Black Night Falling: David Goodis on Central Avenue




This is a version of a talk given on October 29th, 2016 at NoirCon 2016, in Philadelphia.

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THE 1940s was, by anyone’s reckoning, a decisive decade for noir master David Goodis. He married and divorced Elaine Astor, scripted for radio serials, wrote a number of screenplays, and published three novels, including his breakout hit Dark Passage (1946). Although his work and his fate are irrevocably bound to his native Philadelphia, he spent the larger part of the ’40s in Los Angeles. As a lifelong devotee of jazz and of the world surrounding it, he reputedly made periodic visits to L.A.’s Central Avenue, when the music played there — an amalgam of jazz and blues later packaged as Rhythm and Blues — was at its creative peak. It’s a music and a place that I tried to evoke in my novel Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime:

They drove.
Into the heart of the matter.
Central Avenue.
Once the Harlem of the West.
Back when black night was falling and white punters were pouring down like a shower of rain.

Of course, by 1960, when Cry For a Nickel is set, the lights on Central Avenue — a.k.a. the Main Stem, the Brown Broadway, or simply The Block — had all but gone out. Most of the clubs were boarded over and the music had been co-opted by corporate and criminal concerns. But in the mid- to late 1940s, Central Avenue was still a vital thoroughfare for African-American music and culture.

Raymond Chandler began his second novel, Farewell, My Lovely (1940), with a quip: “It was one of the mixed blocks on Central Avenue, the blocks that are not yet all negro.” In truth, by 1920, when the recently married Chandler was still working for the Dabney Oil Syndicate, more than 40 percent of Los Angeles’s black population lived within a few blocks either side of Central Avenue. Jelly Roll Morton had played and run a hotel on the Avenue as far back as 1917, and Kid Ory played and lived there a couple years later. The Lincoln Theater, with a 2,000-plus seating capacity, opened in 1927, followed by the Jungle Room, the Kentucky Club, and the renowned Dunbar Hotel, in 1928. It was during the Depression that Central Avenue really began to hit its stride, when economic conditions prompted white landowners to ignore the city’s restrictive covenants and sell property in and around the area to African Americans. Not yet incorporated, Watts was already known as a cosmopolitan area, with its mixture of blacks, Jews, Latinos, Japanese, and working-class whites. Land was cheap but subject to flooding, which is why Arna Bontemps referred to it as Mudtown in his 1931 novel God Sends Sunday. In 1932, Henry Levette, columnist for the Eagle, a local newspaper aimed at the African-American community, described the stretch in Whitman-like cadences:

Big modern office buildings elbowing tumbledown shacks — Eat shops, in rows — Chicken markets, Chicken markets, Chicken markets — Missions — Speakeasies, black frocked ministers — Flashily dressed furtive-eyed racketeers’ — Ladies of the evening — patrolling in daylight big cars whiz recklessly, cut-outs wide open — colored and white school children arm in arm …

By 1945, the year Chester Himes published If He Hollers Let Him Go, more than 8,000 Japanese Americans had been shipped out of the northern end of the Avenue to internment camps, and replaced by a further influx of some 30,000 African Americans, mostly from the southwest. The war brought jobs in the defense industry in nearby Long Beach and San Pedro, and, hence, a considerable amount of disposable income. Much of that spare money found its way onto the Avenue, by that time one of the few places in Los Angeles — a city the well-traveled Himes considered the most racist he’d ever lived in — where blacks and whites could socialize openly.

David Goodis arrived in the early 1940s, and found the Avenue thriving. It was, more than ever, a mélange of race and class — at least once the sun went down and the street’s population increased to include not only locals working in defense industries, as domestics, and as Pullman porters, but also white high school and college kids, and, of course, an assortment of Hollywood celebrities. The latter gather to hear musicians like Gil Bernal, whose saxophone would later accent the records of L.A.’s R&B legends the Coasters. Many of the best players were home-grown, thanks to a tradition of quality music education, with teachers like Dr. Samuel Browne at Jefferson High, who tutored, among others, Dexter Gordon and Sonny Criss, and private instructors like Lloyd Reece, who taught Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus, and Ben Webster.

