O, Pioneers

O, Pioneers: Dana Johnson explores the remaking of L.A.’s historic core

In her latest collection of stories, the associate professor of English explores a wide range of experiences unique to the City of Angels.

via USC Dornsife

By Lynell George

Here in Los Angeles, you learn early and often: Screen magic trumps real life.



Here in Los Angeles, you learn early and often: Screen magic trumps real life.

Writer and professor Dana Johnson was reminded of that prickly coexistence on a recent afternoon. Wandering into Union Station, she found it a-swarm. Not teeming with commuting Bunker Hill suits nor the downtown Arts District’s new guard, but rather the entire lounge space swallowed up by a buzzing film crew: cables, lights, scrims and steel barricades. “You can sit,” a disembodied voice rebuffed all in approach, “but don’t move.”

She made a beeline, into the courtyards at the edges of the station. Stashed in a hidden corner, Johnson happened upon a small bronze plaque commemorating the terminal’s 50-year anniversary in 1989: “Through the portals of this historic edifice have passed the great and near-great.”

Johnson’s fiction has long examined those edges — animating the “near great”; the L.A. that isn’t in the foreground, the one that is too often asked to sit, but don’t move. That’s the L.A. she moves through every day on foot.

“I get a notion. An image. A line of dialogue,” she said. “Or maybe it’s just a feeling I want to explore.”

To read more about Dana Johnson’s story collection click here


Image via USC|Dornsife

A Seat at the Table at Post & Beam

Any long-time Angeleno can tell you, the term “community” is one of this city’s more bedeviling concepts. It’s a catch-all and a euphemism; a designation that is as vague as it is deliberate.

Restaurateur Brad Johnson has been circulating L.A. long enough to know that real community here — a tangible one — is not just a matter of geography or proximity, but about creating a sense of common ground. If you want to build and foster something meaningful — you have to understand it from the ground up. This was at the front of his mind, a few years back, as he and real estate developer Ken Lombard rolled through Southwest L.A. Johnson was trying to get a specific sense of what made up the sweep of territory so often haphazardly summed up as “below the I-10.”


He took it all in block by block: fanning out from the s-curve of Crenshaw Boulevard’s business district, a collection of distinctive neighborhoods stretched west, south, and east — Baldwin Hills and View Park, Leimert Park and Angelus Vista. Along a gentle rise of hill, classic ’20s-style red-tile and stucco houses with aprons of neatly edged lawns mixed with mid-century-modern dream homes that overlook million-dollar city views. On the flats below, corridors of “dingbat”-style apartment houses overrun with tropical flora (an area long-known colloquially as “The Jungle” — for both the landscaping and the periodic percolating street violence) had a mixed history of its own. One meandering sweep told him that there were many different and distinct Los Angeles-es only footsteps apart.

Post the white-flight wave of the late ’60s, the Crenshaw-Leimert-Baldwin HIlls hub became a predominantly African American neighborhood — the seat of various venerable institutions invested in black uplift — among them the Los Angeles Sentinel, the Urban League, and Leimert Park’s mix of African-oriented arts and cultural centers, artist studios, and independent businesses. And while it’s long been a tightly-knit, vivid community with deep generational roots, if you were tuned-in to mainstream media, it still read as an indistinct blur.

Johnson figured he was up for the challenge, saw something solid he could work with.
He’d been in conversation with Lombard, then Magic Johnson’s business partner, about the redevelopment projects taking shape both at the Baldwin Hills-Crenshaw Plaza and at the theater complex. A new restaurant seemed a natural fit. “I’m a process junkie,” he admits. “I had this germ of an idea and as I looked around it just began to grow.” Johnson already had his eye on a chef, Govind Armstrong — most recently of 8oz, Chadwick, and Table 8 (and whose L.A. restaurant pedigree included the original Spago, Border Grill, Campanile). “I liked the fact that he wasn’t just an expert in the kitchen but knew the business side as well.” It was strategic, says Johnson, “I wanted someone who couldn’t be ignored.”

Post & Beam opened New Years Eve 2011, along the western edge of the Crenshaw-Baldwin Hills Plaza on Santa Rosalia Drive. Low slung, airy with flowing indoor-outdoor space stirred by a hint of ocean breeze, the restaurant is an oasis; its clean lines echoing the architecture of the surrounding dwellings. It instantly telegraphed home, both metaphorically and literally: the back-patio, arranged with furniture with touches of aqua and lime, harkened back to long-summer days captured in old Kodak snapshots. Indoors, along the north wall hangs a collection of vintage, space age clocks and funk and jazz LP covers, the records, Johnson admits with a laugh, “Those are mine.”

In short time the restaurant became a meeting spot — an after-work watering hole, a “lets meet in the middle” supper spot. And Johnson was right about Armstrong’s pull. Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold twice ranked Post and Beam on his 101 best restaurants list, calling it “perhaps the most ambitious restaurant ever to open in the Crenshaw district.” This was no small feat, and it would take a team who understood the disequilibrium of neighborhoods in transition as well as the fickle nature of the restaurant business itself.

You can read the rest of my piece on Post & Beam here at KCET Departures

Photo via KCET by: Teresa A. Mendoza

Travels With Dominique

For many, the phrase “No place like home” is a deeply suffused sentiment, a celebration of tangible sense of place. But to artist Dominique Moody’s ear, the saying is far more complex, housing many chambers of meaning.

For Moody, the aphorism is not a sentiment but an acknowledgment. Those four simple words, set side-by-side, which construct something instantly recognizable for others, have conveyed, for most of her life, not a place on the map but blank space: territory that is as abstract as it is elusive.

At 57, Moody has lived and worked in more than 40 locations: far-flung destinations that zigzag the country, cross oceans. Some addresses she’s touched-down on for only a few weeks, others, for blocks of unbroken months that eventually tallied into years. In that time, she’s collected addresses like charms on a bracelet — unusual, unlikely, untrammeled territories. The pattern began early — first, in-tow along with her large family; later, solo, when she herself took to her own life road — after college traveling from project to project. Each jaunt, each open-ended journey, became part of her life-collage. Home for her was a hypothetical concept, not something that could be mapped on her heart.

One doesn’t settle on a grand plan to set out to build a tiny, mobile house overnight. The germ of it, Moody explains, didn’t come in an ah ha revelatory flash. The notion itself built itself slowly from the bottom up — bits and pieces via the by-product of choices and life’s circumstances. The seeds for her larger vision, The NOMAD Project — an acronym for Narrative, Odyssey, Manifesting Artistic Dreams — is Moody’s hope to concretize a long-held desire — an artist’s studio turned inside out. The idea is to create a living work of art — where the journey and the process are as valued as essential as “product.” More than 25 years in the making, the NOMAD project grows out of a life-long sense of rootlessness. It is the next leg of road in a long-life of purposeful wandering — gathering the elements needed along the way. Not just the physical bits and pieces, but the craft, knowledge and the mindset. “Really, it is my life portrait.”

