I guess it’s always a surprise to find that another year have come and gone, then you realize that it’s not just another year, but a decade has come and left.
I’m not naive to believe time should stand still for me,but I was just reflecting with a good friend of mine, who also grew up in LA ,just like I did, he on the Eastside and me in the Watts section of Los Angeles in the Nickerson Garden Projects from 1960-1967, then in January of 1967 we moved to a house in Compton near Rosecrans and Rose Ave.
I remember the Summer of 1966 like it was only yesterday. School let out for the summer in mid June. Now what was I going to do , I had no job prospects , but I had my Music. at the time, I was playing in a bunch of different bands to keep me busy.One day I was lying on the grass in my backyard when suddenly a bunch of people I knew came by and said, hey! If you want a summer job you better go up to Central and 113th street, They’re handing out jobs, free lunches and you have to be at least 15 to get paid. Since I was turning 16 in August I qualified. So I went up and got me a job working with little kids teaching arts & crafts, and basically baby-sitting some little wild kids that never had anybody pay any attention to them or teach them about the arts, have “RAP sessions about life and just growing pains of “being black” in 1960s LA.. All of this just One year removed from one of the worst riots in 20 years , over 34 dead, thousands arrested and over $40 million in property damage. So all of a sudden, a lot of money was flowing into WATTS in general, but L.A. period. This man name ,Ted Watkins founded this Jobs training and youth program, along with the UAW and U.S.Labor department
Also the local politicians needed to find something to counter-balance what had happened just a year before .(1965 Riots) A cultural committee was established of community people along with clergy and politicians. They came up with a cultural project concept of a Festival that recognized Black people who were doing things in the community. Entertainers provided an artistic contribution and artists painted Murals on old or burnt building. Watkins had a full grassroots youth labor movement to clean up the city with paint, brooms, saws, pitch forks , everybody bought-in to chip-in and clean up the city.
To revitalize the area, abandoned buildings became training centers for adults with no job skills, college students,high school students had jobs, Vets returning from Viet Nam found work. By July ,1966 We had heard a rumour of a planned Parade with a big name Grand Marshall and Queen of the Festival. Ultimately, the Festival Committee selected high-profile individual, Sargent Shriver as Marshall and actress Brenda Sykes as 1966 Queen of WATTS Festival.
I was already excited because we were getting ready to do a show in June at Jefferson High school “Alive and Deprived in 65” was the name of the show that featured Our youth band, saxophonist Curtis Amy quintet with Carmello Garcia on Congo. The great Sam Fletcher vocalist and Gerald Wilson Big Band headlining. That was a really big deal to this 14-year-old saxophonist.
So by the end of July 1966, I had two things going for me, I was going to be involved with the very first WATTS Festival, just 12 months after the whole town was in flames. The youth jazz band was appointed by Gerald Wilson to “open” for the Sunday afternoon program of Jazz under the Big Tent in Will Rogers park , Yay!! That was exciting. but I also worked for WLCAC as an art instructor, and they had selected some of my work on Patio furniture made out of old Redwood logs and broken pieces. Myself and two other youngsters my age had formed this company called CHB ENTERPRISES, a teen company. Our work was so good it was selected to appear on the WCLAC float in the parade. We had previously appeared on a local (KTTV) channel, Louis Lomax TV show, mainly because we were denied entrance into the Junior Achievement organization, a national youth business enterprises organization founded to encourage youth to explore business enterprises. They were racist and we exposed them on TV. One year later we got an offer to join them, but we refused and moved on, with dignity intact.
So with all the excitement of being in the very first Festival almost over-whelming to say the least. Two weeks away from the beginning of the new Festival, another rumour started. The new sensational musician that was making waves in the jazz field and on the radio with his new jazz sound on trumpet.
A South African musician named, Hugh Masakela was revising Herbie Hancock’s Cantaloupe Island hit on record. Radio stations could not stop playing this guy’s music from an album entitled, The Americanization of OOGA-BOOGA. Man! did this guy really dominate on radio.. more than Miles Davis, more than Coltrane , more than anybody else on radio including rotation on R&B stations too. He was slated to perform a concert to open up the whole festival on a Friday night at LA Jordan High school. Tickets sold out so fast, I never got a chance to buy any. Its been a major part of the folkloric legacy of the very first WATTS Festival.
The Hugh Masakela Group consisted of Masakela on Trumpet/Flugelhorn/vocals, Larry Willis piano, Henry Franklin Bass, Henry Jenkins Drums and Big Black percussion. Over the years I have either met, or interviewed some of the band members. Most recently over the last two years, I’ve met and befriended Big Black, a tremendous percussionist. I always admired and respected his playing. he’s still active as a musician. (Shown in the picture below) I ran into him on a gig with his old friend and former bandmate, Henry Franklin in Riverside, California.They both sounded very strong some 50 years later. I sometimes wish I had a time machine, since I don’t…I just use the 2nd best method, MUSIC. It always bring you back and take you there too. what a lifetime of great memories through music and travel..the window to my soul.