While Goodis never wrote specifically about Central Avenue, he came close in the story “Black Pudding”: “It was Los Angeles, and they were a small outfit operating from a first-floor apartment near Figueroa and Jefferson. Their business was armed robbery and their work-area included Beverly Hills and Bel-Air and the wealthy residential districts of Pasadena.” We also know that Goodis’s 1954 novel Street of No Return was partly be influenced by L.A.’s so-called Zoot Suit riots of 1942, a reaction to the Sleepy Lagoon murder in nearby Commerce that Thomas Sanchez and James Ellroy would later explore directly in their fiction.

If Los Angeles itself makes only a cameo appearance in Goodis’s work, he certainly wrote plenty about music — for the most part jazz:

From Down There:

 The Buick cruised smoothly down the street, turned a corner, went down another narrow street and then moved on to a wide street. Feather switched on the radio. A cool jazz outfit was in the middle of something breezy. It was nicely modulated music, featuring a soft-toned saxophone and someone’s light expert touch on the keyboard. That’s fine piano, Eddie said to himself. I think that’s Bud Powell. 

From Dark Passage:

Dragging at the cigarette he stooped over and began going through the record albums. When he came to Basie he frowned. There was a lot of Basie. The best Basie. The same Basie he liked. There was Every Tub and Swing the Blues and Texas Shuffle. There was John’s Idea and Lester Leaps In and Out the Window. He took a glance at the window. He came back to the records and decided to play Texas Shuffle. […] He switched on the current and got the record under the needle. Texas Shuffle began to roll softly and it was very lovely. It clicked with the fact that he had a cigarette in his mouth, watching the smoke go up, and the police didn’t know he was here.

And:

He put the needle down and Shorty George was on its way. Parry stood a few feet away from the phonograph, watching the record go round and listening to the Basie band riding into the fourth dimension. He recognized the Buck Clayton trumpet and smiled. The smile was wet clay and it became cement when he heard knuckles rapping on the apartment door.

Goodis’s Philadelphia friend Alan Norkin mentioned the writer’s visits to Central Avenue to Philippe Garnier, whose biography La Vie en noir et blanc (recently translated as Goodis: A Life in Black and White, 2013) sparked a Goodis revival in 1984. It’s likely that Goodis first set foot on the Avenue as early as 1942, after arriving in L.A. to work at Universal on films like Destination Unknown, and then again in 1946, after returning to script Vincent Sherman’s The Unfaithful and to cash in on Delmar Daves’s adaptation of Dark Passage. We also know Goodis read the Communist Daily Worker — not for its politics but for its Central Avenue jazz listings. He preferred lonely forays, ignoring the attention of Hollywood vedettes like Liz Scott, Lauren Bacall, and Ann Sheridan, whose calls asking Goodis to accompany them to one or another party Norkin was obliged to field.

According to his friend Monroe Schwartz, back in Philadelphia Goodis liked to visit a club run by another friend, Stan Cooper, where he heard Basie, Hampton, Ellington, and Ray Charles. Schwartz adds that Goodis could “speak the subculture language,” the implication being that he was the sort of alienated hipster Norman Mailer would write about in “The White Negro,” published a few years later. While Dick Levy, pianist and student of Willie “The Lion” Smith, gives us the following portrait of Goodis and his relationship to music:

We all brought out records, and David took out his kazoo and played along […] Maybe this was why he was so […] fond of the tenor saxophone. He adored Basie […] especially the pre-war output, and mostly the up-tempo cuts, anything […] we called jump music. This was the great period of the Basie band when Herschel Evans and Lester Young were both on tenor sax. David liked Evans much better [than Young] […] [He] also liked Lionel Hampton, especially the small combos. He liked “Shufflin’ at the Hollywood” […] and “Central Avenue Breakdown.”

While Goodis’s main axe was the typewriter, we know he also played rudimentary piano, his party piece being a rendition of “How High the Moon.” And he played it not only on the piano but also on the comb, and, on one occasion, for what must have been an amused Duke Ellington. That, coupled with his preference for Herschel Evans’s tenor playing and for jump blues in general, suggests that Goodis liked his music more down-home than modern. The same could also be said of his writing, which rejected obtrusive experimental technique in favor of something more visceral, emotionally direct, and, in a word, hardboiled.