From my new piece about the artist Dominique Moody now up here at KCET Artbound.

photo of The NOMAD: courtesy Dominique Moody

“Meeting of the Minds”

By Lynell George

tom and james

Like a good book, a good bookstore's lifeblood is its stories — stacks and stacks of them. Stitch together those stray, day-to-day anecdotes with a clever plot, vivid recurring characters and some unexpected twists, and you just might have something solid, something with real longevity.

As the tale of brick-and-mortar retail goes, Eso Won Books' ongoing story is about as twisty as a plot can get. In its 25 years in the trade, despite a wildly inclement business climate rocked by urban unrest, earthquakes, industry shifts, multiple re-locations and recessions, the Southwest L.A. bookstore remains a community hub in the heart of Leimert Park. While its long roster of visiting authors — Toni Morrison, John Edgar Wideman, Octavia Butler, Walter Mosley among them — offers a snapshot and time capsule of African American letters, it isn't only marquee names that hold great import to the bookselling life. As any bookseller would attest, there is an encyclopedia of other crucial factors at play that make a shop not just a "stop," but an essential destination.

Read more here at KCET Departures

(photograph by Alvaro Parra for KCET Departures)

Public Art, Private Stories: Michael Massenburg Collages Los Angeles

By Lynell George
via KCET | Artbound

IT’S NOT much of a leap to think about Los Angeles as a medium in and of itself — some tool or substance an artist might pick up and utilize in someway — like the remainder of a fabric bolt or a found roll of yellowed paper already haphazardly scissored through.


As a visual artist, Michael Massenburg has long viewed the city as his own vast supply hutch — both the physical expanse of it and the cast-off-detritus he might happen upon in the course of a day. “I’ve got to be careful,” says Massenburg, on a recent afternoon, winding past some of his stored pieces leaning against walls and baseboards. There’s a discarded Mid-Century wood-console stereo that he remade into “Sounds of Life,” a paean to jazz, soul R&B — its surfaces and interiors papered with vignettes, paintings, photographs, collage, two-dimensional stolen moments of music’s bygone era. Nearby, leaning against a wall is a floor-to-ceiling generational mural, “Memories of Dreams Past, Part 2,” composed on an oversized a disk, now sectioned to fit within doorframes — that for a time sat within the courtyard of the California African American Museum. “Really, I can’t take anything more in,” he says. “There isn’t room, at home or at the studio.” As it turns out, we are still only in the common area of this warehouse space in Inglewood, his studio still a few steps around the corner — “Friends start saving stuff: “Hey Mike — You interested in this? How about this balled up piece of paper?'”

This admission doesn’t accurately portray the world inside this room. While there might be an explosion of inspiration lining the studio’s shelves and walls — books, photographs, splintered pieces of wood, a stretch of canvas, discarded signage, recycled museum wall-text panels — there is a keen sense of organization and unified purpose in Massenburg’s collections — both the found objects and in the work itself. Truth is, he explains, “I love stuff when it is already broken, because I can kind of bring it back to life.”


As an artist, he is also trying to piece together potentially fading memories, misplaced histories — stories about people and stories about place — in a region where the narrative is often interrupted — sections rearranged, re-thought, sometimes entirely elided.

Over time, he has noted, the freeways in particular have snipped away connections — edited a sense of the progression of the city, its very connective tissue: “People say I don’t pass this or ‘I won’t go past this street.” Such arbitrary self-editing lends an erratic, disconnected understanding to the idea of a place. Whole swaths of L.A. are avoided and consequently unknown: “Inglewood is actually part of the South Bay — but I guess it got kicked out, ” he cracks. “This” — he gestures expansively toward the street just beyond the warehouse’s open doors — “is ‘South Central.’ Look, now, I’ve lived in both places and they are completely different in terms of dynamic, but it’s funny how its all lumped together because of culture and race. It’s all about perception.”

To read more, click here

(art by Michael Massenburg)

William Reagh’s Sidewalk Stories

By Lynell George
via KCET’s Artbound

WHEN PHOTOGRAPHER William Reagh first landed in Los Angeles in the 1930s, the city still seemed a string of unconnected thoughts: an expansive outpost — both wild and urban; idyllic and rough-hewn — still discovering itself as it stretched out across the basin, rambling and loosely punctuated.

Los Angeles’s juxtapositions — and the contradictions that lived side-by-side them — gave the former Kansan rich fodder for visual exploration — high/low; have/have-not. Just what was Los Angeles bent toward being? At face value, it was difficult to discern.

While history and memory tell us one piece, images of the city in its boom years — a place that moment to moment, reinvents and shape-shifts — deepen that narrative. They underscore if not gird those memories. They make real and contextualize moments and memories we question, the details we thought were gone forever, altered “in a blink.”

If not for Reagh and his meticulousness, so much of not just L.A.’s evolving brick-and- mortar profile, but even more important, its more intimate, episodic sidewalk stories, would be lost. Reagh intuited that it wasn’t simply the city’s shifting skyline or the at-a-glance atlas-view depicting the necklace of bedroom communities fanning outward that told Los Angeles’ story — but rather the incremental evolution, close-up, block by block day-by-day: the street view.

Last Fall, the Book Club of California published an evocative, time-trip: a limited-edition of Reagh’s photographic work — “A Long Walk Downtown: Photographs of Los Angeles and Southern California, 1936-1991.” With an introduction written by historian, archivist and antiquarian book dealer, Michael Dawson and an essay by Reagh’s son Patrick (who is responsible for the book’s elegant design and letterpress printing), the volume provides an intimate tour of day-in day-out Los Angeles as seen from the ground up. “My earliest memory of him is with a camera,” remembers Patrick Reagh, “It was always with him. He was very consistent.”

Reagh was on the streets: Looking. Lingering. Documenting. He walked Los Angeles and consequently saw Los Angeles — offering a different perspective than the mere suggestion of place so often gleaned in motion or generalized shorthand. He circled neighborhoods, returned to some locations year after year, charting their evolution. And though, until his death in 1992, he became one of Los Angeles’ most prolific visual documentarians, he didn’t set out to be a photographer, nor was his trove of L.A. images meant to be a formal paean to Los Angeles. A painter and philosopher, by training and inclination, photography was something that he “picked up,” while in the service, a proficiency, that overtime became, at turns, poetic — though he, says his son, would never see it as such.

Through his eyes, frame-by-frame, his photos open a window in on the city’s former self: the vast, now-gone Victorian kingdom of Bunker Hill shooting up from its perch in slate grays and inky blacks, the vivid street-life cacophony of Pershing Square, the almost audible sigh of stacked up, retired streetcars at Terminal Island. But Patrick’s remembrances of his father’s fortitude and focus shed light on not just the man who made the images but on the city he was attempting to wrap his mind around. “There were thousands of images that I wasn’t able to use,” admits Patrick, “Enough, really, to do several other books.”

