sunset) is this really cute little Peruvian restaurant called Balcones.  I've been meaning to try it for sometime.  Well now I can't wait to get in there, and not just for a steaming plate of Parihuela either.  No, I want to conjure up some spirits!

It turns out that for a few years, starting in the mid 40s the space where the restaurant is (combined with the psychic's joint next door and the little market next to that) was Billy Berg's.

Billy Berg's was a nightclub.  Okay, not just a nightclub, but a nightclub of Happenings!

For starters it was the first commercial nightclub in Hollywood to be fully integrated - from stage to audience black and white could at last play together.

The room was opened in Feb of '45 by Coleman Hawkins. Next up on the bill in May was the brilliant and 'vout-oreenie' Slim Gaillard (the man who coined the term 'groovy').  You'll be hearing more from Slim shortly, but if you don't know him, sniff around the web a lil bit and get informed.  You'll be glad.

Right after Slim's residency, Berg brought in way-out Harry The Hipster:

Harry Gibson (who, btw, coined the term 'hipster') was a whacked out, Harlem jivin', boogie woogie piano pounding blond white kid from the Bronx who's career was re-discovered in the 70s.

Harry The Hipster Gibson on stage at Billy Berg's, Aug. '45

When he hit it at Berg's he was fresh, trending and in the know.  Berg asked the Hipster to recommend a hot act from 52nd street for him to bring out for the club.  Harry didn't even hesitate.  He told the impresario of this cat named Dizzy who had a quintet that was 'gone daddy, I mean gone!'  And there was another cat in the act called Bird who was stratospheric!

Parker and Gillespie

Billy Berg made the deal.  He bought the Dizzy Gillespie Quintet for eight weeks.  A brilliant and innovative musician, Gillespie was also a cagey businessman.  Parker by this time was already becoming unpredictable. He might or might not show up on any given night.  Hedging his bets, Dizzy hired Milt Jackson (the first bop vibraphonist) out of his own pocket as an addition for the date.  That way, if Bird was too high to blow, there would still be a 5-man act to fulfill the contract.  They were supposed to play three sets per night.

On December 10th, 1945, Bop hit town and Hollywood went into orbit.  Kind of.  The first set came and went with no Charlie Parker.  The second set -- same thing.  Parker was not nodding off in some hotel room as you might suspect, he was in fact backstage in the dressing room consuming two complete orders of Comida Conquistador (a huge Mexican sampler platter that was the kitchen's specialty) and drinking tumblers of gin.  Finally when The Bird was stuffed, he entered the showroom from the back blowing a crazy solo on "Cherokee".  Weaving his way through the audience, a hail of notes was tommy-gunning out of the horn.  One by one, the rhythm section fell in with him and by the time he hit the stage, the whole band was cooking, but plenty.  The crowd, it is safe to say, went wild.

Bird on stage at Berg's

The place was packed for the first two weeks mostly out of curiosity, but ultimately the crowds tapered off to be pretty much other jazz musicians.  Los Angeles just wasn't ready.  This was the land of warmth and flowers and beaches and melody.  They were having trouble wrapping their sun-baked minds around a sound that was so icy/hot, so full of smoke and concrete and dope and flat ninths and sharp elevenths.  L.A. was still speaking hep; they hadn't yet moved into hip.

Here's a rare excerpt from a live radio broadcast at Billy Berg's that combines Slim Gaillard as ringleader introducing Jack McVae on tenor sax, Bird on alto and Dizzy on trumpet.  It also is the first known recording of Parker's speaking voice.  You can hear how traditional McVae's solo sounds when compared to the other two, even though they're hold back from their way-out usual:


One night in 1946 Hoagy Carmichael was enjoying an evening at Berg's club when he heard a familiar sound.

Hoagy Carmichael (2nd from L.) and party at Berg's
On stage was a guy who was born with the name Francesco LoVecchio that the bands would allow to sing for free in between sets.  He had just launched into the chestnut "Rockin' Chair", which Hoagy had written a decade before.  Carmichael loved the way the kid sang his song.  Calls were made, recording dates were set for a tune called "That's My Desire" and in no time the whole world new Frankie Laine!

Everybody played there -- all the stars went there.  On August 13, 1947 the father of jazz, Louis Armstrong debuted his new band The All Stars at Berg's.


Ad from the Los Angeles Eagle

Then it was December 15th, 1948, that the incomparable Lady Day began an engagement at the club.  At this point in her life, drug busts and prison sentences behind her, unpredictable things had a way of cropping up.  And so we shouldn't be too surprised that on New Year's Eve a rumble broke out in the kitchen with Billie smack in the middle of it all.  Before all was said and done, Lady had smashed every dish she could get her hands on and her lover-of-the-moment, Johnny Levy, had buried a butcher knife into the shoulder of some poor bastard bystander that wasn't even involved in the fracas.  Holiday and Levy were hauled off to jail. 

Billie leaves the courthouse.
Oh, and if all that isn't surreal enough for you, did I mention:  Tallulah was there!

Here is an audio clip that was recorded on her opening night of a beautiful tune called "Maybe You'll Be There".  Holiday is backed up by Red Norvo and the boys:


I don't know how long into the 50s Billy Berg's stayed in business, but I do know that I have a new place in the neighborhood to go and feel some historical damn vibes.....


normadesmond said...

crazy man....crazy!!

VP81955 said...

That's some sensational jazz -- Hawkins, Diz, Bird, Louis, Teagarden, Lady Day, Red Norvo. I wouldn't be surprised if Anita O'Day appeared there as well.

Depthshooter said...

Good stuff! How many times I sat at KFC, shoveling in disgusting food on a lunch break, staring at that building. I never knowd!