But getting back to the Avenue. Thinking about Goodis’s solo prowls affords us the opportunity to separate what was from what would be, as the music migrated across town to film studios and large corporate record firms, becoming less a working-class statement than a middle-class fantasy. Let’s imagine Goodis as he sets out to consume the night, chasing what L.A. urbanologist Norman Klein calls “the neon […] insomnia of urban decay.”

It’s 1942. Convinced he’s Tyrone Power’s double and assuming the persona of a creole named Al Duval, Goodis starts his beat-up Chrysler — the one studio hacks liked to ridicule — outside Norkin’s apartment on Eleanor Avenue just off Vine, where he’s sharecropping his friend’s sofa for four dollars a week. Some years later, the Chrysler would have stirred to life outside Goodis’s own digs at the fashionable Hollywood Tower Apartments, or at much sleazier joints like the Crown Hill Hotel, the Oban (later the Hotel Hollywood) on Yucca Street, or the hot-sheet Crest Hill Hotel. He motorvates across town, turning onto Western and heading south.

Parking on a side street, he walks past a succession of nightspots whose names evoke a poetry of time and place: the Memo, Little Harlem, the Elks Hall, Glen’s Back Room, Jack’s Basket Room, Brother’s, Casablanca, The Hi De Ho, The Last Word. He saunters by the Dunbar Hotel, where practically every black musician and entertainer of the midcentury had stayed at some point, and the Lincoln Theater, whose stage was often graced by Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday. He sees The Downbeat Club, operated by notorious gangster Mickey Cohen, and the renowned Club Alabam, whose owner, the drummer and bandleader Curtis Mosby, was said to be heavily in debt to the mob. (As trumpeter Clora Bryant tells it, few down on Central were untouched by the tentacles of organized crime.)

Who knows? Perhaps Goodis, deep in his own neon blues, might even cross paths with Himes, then living on the Avenue. Perhaps they’re on their way to the same club — to hear T-Bone Walker’s Texas blues, or a large ensemble fronted by Lee and Lester Young. It’s not difficult to imagine Himes, eight years older than Goodis, giving the white interloper a particularly hard stare as they pass each other in the night. Maybe Himes had noticed Goodis on the Universal lot, where he himself had unsuccessfully sought work as a screenwriter. More likely, Himes regards him as just one more white guy on the Block, at a time when it was a de rigueur destination for the Hollywood smart set.

What was the smart set after? The exotic new sound. According to rock ’n’ roll historian Jim Dawson,

Los Angeles did more to create 1940s rhythm and blues than any other city, [particularly] Central Avenue, stretching from the jazz clubs in Little Tokyo to the raucous Plantation Club in the wooded wilds of Watts. […] The Avenue’s biggest concentration of action lay roughly between the Elks Hall at Fortieth Street and Alex Lovejoy’s Breakfast Club […] just south of Vernon. […] Walk down the street and hear […] Charles Brown at the Downbeat, Pee Wee Crayton at The Last Word, riff bands like Joe Liggins and Roy Milton at Jack’s Basket, Nellie Lutcher and Amos Milburn […] at the Club Congo, Big Joe Turner […] at the Club Alabam, Nat Cole […] or Billie Holiday at the Turban Room.

The Avenue was a musical melting pot. By the time Bird and Diz came west in 1946, there was already a well-established bebop scene, which boasted of locals like Howard McGhee and his big band. As legendary Central Avenue tenorman Teddy Edwards, who hit the Street in the early 1940s, said, “New York had the writers, but Central Avenue was where it was all happening” — partly because public jam sessions in New York ran the risk of being picketed by the Musicians Union. In any case, the main stew on Central Avenue was an amalgamation of blues and jazz, whose roots lay in the territory bands from Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma. The musicians from those parts had ended up in Los Angeles after the war, either abandoned by their cash-strapped bandleaders or coming out on their own, to be close to the motion picture and recording industries.