His father’s arrival in Los Angeles, coincided with the city’s most vigorous years of growth, as well as its many phases of urban renewal. For years, his day job was work as a commercial photographer — shooting products, catalogues, art collections “whatever the clients called for,” his son recalls. But the weekends were dedicated to solely to prowling Los Angeles, uncovering and documenting its very disparate parts, assembling a sense of the whole.

To say there was a goal, a plan or even an organizing thesis to his images, would be to overstate his process, Patrick suggests. His father, he says, was a wanderer who would lose himself within the intricate folds of the city, “wherever his muse led him.” Patrick remembers the meanderings of his father. “He just loved to wander downtown and walk around the streets and shoot. Sometimes it might be a streetscape, sometimes it might be people. He’d often shoot from the hip, hold the camera low. He was very good at taking pictures of people without them knowing. But really, he was so non-threatening, such a friendly guy — even in the seediest of neighborhoods — he would make everyone feel at ease.”

The Cyclone Racer, The Pike, Long Beach, 1967 | Photo: William Reagh.

While Saturdays often meant a solo trek — perhaps crisscrossing the freeways by car, touring surface streets on foot for inspiration — on Sundays, Reagh might take Patrick and his sister along. It was an opportunity to see the city through his eyes — the places he felt were important to document, even if he couldn’t articulate why in words. “Train yards, he loved. Shipyards. Amusement parks, the Pike and Pacific Ocean Park,” Reagh recalls. These were places at the edge of things — of the city or the coastline — and, metaphorically, our imaginations. The transit hubs in particular provided an interesting opportunity to see behind the scenes — an end on one story, beginning of another.

Each setting called for a different set up. “If he was downtown shooting people, he’d have his reflex, or another smaller camera, maybe his Leica. At the train yard or shipyard, he’d bring his tripod and set up his big Speed-Graphic. Back then there were no security guards asking questions: who you were and what you were doing. I would climb on stuff, those piled up streetcars. There was broken glass all over. He’d be off shooting. I’d climb. Back when you could do that sort of thing.”

Often they would stumble upon magic, places like Pershing Square, before it was paved over and reimagined as concrete, antiseptic. “Then it was the most exotic place in the world. This is where people would meet — outcasts, homeless, elderly people. It was a place you would go and you could speak your mind. Hear new ideas.” But it wasn’t just the words, it was the visual expression, and impressions. “One man named Hook because his fingernails were two feet long,” Patrick remembers. “He never cut them. He could drag them along the sidewalk. My father never took a picture of him for some reason. He was so vivid. There were transvestites and hobos — just guys living outside of the norm. But those were the kinds of people who were yelling out at the world,” remembers Patrick. “He was always interested in the underdog.”

By the 1960s, a windfall in the form of a family inheritance, opened up both time, space and opportunity. Reagh was able to quit his day job and pursue his own photography ventures full-time. The family moved from their Echo Park home to Los Feliz, where Reagh was able to set up a full darkroom at home. As he worked, he’d turn up the stereo — listening to West Coast jazz, classical music — or baseball. “Never the Dodgers. He didn’t like Walter O’Malley, the whole Dodger Stadium deal,” Patrick says. “He was a dedicated Angels fan.”

Clay Street, Bunker Hill, 1960 | Photo: William Reagh.

The timing also happened to coincide, Patrick Reagh recalls, with the height of urban renewal, when the physical changes in Los Angeles were fast and often complete. If you study the span of photographs, the L.A. he arrived in versus the concrete-and-steel dream of the future he later documented, they come across as two wholly disparate planets. Those elegant Victorians gave way to the open crater of Bunker Hill; the modest skyline became a chessboard of dwarfing concrete and glass towers that re-oriented the focus — no longer human-scale, but served as metaphors for ambition — the city stretching, reaching further.

If his father had any feelings about all of this, Reagh says, they remained elusive. “You’d think he would have been upset,” he says, “but he had a detached attitude. He wasn’t an ideologue. He loved Cartier-Bresson and the concept of photographer as stroller. But, I think he thought of himself as a preservationist; someone who just needed to be doing this. He seemed to feel somebody had to.”

Decades later, the work reveals his heart. And what the images, taken as a whole, most eloquently preserve is not just sense of place, but a sense of the city’s humanity, its particular vernacular — its feel, pace, space; its leisureliness, and idiosyncratic visual language. “He was just interested in the passing parade.” says Reagh, “He let the camera do the talking.”

Adventures in Silver & Light

The Alchemist: Ian Ruhter’s Adventures in Silver and Light
By Lynell George

November 26, 2012

IF IMAGE is any real measure, Los Angeles might seem an unlikely launch for the pursuit of truth: It’s a place better known for the evocation of the hyper-real — with its impatiently re-imagined landscape, its denizens, nipped and tucked into subjective perfection.

But photographer, Ian Ruhter, who also calls himself an alchemist, knows enough about chemistry to understand that stumbling upon new ways of seeing — is about reactions — a collision of forces — that create something new.

Ruhter’s all-consuming preoccupation in the last two years has been creating a series of dreamlike, elusively temporal images — people, places, hints of moments — that reach back to something not just deep inside our past but within our subconscious.

This is the alchemy: Both the actual chemistry of his photographic process as well as the interaction between people and place, perception and reality. Truth and lie.

Against the backdrop of stepped-up gentrification, Ruhter, holed up in a downtown L.A. loft at 6th and Main, two years ago, had begun tweaking and bending the possibilities of an antique photographic process — wet-plate collodion — a technique that dates back to the 1850s. Instead of “film,” a photographic surface is coated with sensitized material — the exposures, protracted, the development, too a sensitive affair.

The results dismantle our concept of time. The effect of the chemistry — the dappled surfaces, the blurs and bubbles, the shock of the perception of texture on a two-dimensional plane, an iridescence that sometimes mimics the luminescence of a half-shell or a surface shimmer that replicates motion — demands a second look at something or someone you might look past or through.

from KCET Artbound — image by Ian Ruhter — click here to read more.

Walking East of West L.A.

It’s the other point of entry, this eastern spine of downtown Los Angeles, along the Alameda corridor where Union Station thrums with passengers departing, arriving, connecting. And drifters, who hover somewhere in between coming and going. This is the juncture, the elusive middle space, that writer/photographer Kevin McCollister loses himself in. He has become eloquent in visually evoking the poetic hang-time of the destinationless.

Late on a Sunday afternoon, amid the flow of flip-flopped and sun-hatted weekend travelers, McCollister looks like he, too, could be coming or going. With quick, hard-to-read eyes and a taut, reserved energy, he blends into the ambience of anticipation, looking for something that’s not a train or taxi or a “score”—but something. He has arranged himself at one of the concourse’s small tables at the edge of the flow with an iced coffee and his two cameras, a Panasonic Lumix and his Canon D40, still zipped away in their soft black cases. His face relaxes in a greeting, not quite a smile, but welcoming and forthright.

