The recent death of L.A. jazz great Buddy Collette has produced some wonderful reminiscences about his musicianship and the important role he played in smashing Hollywood's musical race barrier. For aficionados of Los Angeles history, Collette offers something else as well — a tantalizing glimpse into how L.A.'s criminal underworld controlled the Central Avenue jazz scene.
The connection between Central Avenue and the underworld goes back to the 1920s, when white politicians routinely sought to purchase votes from black bosses. As one police officer said in the 1930s, "I know the payoff men, I know the go-betweens; but what can I do when it's sanctioned by the city's politicians?" Born in 1921, Collette came of age in that world. In a remarkable oral history preserved at the Southern California Library, Collette describes what he saw one night, when L.A.'s most notorious gangster, mobster Mickey Cohen, came around.
The year was 1940. Collette was 19, a member of Cee Pee Johnson's 8-piece band. "Cee Pee," recounts Collette was "not a schooled musician, but he was a very talented one."
He was very fascinating. The stars in the clubs would be Ginger Rogers, Orson Welles would come... Paul Robeson... The club was The Spot, especially there was a black band and the chorus girls, who were black, beautiful, most were light-skinned, that was the thing at the time, especially for the movies.... And what a show it was! Cee Pee was a very colorful guy; he would do very dramatic things. He could sing; he had his tom toms with florescent lights on them. These things would glitter, and he had these mallets glowing. Just imagine! You would see them on the edge of the drums. People were just mesmerized.
One other salient fact about Cee Pee: he had a serious drug habit. And after shows, he liked to shoot up.
One night, while Cee Pee's band was packing up, one of the club's hidden owners came by for a visit — mobster Mickey Cohen. The pint-sized former featherweight boxer was, at the age of 27, one of the city's most feared criminals, the enforcer for crime boss Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel. When Cohen and his crew started locking the doors, Collette "knew something was going to happen." The band scurried upstairs, "you know, to get out of there, to get out of all this craziness.
"Cee Pee was up there fixing his hair, he had this conked hair, and he was fixing it, and he stayed high most of the time," recalls Collette. Meanwhile, Cohen and his gunsels were bashing faces with their pistols. The staff were screaming that they hadn't been stealing liquor. Then Cohen appeared at the door and told the band to go back downstairs and playing while he worked the employees over. Cee Pee didn't move.
"Get down there and play," repeated Cohen.
But Cee Pee was high and conking his hair. "I'm not going to play," he replied.
Even at age 19, Collette knew this was not said to the likes of Mikcey Cohen. Cohen pulled out his pistol as if to hit Johnson across the face. But Cee Pee didn't blink:
I was standing there and could see Cee Pee's head being gashed in, which it frightened me, of course, being 19 years old, but I guess Mickey was just trying to frighten him. But when you look at a guy and he's not even frightened, I guess you just leave him alone. But CP said I'm not playing, which is a wild thing. But that was the gang life. He lucked out. He'd hit two or three people downstairs already, but he didn't hit him.
John Buntin, a staff writer at Governing Magazine, is the author of L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City. On Saturday, October 16th, he'll be leading an Esotouric tour of noir Los Angeles.
The Southern California Library is located at 6120 S Vermont Ave, Los Angeles. Membership at this unique institution costs a mere $40 a year.