The audience didn’t differ in origin. As Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins says, “California was like heaven […] [If] you worked every day you still found yourself on the bottom. But being on the bottom didn’t feel so bad if you could come to John’s now and then and remember how it felt back home in Texas, dreaming about California.” The transplanted Texans came dressed to the nines. No doubt Goodis would have appreciated white jazzer Art Pepper’s description of local sartorial styles:

The women dressed up in frills and feathers and long earrings and hats with things hanging off them, fancy dresses with slits in the skirts, and they wore black silk stockings that were rolled, and wedgie shoes. Most of the men wore big, wide-brimmed hats and zoot suits with wide collars, small cuffs, and large knees, their coats were real long with padded shoulders. They wore flashy ties with diamond stickpins; they wore lots of jewelry; and you could smell powder and perfume everywhere.

But Goodis didn’t even need to duck into a club to see the sights and hear the sounds, which came blasting forth from furniture, grocery and drug stores, rib joints, shoeshine stands, barber shops, and record stores selling platters by local musicians on small local labels like Dial, Atomic, Jewel, Bop, Modern, Aladdin, and Imperial, most of which were pressed at the local Allied Record Plant off Vernon.

Of course, knowing Goodis, not only would he have gone to the clubs — he would probably have frequented those after-hours joints where, due to a wartime curfew, the first choruses only began after 2:00 a.m. spots like the Barrelhouse, Stuff Crouch’s Backstage, and the Plantation Club. The latter, on 108th and Central, opened during the war and specialized in female musicians — R&B stylists like Hadda Brooks and Nellie Lutcher and jazzers like Melba Liston, Clora Bryant, and Vi Redd. When those sessions ended, Goodis would probably take in a meal at Johnny Cornish’s Double V or the Casablanca Club, where fried chicken and biscuits with honey were served along with Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray jam sessions. Or Jack’s Basket Room at 32nd and Central, which offered Bird in a Basket from midnight till dawn and borrowed its slogan from the familiar Cab Calloway riff “A Chicken Ain’t Nutten But a Bird.” Some of those places had criminal connections as well, like Black Dot McGee’s, an after-hours barbecue joint subsidized by its illegal backroom betting parlor.

One place Goodis simply couldn’t have avoided would have been Club Alabam, where Johnny Otis led a band that combined honed-down Basie riffs with the blues. Born and raised in the Berkeley area as Ioannis Veliotes, Otis, of Greek extraction, not only played, promoted, and produced black music, but turned his home on Washington and 118th into a musician’s co-op. He would eventually become a prominent civil rights activist, penning articles for black newspapers, authoring books, and serving as a Watts assemblyman. So incongruous was his position that one can just about imagine him as a protagonist in some unwritten Goodis novel, something along the lines of Street of No Return (1954), save for the fact that Otis was never as tortured and alienated as Goodis’s usual heroes. And unlike Gene Lindell in Street of No Return, when Otis found himself in the midst of riots — in 1965 and 1992 — the angry crowds not only welcomed his presence, but went to great lengths to secure his safety.

Opening its doors in 1931, next to the Hotel Dunbar, Club Alabam quickly became the hub of musical activity on the Block. Though Otis patterned his band on Basie, everyone from slick urban bluesmen to hardcore beboppers would drop by to sit. No wonder, since the stellar regular members included Curtis Counce, Buddy Collette, Art Farmer, and Hideo Kawano, a Japanese-American teenager who later crossed another cultural line, playing with Don Tosti’s Pachuco Boogie Boys. Over the years, Otis made a number of hit records, not least of which was his reworking of “Harlem Nocturne,” which served as the theme tune for the Mike Hammer TV show.

On that note, it seems appropriate to consider for a moment the relationship between the music Goodis heard on the Avenue and the music employed in the soundtracks to that era’s films, some of which he helped script: the mellow saxophones and smoky vocals that work overtime to articulate the films’ subtexts, and the musical aggregations that function like domestic servants, attending but never intervening. The soundtracks romanticize the music, clean it up, often whiten it, and turn it into a cliché. As critic Gary Giddens writes, “Whenever a doll gets flirtatious or has too much to drink or wanders into a bad part of town, cue the alto — a sultry, ascending little lick, jazz’s putative contribution to moral unrest.”