He’s already working, scanning possibilities: the resigned mother with the hysterical six-year-old; the bent woman on a walker fed up with panhandler sob stories; the timid security guard she’s buttonholed who nods between his “yes ma’am”s. McCollister’s eyes finally pause on a man with a dramatic flounce of dyed blue-black hair and a wool scarf flung not-so-nonchalantly about his neck despite the eighty-degree heat. He’s holding court at a table with three other men—all of whom look like they’ve walked out of another era or circumstance. McCollister risks another surreptitious glance, but doesn’t make a move for either camera. Something’s missing, not quite right—the moment. “That one has a story,” he says. “If I wait long enough I’ll find him again.”

What is a train station if not a point of departure? A gateway into stories. But you can’t buy a ticket to the places McCollister takes you. His Los Angeles is not the high-gloss of turquoise pools, movie stars, and mile-high, listing palm trees. Rather, it’s the city’s broken seekers, its mix-and-match architecture, its abandoned asphalt roads—the beauty in its lonelier, hidden contours.

While he is certainty documenting LA, his images evoke something chambered and contemplative, startling in their quietude.

His book and the blog that inspired it, East of West LA, elicit a Los Angeles that feels personal, like memory and fantasy fused, a Los Angeles that is private but not at all exclusive. “Kevin is seeing what’s not seen about LA,” says Brooks Roddan, who found the images compelling enough to publish in book form. “He’s seeing, I think, the differences between the perceptions of LA and the realities. The story is: there’s more here than you imagined, and what you imagined is not here at all.”

he blog, which McCollister launched five years ago, has built a small but loyal following (well over 100,000 visitors, and a steady hundred views a day). It wasn’t conceived as one of those photo-a-day exercises. And he has some rules: “No Rolls Royce convertibles. No swimming pools. They seem to be covered adequately. But,” he elaborates, “I don’t want to get too lofty about what I understand or don’t understand about LA. It’s much more of a model or muse to me than an object I’ve studied to enlighten anyone. If you’re an artist and you’re able to sketch somebody’s thumb, that doesn’t mean you understand their childhood.”

That thumb, in McCollister’s work, is an apt metaphor, full of clues. The fine particulars—an empty farmácia bathed in aqua fluorescence, a Hollywood Boulevard James Brown impersonator, wig slightly askew, flashing a set of ruined teeth—sketch a far more complex LA story of struggle, blind faith, and persistence. By isolating an object—a single, soft-lit doorway, late-night street musicians serenading empty sidewalks, a transient’s forlorn tent—McCollister “finds” LA by holding onto something we might gun past in a rage on the 110, or something we linger beside every day but see past. We observe Los Angeles through his prism, an LA edited down to an oblique gesture, to a wry, visual non sequitur. It’s an LA only seen in stop-motion, an LA that uncharacteristically can only be navigated, McCollister knows, with patience and by foot.

A case in point: This stretch of the Alameda corridor just outside the station doors is a complex nexus. In the amber light, compositionally, it’s loose, messy, and full of possibilities. Downtown’s chessboard of skyscrapers gather to the west; the central jail looms northeast; and the old Pueblo de los Angeles, from whence this all sprang, is only a crosswalk away. This is one of those locations where the city’s standard operating definitions, east of the world’s imagination of Los Angeles, don’t quite work. “From here,” McCollister says, “I can walk to Boyle Heights or Lincoln Heights. Or maybe I’ll just walk up to Broadway, it just depends.”

When you step off into one of his images, you realize it isn’t that Los Angeles is mysterious; it’s been misread, its elegance and edginess elided from our imagination. The images, particularly those emptied out of humans, force a new reading. He knows he’s channeling ghosts—Fitzgerald, Chandler, even Bukowksi—a certain sort of discontent which writers have for so long attempted to express.

He cordons off Saturdays and Sundays for shooting, mornings before 10 a.m., evenings after 4 p.m., the off time from his full-time job as an administrative coordinator at the Writer’s Guild. “LA is tricky for photography because it’s so much sunlight, so much glare,” he says. He rarely photographs late at night, yet his images of an emptied-out LA convey a sort of nighthawk quality. What makes McCollister pause is not just the image, but what’s tethered to it: “Definitely a mood. Not adulterated too much. It’s just whatever emotional content [is there].” He admits that what speaks to him is often “pretty melancholy, pretty singular.”

We reach Olvera Street, usually an explosion of tourist-geared sound and color. Today it’s overrun by television vans, heavy cables, and sun canopies—all quite contrary to what he’s after.

The quiet, unembellished city he seeks doesn’t always make itself known. “I may come back with nothing,” he warns me. “I can spend hours and hours and think I have something . . .” he says, letting the thought trail off. He makes a quick survey and the camera comes out, the small Lumix, bumping against his chest, ready.

He crosses another narrow street and into the busy courtyard at the old church—Nuestra Señora de Reina de Los Angeles—la Placita. People trade pleasantries with him, the regulars he’s come to know: men and women selling bottled water, wooden bracelets decorated with religious figures, simple rosaries. Still others, crouched on the sidewalk, ask for change. He pauses near a fountain at an altar crowded with votive candles, scattered prayers, and mementoes—a child’s shoe, a hazy sonogram, silver milagros. A woman, her black hair slated with gray, stands near the fountain. He sees a possibility, something in her face, the incline of her head. He raises the camera, then stops. “There’s this feeling,” he explains later, “that photographing someone praying might be just a little too distracting or intrusive.”

He presses on.

If you’d asked him twenty years ago, McCollister would have defined himself as a writer—a poet, primarily. He had come from elsewhere, winding from Cleveland to New Orleans, where he worked on a river boat, Delta Queen, then Boston, where he studied film and screenwriting at Harvard Extension. Photography hadn’t been on his radar. Neither was Los Angeles, which upon an early visit in the ’80s he had dismissed as crowded and unlivable.

Just six years ago, when he set out on this endeavor, this little side project (“call it creative practicality”) was pure hobby, not vocation. His brother had married a woman from Taiwan and relocated. “She had a blog and I didn’t know what a blog was,” McCollister recalls. “I just wanted to have a dialogue with her and perhaps a half-dozen other people—just pictures of LA.” It was a simple plan. “I thought it was going to be [a] ‘This American Life’ thing where I would . . . talk with people, but it’s not that way at all. It just sort of mushroomed.”

He bought himself a hundred-dollar camera and set up his blog, christening it, with a wink, The Jimson Weed Gazette. He started posting, sometimes just text—lists, observations; or a combination of image and reflection. Over time, as he learned more about his camera and its potential, McCollister says, “[It] took on a life of its own without me even making a conscious decision.” He was writing less and less, he says. “The photos were just doing all the work.”

The poetry is still evident. The power of a single object, the oblique framing, the ratio of dark to light, and the elliptical situations in his photographs reveal his emotional awareness. Los Angeles isn’t just sunshine and excess. He has put his stamp on the place. The name-shift—East of West LA—was part of the project’s evolution, as was the blog’s initial brazen claim, now its tagline: I’m photographing LA—All of it.

