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Nine O'clock Blues: Central Avenue And Charles Brown

OnCentral KPCC
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From the beginning of the 1920s through the late 1950s Los Angeles’ Central Avenue was the center of Southern California’s African-American community and the cradle of the Central Avenue Blues and Jazz styles.

According to Wynton Marsallis "Central Avenue was the 52nd Street of Los Angeles," a reference to the Manhattan street that was a giant in the development of New York’s primacy in the world of Jazz. Among the artists who emerged from the Central Avenue scene were Nat King Cole, Charles Brown, Eric Dolphy, Art Pepper, Chico Hamilton, and Charles Mingus.

Lionel Hampton wrote and frequently played “Central Avenue Breakdown”, reflecting his fond memories of his home territory.


The area may have ceased to be the driving force of west coast music that it once was, but there are still some very nice vestiges of the golden days such as the Central Avenue Jazz Festival and a small number of Jazz and Blues clubs, including 2nd Street Jazz located in what is now Little Tokyo.

Long dominating the Central Avenue scene was Blues pianist and vocalist Charles Brown. It takes one heck of a musician to remain at the peak of his game for over half a century, Brown was one of the few who have managed it.


Tony Russell “Charles” Brown was born in Texas City, Texas, in 1922. Graduating from High School in Galveston, he went on to a degree in chemistry from Prairie View A&M College. Among his early jobs were high school chemistry teacher, mustard gas worker in Arkansas, and apprentice electrician.

In 1943 he settled in Los Angeles where he developed the knack for piano that he had shown as a child. Although he began as a classically trained pianist, Charles easily blended into the developing Central Avenue Jazz and Blues club scene.

Nat King Cole was one of the best known developers of the Central Avenue sound. Charles Brown, Cole, and several others evolved a piano style exemplified by a gentle rhythmic bass from the left hand coupled with a tinkling right hand and smooth, sophisticated vocals. Nat was the sound’s leading Jazz influence while Charles applied similar techniques and ideas to the Blues.

Late in World War Two Nat King Cole moved beyond LA to perform nationally and Charles Brown stepped into some of the club jobs vacated by Cole’s trio. Soon after, in 1945, Brown recorded his signature piece, “Driftin’ Blues” and the six months the song spent on the Billboard R & B chart propelled Charles to the forefront of the California Blues sound.


For the next half century Charles Brown maintained his supremacy over the Central Avenue scene. Before his passing in 1999 Charles Brown received major recognition for his contributions including several Grammy Awards, election to The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a National Endowment for the Arts' National Heritage Fellowship and the top accolade of the Blues world, the W. C. Handy Award.

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