It took a while for the music from the Block to wind up on the screen. It burst loose in Rudolph Maté’s 1950 D.O.A., when walking dead man Edmond O’Brien visits a San Francisco beatnik nightspot and sees Johnny Otis–discovery James Von Streeter and his Wig Poppers playing frenetic but reasonably authentic Central Avenue R&B (though it’s actually Central Avenue stalwart Maxwell Davis that we hear on the soundtrack).

One would be hard-pressed to find examples of 1940s soundtracks in which the music accurately reflects what ordinary people in South Central L.A. were listening to. Falsifications of musical tastes were as ubiquitous as sanitized portrayals of urban life or, for that matter, the corruption of the American dream. This is all aptly illustrated in Edward Dmytryk’s 1944 Murder My Sweet, an adaptation of Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely. Marlowe, played by Dick Powell, finds himself on the Avenue, outside one of the clubs, and declares, “The joint looked like trouble, but that didn’t bother me.” Then, as an upright piano beats out a subdued boogie-woogie, he walks up some stairs into what turns out to be — shock, horror — a white working-class bar.

By the early ’50s, with Goodis back in Philadelphia, Central Avenue was on its last legs, staggered by postwar lay-offs and the state’s efforts to contain the black population. Well-known musicians like Lionel Hampton and Hampton Hawes reported being routinely stopped by the police, while interracial couples were subject to constant harassment, and, according to Hawes, often frog-marched to Newton Street station for “inspection.” Meanwhile, local musicians who dared venture outside South Central after 6:00 p.m. now had to obtain permits. Just blocks from Central Avenue, in Inglewood, there were still signs reading “No Jews and No Coloreds are Welcome In This Town.” Other factors contributing to the Block’s decline included arbitrary zoning regulations, mortgage company disinvestment, urban renewal, educational inequality, the decline of mass transit, and the rise in TV and hi-fi ownership. Clora Bryant was convinced that it all came down to one thing: city officials not wanting to see white money spent in the black community. The police even declared the record store Dolphin’s of Hollywood off limits to white teenagers seeking out the rhythm and blues records DJs Huggy Boy and Hunter Hancock were spinning at the far end of the radio dial. Large record companies saw an opportunity and stepped in to co-opt the music. There was even a version of “Central Avenue Shuffle” by Ozzie and Harriet Nelson.

Though Goodis never got around to setting a novel on the Avenue, the idea still shimmers with possibility. His jazz-infused tales set in Philly and elsewhere give us the opportunity to speculate on Goodis as a particular kind of Central Avenue flâneur. In her poem “Cousin Mary,” Watts poet Wanda Coleman channels the voice of her father and sets the scene Goodis might have witnessed from another angle:

[…] do you remember when
nat king cole played on the avenue and
the dunbar hotel where all the high steppers
went
saturday night like after the joe louis fight or on leave
from washing down the latrines of world war two
at the chicken shack greasin’ down
with the black stars

As Jill Leovy’s recent book Ghettoside attests, circumstances have not been kind to Central Avenue and the area surrounding it. Yet its legacy, like that of Goodis’s novels, refuses to fade. These days that legacy has assumed various guises, from the big band jazz of Kamasi Washington and the urban blues of Kendrick Lamar to the songster tradition emodied by Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton. And it can be seen in a strand of Goodis-inflected hardboiled writing that stretches from Himes and Donald Goines to Gary Phillips and Walter Mosley. The past, as the man said, isn’t even past. The music of Central Avenue retains a cutting edge, and contributes to an alternative narrative as political as it is artistic, as underground now as it was in its heyday. So do the novels of David Goodis, who wrote about a street with no name but who walked a street that went by many: the Main Stem, the Brown Broadway, the Harlem of the West. No doubt he remembered it as a place and time where he could be himself, or the someone he wanted to be — a place called Central Avenue.

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A playlist titled “Black Night Falling — David Goodis on Central Avenue” can be found on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/user/whaut/playlist/16b1EZqpjHaQ3QTzXQLY0l

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Woody Haut is the author of Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War; Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction; Heartbreak and Vine: the Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood; and of the novel Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime.


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