That vow caught Brooks Roddan’s eye. Roddan was already familiar with McCollister’s writing through a mutual friend, the poet Micahel Lally, and had asked for some poems for a possible book. “The poems I’d responded to, the best poems, were all walking poems; a man walking through neighborhoods as if he was seeing LA for the first time,” Roddan says, “seeing things only a poet both aware and innocent could see.”

Time passed, and Roddan learned that McCollister had stopped writing poems and had refocused his energies. He began visiting the blog, stowing away the images in his head. Once they reconnected, Roddan had a different plan. “‘Kevin,’ I said, ‘I think your poems are now photographs and your photographs are now poems. Let’s do a book of your photographs.’”

Precisely what Roddan saw in the poems filtered directly into the images: an open-ended seeking. McCollister says, “I don’t usually have a plan, I just walk with the traffic lights—whichever one is green.” We wind over the hard, hot concrete through Mei Ling Way, past crowded souvenir shops, restaurants smelling of hot oil and scallions, gentrified art galleries side by side with retro furniture stores, and finally onto an empty courtyard on Chung King Road, canopied by hanging cherry-red paper lanterns.

The only business open at this in-between hour is a shop with a pulsing red neon sign announcing FONG’S ORIENTAL WORK OF ART. But what has enraptured McCollister isn’t the retro neon, or the curiously tangled name, or the gathered men playing cards near its front doors, or anything at all telegraphing Chinatown. Instead, he has installed himself before the shuttered doors of what looks to be a recently vacated business. Its cloudy window reveals nothing but scattered newspaper, trampled cardboard flats, and a chair and table shoved against a blank wall. The sight stops him cold.

He raises the Lumix, snaps once and then again. He keeps going. Finally, he shows me the image on the camera’s screen, and I see what he sees: not simply an abandoned table and chair, but something painterly, something out of the realm of Edward Hopper or Andrew Wyeth—a silvery hint of sunlight, a ghost trailing on the wall. There’s sadness there. The frame is full of questions. What do all these remnants mean? Was this the end of someone’s story?

It feels like something in that frame, and he’s relieved. “There are some nights where the sky is the limit, where I’ve taken four hundred or as little as ten. But of those four hundred there can be zero,” he says. In other words, he knows to be cautiously optimistic. It’s the waiting that’s nerve-racking—that drive home hovering between anticipation and result—the hope that he has captured what was conveyed. There’s a piece of mood that has to go with the image, some essence of LA escaping.

What the work seems to most skillfully convey about LA is that it can’t be both destination and dream—though we all struggle to make it so. These images, procured through patience, through slowing the city down, reveal that conundrum.

“LA has this real end-of-the-road feel to it,” McCollister reflects. “It’s such an undeniable destination point for so many types of people—rich, poor, talented, untalented. You come because you need something. And sometimes you have to wait a very long time. And sometimes the waiting can drive you crazy.”

by Lynell George
From Boom Summer 2011, Vol. 1, No. 2

The photography of Kevin McCollister

— photos by kevin mccollister via boom: a journal of california

“Soundtrack for a Lost L.A.”

SORROWED by its vanishing soul, Ry Cooder struck out on an odyssey to rediscover the city he loved and nearly got trapped in ‘Chavez Ravine’

By Lynell George, Times Staff Writer

IT’S ONE of those grim afternoons when the whole of L.A. seems to have simply up and vanished; disappeared behind a dirty, gray scrim of smog and haze. You could have sworn you saw it just a moment ago. So where did it all get to so fast?

On days like this, Ry Cooder would just as soon tuck himself away anyway, conjure up something else to fit in the absence.
His hideaway-cum-laboratory is an old relic of a studio — Sound City — slipped into a nondescript cul-de-sac in Panorama City. “Things here still have tubes and things,” says the musician-composer, taking a brief pause in a small kitchen area redolent with the bitter scent of overheated coffee and must. “It’s an old busted-up place. Isn’t it great?” His face lights up as he takes in the clutter: magazine stacks and mismatched mugs and someone’s shoes parked in a corner. In a rumpled white T-shirt over line-cook checks and navy blue Vans edged in orange, Cooder looks like a veteran swing-shift man on break, ready to pull another double.

It’s not so far from the truth. What Cooder’s been busy constructing in these beat-up rooms is a commensurately fading story: his latest recording, “Chavez Ravine” — a long glance back at a now-vanished Los Angeles and a poor hilltop neighborhood, rich in traditions whose memory hovers like a dream.

Spending time with him over many months, it becomes clear the project is his most personal and, perhaps, most challenging to date. It’s been an exercise in memory, history, myth-making — trying to reconstruct not just a physical place, but a way of life, plank by plank.

The tale he has set out to tell is a path as steep and full of turns as the unpaved roads leading up to that old neighborhood: By the early 1950s, the mostly Mexican and Mexican American residents of the La Loma, Bishop and Palo Verde neighborhoods were evicted to make room for an expansive federal housing project. The plan pitted idealistic liberals against progress-minded conservatives, both businessmen and politicians — all under the long shadow of McCarthyism — and then came the curveball. By decade’s end, the Los Angeles Dodgers won out, crowning the hilltop with their then-state-of-the-art stadium.

Cooder’s project, with elements that reach well beyond the recording studio, has occupied all four corners of his imagination and has required a lion’s share of his energy and time. Even in a career arc that has been as wide and idiosyncratic as his, it is incomparable to anything he’s embarked on in his 40 years in the music business — including his critically acclaimed and creatively rejuvenating Cuban project, “Buena Vista Social Club.”

For the native Angeleno, exploring the Chavez Ravine story is not so much about setting the record straight, but setting down a different sort of record. “I’m just simply saying, ‘I remember the way L.A. used to be. And I like it that way,’ ” he says.

On this day late last summer, Cooder has just about hit the two-year mark in this ambitious musical assemblage, steeped in collaboration with seminal artists from L.A.’s Latin music scene. He’s closing in. The tracks are recorded, the liner notes written (by journalist Ruben Martinez). The record, he hopes, will be a 360-degree exploration of a neighborhood — in texture and mood. Its palette — a melange of styles: corrido, jazz and pop, conjunto and some shades of R&B — is as diverse and hard to pinpoint as Los Angeles itself.

He’s got more ideas, other ways to make this out-of-mothballs story resonate: “I want to build this ice cream truck, like the old Good Humor trucks that used to go through the neighborhood,” he says. “But inside the box, we’ll have a diorama of the ravine. On the outside, I want to have a mural where every panel tells a piece of the story. I’ve already found the guy. He lives in Texas. He’s a genius Chicano artist, Vincent Valdez.”

Then, of course, that whole process should be documented, Cooder figures. For that task, he’s tapped a longtime friend, filmmaker Stacy Peralta. “It can be filmed for a DVD to be released with the record instead of doing one of those god-awful videos,” he says with a rueful shake of the head, as if he’s bitten into something bitter. “It won’t be textbook-y though.”

By this time, he has wound himself through a warren of dim hallways and back into one of the recording booths. Time and place seem to have pulled away. Under the yellow glow of spare light, it might as well be 3 a.m. in here. And while there are concessions to progress and innovation — a laptop here, CD changers there — it could be 30 years ago, perhaps more. Something Cooder likes. “Records are not museum pieces. This studio is retro, older. So it’s complementary to textures we’re after.”

The man in the engineer’s chair, Jerry Boys, is no stranger. He also worked on “Buena Vista” — both the record and the film. He’s ready now to cue it all up for Cooder, who settles into a patched-up sofa, chin in palm, to listen.

There’s the establishing sonic shot: In “Poor Man’s Shangri-La,” nighttime Los Angeles comes to life, a homeboy (in the voice of Cooder) spinning stories just as a space vato sweeps by in his UFO looking for a party, a fusion of grooves — partly tropical, partly citified and full-on joyous.

On the next track, the great Lalo Guerrero, the father of Chicano music, leaps in with a brazen one-two punch, a strutting corrido, telling of the boxing Chavez brothers who lived in the ravine’s Palo Verde and La Loma neighborhoods.

Further along the road, the space vato returns in the voice of bandleader Don Tosti (“Pachuco Boogie”) to warn the residents of the ravine’s future. “He’s saying, ‘The barrio is changing; they are going to bury our homes.’ But nobody believed him. They thought, ‘We have rights in America,’ ” Cooder translates, over the chilliness of Juliette Commagere’s dreamy vocal, just as the song collapses into a smear of otherworldly echoes and whirs.

It bends this way and that. In English and Spanish then back again, it’s moody, zany, seductive and uncategorizable — more cinema or opera than garden-variety pop album. Cooder is smiling as it all crawls by. In this space, in this bubble, everything is light and easy — until it isn’t. Track 10 unscrolls: a slinky reworking of Leiber and Stoller’s “Three Cool Cats” featuring Willie G. of Thee Midniters fame, Gil Bernal on tenor sax. Cooder taps out the rhythm, until he hears something. Something off. Boys hears it too. Without a word or even an exchanged glance, all stops — like a train in trouble.

The colloquy is over. Cooder’s disposition has gone dark. He and Boys huddle for a moment and Cooder settles, disconsolate, scrunched back into his corner of the sofa. “I like environment in music,” he explains. “It locates something between you and the listener. And that was just starting to sound too roomy. Too vague.”

“It’s got the arm in the wrong place,” Boys says. “We’ll do it again. Where do you want to start, Ry?”

They dismantle it — the timbales here, Bernal’s horn there, the purring girls there, the sound of tires on pavement — isolating the problem, which just might be something with the timbales. “The bass drum is sitting about right,” Cooder says. “Well, let’s see if we can make it walk across the room.”

After much tinkering, Boys hands over a CD. Cooder makes for the door.

“Gotta hear it the way people do riding around. If you’re in your car it won’t be as glorious and pretty as it is in that old studio,” he says, venturing outside. It’s inky black out by now. He climbs into his Toyota truck and slips in the disc. “It’s got to be funny and mysterious right away. Otherwise, you’ll just stop and go get a sandwich.” The sounds of some far-off neighborhood at twilight fill the car, and Cooder nods along — the girls purr, the timbales strut, the dogs bark. It doesn’t sound bad. But what he doesn’t say is that it sounds good enough. “Close but no cigar.”


Of late, it’s been difficult to tell if Cooder is haunting a neighborhood or if it’s haunting him. He’s been on this ride since encountering photographer Don Normark’s dreamy pictures at an Echo Park gallery more than three years ago. The two connected and Normark told Cooder of his plan to make a documentary about his time reacquainting with the families from the old neighborhood. He needed some music and Cooder figured he could help him out. “After all these years, I had this floating stuff in the drawers.”

But it didn’t stop there. “Why not do some music?” he figured. “But in order to do that you have to write it. There aren’t any songs about Chavez Ravine as such. So that’s what got me going.”

He motored down to Palm Springs to meet with Guerrero, whom many credit with helping to articulate the Chicano experience in song — mixing Spanish-language lyrics with swing and R&B, giving birth to a new sound.

Next Tosti, the colorful bandleader who tipped off a music and dance craze in 1948 with his zoot suit-inspired “Pachuco Boogie,” which married jazz and jump-blues with a mix of Latin rhythms to become the first million-selling Latin record.

They wrote some tunes. “I’d go to see Willie G., get him going. I’d say, ‘Look what I did with Lalo here, see, there’s something to this.’ ”

But even after Cooder handed over a mix for Normark he couldn’t seem to shake the story. “I started to think, ‘This is a really good thing to do. I’m going to do it some more.’ ”

Three years and more than $350,000 of his own money later, Cooder is knee-deep in it. He’s faced disappointments and delays, and has weathered the passing of two of the old-guard contributors, Guerrero and Tosti. “Who knows? After all of this, I may end up living in a cardboard lean-to somewhere.” (The record is slated for release June 14 from Nonesuch/Perro Verde Records.)

But Cooder’s career has been nothing if not unconventional and full of risks. Born in Santa Monica, he began playing guitar at 3. By his mid-teens, he’d planted himself firmly on the L.A. folk and blues scene in the early ’60s. He immediately amassed an impressive roster of associations — Jackie DeShannon, Taj Mahal and Captain Beefheart, among others.

A slide-guitar virtuoso and a keenly adroit composer, Cooder has been called many things — an “archivist,” a “world music pioneer,” labels he finds utterly distasteful. “You come back from Cuba and it creates this illusion that you’re some sort of guy with a big, thick stack of airline tickets just going everywhere. Just whimsically cruising around the world,” he says. “That’s far from the truth. I don’t do that. I don’t even like the idea. I like to stay home.”

Though he’s spent a good portion of his career absorbing and extrapolating all manner of roots music and source sounds — American blues, Tex-Mex, Hawaiian, African and Indian — Cooder puts his work in more straightforward terms: “I consider myself a fan of the music.”

But what has often sent him searching, digging deeper for the purest elements, is a quality that can’t be simply articulated: “There are people who generate excitement … who are transcendently gifted,” he says. People like Gabby Pahinui, the Hawaiian slack guitarist, or Cuban guitarist Compay Segundo. “Call it a ‘source person’ if you like. I try to understand these things. How is it done? To this day, it’s a mystery.”

Consequently, Cooder has earned disparate camps of fans — those guitar heads who want to know if he cut his own bottle necks; “the traditionalists” who sink into the crevices of his roots music; or those who came later drawn by his contemplative, horizon-less film scores, including “Paris, Texas,” “Johnny Handsome” and “The End of Violence.”

“Chavez Ravine” falls somewhere in the middle of all this. It certainly plays on Cooder’s ravenous curiosity, his itch to get at the source of things. But it is also the story of his native city and his complex relationship with it: The crass overpopulated L.A. that he races to get through — the city it has become — and the one full of open space and secrets that resides in his memory.

This project then was the perfect work for him at the perfect time. “After Cuba I just did not know, ‘What the hell are you gonna do now? You’ve seen the best in the world. The last of the true oracle-grade vernacular musicians.’ Everything was old and crumbling. Even the people. You come back here and the past is dead.”

Cooder, 58, has been trying to get a fix on something long gone, not so much to pay tribute to it but to prop it up and dust it off and show us all how it is still vibrant and essential. From the beginning, the challenge was, “To build a mood … something that you can sustain every day. Because you have to get up every day and look at this thing.”


Cooder is sitting in the shade on the courtyard near the Flower Street entrance of downtown’s Central Library. It’s a hot day, but you can feel the crispness of autumn edging into the air. In his sand-colored work pants, a muted floral shirt and a pair of canvas shoes known affectionately around the neighborhood as “winos,” he would blend in as just one of the afternoon idlers ruminating on the benches and banisters if not for his big, goggle-like sunglasses, the frames the yellow of taxicabs. “I’ve been here for an hour, getting my head together,” he says. “Had some coffee.”

He gathers up his tote bag full of his essentials — a slim, caramel-colored Filofax, a large Moleskine notebook, some CDs and some stray notes, then makes his way down to one of the sub-basements where the library’s photo collection is stored. As well as looking for images for the CD booklet and others to hand over to the Texas muralist, Cooder has hopes for a map. “One of those big ones that used to hang in offices downtown that they’d frame. The ones that show the whole city.”

Carolyn Cole, who heads up the photo collection, brings over a pile of pictures in a folder marked “slums.” “Aliso Village. Bunker Hill too! Oh, I’m going to get seriously sidetracked,” Cooder says. He pages through picture after picture — bucolic L.A., old-growth trees, Victorian houses, street corners that have recognizable names but not features. “I spend at least a minute every day being mad about what happened to Bunker Hill,” he says with a grim head shake. “Bastards got away with murder!”

A bit later, Cole leads Cooder to another room to look through other folders and boxes of photos. Then he attacks the street atlases. He opens one and sniffs the pages: “This is real good but I need something larger.” One of Cole’s colleagues sails in with a roll-up map. Hand drawn, blue ink on tan, the streets — Malvina, Reposa, Palducah — clearly marked. “This is it. This is the thing. Very exactly.”

Some days aren’t so smooth. He’s been on all manner of chases since this whole thing started. He’s crisscrossed the region — on the 60 Freeway, the 110, the 5, the 10, after one thing or another. He’s run up thousands of minutes on his cellphone securing permissions, talking to his musicians, people at the label. He’s darted out to Whittier in the driving rain to pick up snapshots; he’s been to Texas to meet with artist Valdez. He catches up with the crew working on the ice cream truck, and talks to filmmaker Peralta, whose schedule is starting to get squeezed.

Amid it all, Cooder has been caught up in other research — reading, talking to writers and scholars. Finding the book “The Provisional City: Los Angeles Stories of Architecture and Urbanism” by Dana Cuff, a professor of architecture at UCLA, was a crucial turning point. “Her book set the mood of a hidden world … and hidden beauty of the past. It was all about what had happened to a way of living in the city,” he says. “It went beyond the idea of ‘good old times’ and ‘how sad.’ Because ‘how sad’ doesn’t get you anywhere.”

The book opened a clear path for his imagination. “I thought, ‘Hallelujah! All I have to do is score this book — treat the book as a film.’ The book got me…. I read it five, six times…. Then I began to convert it into a mood. You’ve got to convert information into a mood so that you find yourself in it.”

While he’s after the story, he’s also after the ambience and atmosphere of hidden corners of the city and tapping into precisely what that might feel like — the spiky quarrels between mother and daughter, vatos on the corner, the apprehension of the advancing bulldozers, the rush of a Saturday night opening up under the stars.

“I think this is so unique,” says his son, drummer Joachim Cooder, who is also one of “Chavez Ravine’s” key collaborators, stitching together samples taken from Tuvan throat singers, old drum machines and random Cuban sessions for the backspace. “With the Cubans, you just go there and play. It’s totally not thought out. And if it was thought out, it would end up being not what you thought. But this is his hometown and he is such a connoisseur of L.A. history.

“So this is a whole other ballgame.”


By February, Cooder’s had another brainstorm. Most likely, it won’t be his last.

Peralta’s out and a discussion with another potential filmmaker, Philip Rodriguez, has consequently cast a light on an area he hadn’t explored. “The psycho developer wreaking havoc,” Cooder explains. So that got him thinking. Then writing. What emerged was the song “In My Town.”

“It’s very dark and fairly horrible,” he says with equal parts assuredness and glee. “The idea is that you come out of the neighborhood and then you suddenly hear this psychopath. It just boots it into a different realm.” He rubs his hands in a way that says, “Very nice.”

He books another old-school studio — Studio B at Capitol records — and flies in jazz musician Jacky Terrasson from New York and sits him down at Nat Cole’s old piano.

Not only is there this new song, Cooder has now decided against the film (too costly, too time-consuming). The record has been re-sequenced and remixed yet again. “I just kept having this horrible leaden feeling. Now, I feel good instead of that hideous sense of disappointment. Like, can’t I please like something?”

He’s also decided to pen the liner notes himself, realizing he had to locate himself in the project somehow. “If I back off, people will wonder, ‘What’s the deal with that?’ ” He’s been keenly aware from the beginning that he may be viewed as an outsider: “What does some boy from Santa Monica know about all this? You better know what you don’t know.”

Writer Martinez (“I’ve never been fired in a nicer way”) admits he had his antenna up when he got the first call about the liner notes. “But Cooder is a different kind of animal when it comes to the intercultural project,” the author of “The New Americans” says. “His collaborations are a world apart from those of Paul Simon or Peter Gabriel where [artists put themselves] front-and-center against an exotic backdrop. Cooder’s projects weren’t ego-driven. On ‘Buena Vista Social Club,’ his name was not [big] on the cover. His guitar was buried in the mix. So I’ve always respected him for that. And if nothing else, recording Don Tosti’s and Lalo Guerrero’s swan songs will earn his place in heaven.”

Cooder has been obsessed with getting it right.

“By the time he came to me he already had the concept but wanted to be able to put a heartbeat to it,” says Willie G., who collaborated with Cooder on nearly half a dozen songs.

As an L.A. native who had family who lived in Chavez Ravine, Willie G. (born William Garcia), feels that this project is not just a tribute to a neighborhood but to Guerrero. “Lalo was out there shaking the trees. His music helped us to bridge our identities. Our community is so much more than a location. We have so much more than any politician could try to take away from us,” he says.

While the album is a celebration of collaboration, one would be wrong to think of “Chavez Ravine” as “Buena Vista Social Club: L.A.” That’s what’s also sort of needling Cooder — trying to get people to think beyond what they’re accustomed to and explaining a record that really has no precedent.

So how to make that dent — create a bridge that listeners will cross? “With Lalo and Don and Willie, we had the real quality,” Cooder says. “We had the possibility of making the whole thing take you somewhere where you weren’t quite expecting to go. The journey is a real journey. Not just cool or styling cool. Because we are just swamped with that now.”

For many longtime Angelenos, the album’s wash of moods, rhythms and cultural touchstones will be deeply resonant. That’s because in many respects “Chavez Ravine” is the soundtrack to an intrinsically Latin city constantly in flux. But its story extends much further. “There is a part of this [neighborhood’s story] that is fundamentally Los Angeles,” says author-professor Cuff. “It’s about landscape, about Latino history, architecture and modern housing. But it is a story of eminent domain that plays out in a lot of cities. Small houses of poor people of color become the terrain of the big dream of city fathers,” she says. “That’s why the story of Chavez Ravine hooks into one’s heart. There was no easy answer. Big dreams are often imperfect. But we shouldn’t stop ourselves from dreaming big.”


It’s getting on to evening and Cooder’s holed up at the Santa Monica Airport, where he keeps a small studio. It’s cozy, dimly lighted and a bit scuffed up around the edges. It’s quiet but what he also appreciates are the low, spread-out vistas that obscure most traces of the modern city.

Just a few steps away, there’s a small auto shop where a crew works on the ice cream truck. He peeks in for a bit. Geoff Giammarco has been pulling 12- to 15-hour shifts on the truck, though all of it — mural and diorama — won’t be ready until long after the album is released. Up on blocks, all brushed silver, it looks as if it’s already in motion — almost as if it has taken flight. “This is now going to be the visual element,” Cooder says. “Imagine that riding up Solano. Going to one of the reunions. Playing the music.”

Although it is still only spring, he’s already not too happy with what lies immediately around the corner. Meet-and-greets and interviews and “meetings with men in the square-toed shoes.” Performing is out of the question. “Tosti’s dead and Lalo’s dead. So, really, what would we do?” And anyway, Cooder says of his performing days, “Afterward, I always feel worn out, like a [helium] balloon under a chair after a party.”

In his perfect world, this record alone would be all he’d need. It would be a marker, a way to keep this way of life present and among the living.

“I try to say something there about the timbre of life. If you look at these pictures and listen to the music … what does it really seem to be about?” Cooder says. “It seems like it is about something small and something intimate and something quiet and something that I like.”

Photo by Susan Titelman

Jon Cleary’s New Orleans Education

By Lynell George, Special to the Los Angeles Times
April 20, 2012
NEW ORLEANS — Pianist Jon Cleary has lived in this city all of his life: Even when he didn’t. Long before he saw it. And even when he was in forced exile from it.

A musician by trade, a storyteller by consequence, Cleary has deeply absorbed New Orleans’ pace and idiosyncrasies and, over time, its distinctive stories and sound. “My ambition,” he says, “has always been to come to New Orleans.”

Cleary, whose genre-bending style is steeped in early traditional New Orleans R&B, soul and funk, is not a household name but he’s recorded and toured with marquee artists such as Taj Mahal and Bonnie Raitt (with whom he worked for more than a decade). However, over the past three decades he’s become a keeper of the city’s traditions and its unique musical history, traveling the world, conveying New Orleans’ elusive character in song.

He will be doing a little New Orleans evangelizing in a rare appearance in Los Angeles with his trio the Philthy Phew, opening for soul-singing powerhouse Bettye LaVette at UCLA Live on Saturday. The show coincides with a new album, “Occapella,” featuring the music of one of his piano influences, Allen Toussaint, with cameos by Raitt andDr. John.

His sound is rooted deep in these old neighborhoods, deep in New Orleans’ DNA — a bright, rollicking tumble that blends the city’s sorrow and pleasure into one sound. Since he can remember, “That was the music that pressed all the buttons,” he says, sitting at a sidewalk table at the Sound Cafe amid the faded Creole cottages in the Upper 9th Ward. “So it’s what I pursued with a zeal.”

Born in London, raised in Kent, England, Cleary, 49, arrived in New Orleans at 17, for what was to be a vacation. “My gap year before I went off to university,” he says, but Cleary never left. “I got dropped right in the deep end,” he says, “I was like a detective on a mission.”

New Orleanians are particular about their story and who tells it. That role, Cleary knows, comes with expectations — even more for someone who didn’t spring from the ground here. But he’s found a place within the city’s long piano-playing lineage, mostly by putting himself in the right places to learn, often from the sources themselves.

With musicians here, the measure is simple, ” ‘Can he play or can he not?'” says Ben Sandmel, a New Orleans-based journalist and musician, and author of “Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans. “He has his own style. And in a city full of musicians, he’s very well respected.”

He’s a solid fixture of the city’s club circuit and a staple on the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival lineup often featuring him and his band — the Absolute Monster Gentlemen — known for its deep-funk sets that braid together strains of New Orleans music such as jazz, blues, boogie-woogie, R&B with the flow of the Caribbean and a full charge of ’70s funk.

“He’s the world’s best-kept secret,” says Raitt, who hired him after an L.A. recording session in 1999 impressed with his fluidity and depth. “He brought in all these styles, just pulled them out of the ether. But he deepened our forays into those various influences, because he speaks those [musical] languages very well. And what he’s learned, he learned by osmosis.”

It was New Orleans’ sound that first got deep under his skin. His uncle John, a musician and painter who traveled the world, would send notes from the road: “It wouldn’t be a normal letter,” Cleary recalls, “but a big piece of paper folded into little bits with illustrations — talking about Professor Longhair and Mardi Gras and Indians and the Zulu Parade.” Then came the records, 45s his uncle brought back in suitcase. “He’d point out the solos.” Cleary who’d picked up the guitar by then, wanted to know all of it.

When he landed in New Orleans in 1980 with $100 in his pocket, somewhere between hearing Earl King sing at the Maple Leaf Bar and dropping half his money in a rare-record store, he realized he wasn’t leaving.

His master class ended up being the Maple Leaf, where he picked up odd jobs and a rotation of players slinked through: “The blues pianist Roosevelt Sykes used to hang out … with his suit on and his big hat, tinkling away,” he recalls. “And James Booker happened to be living upstairs. So I’d be painting, and this piano music would be wafting [through] …” he recalls. “That’s when I became a piano player.”

New Orleans isn’t just a way of life, he quickly learned, it’s its own atmosphere. And in those many months coaxing out musicians’ stories, watching them play — he’d severely overstayed his welcome. Not with players, but with the government when his visa expired after several extensions. “I was unceremoniously sent back and told I couldn’t come back. It was like going from color to black and white.”

Eventually, the promise of work (and “thousands and thousands of dollars of lawyers’ fees”) returned him stateside. The time away only underscored his early intuition: “New Orleans music is like an accent. You can tell when it’s not quite right,” he explains. “To really convey it properly, you have to live here. You have to drink the water and eat red beans on Monday and know what it means. To know what it means to bounce down the road with your belly full of beer on your way to a second line [procession].”

It’s about being caught in the swirl of it — not just telling the story, but being part of it: “New Orleans music is really about three things: Good songs, good funk and a good time.”

photo credit: jesse hiatt via latimes.