There’s Something in the Water in Watts, Where Music is Alive and Well

By Raquel Vasquez
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Source: Amber Christine Photography

Outside of the Watts towers, riots and zoot suiters, what do you know about the city of Watts?

Originally Watts was a railroad town with nothing in it. In the 1930’s and 40’s, Watts was an even mixture of immigrants. “Everybody just got along” has been quoted I don’t know how many times. Mexicans, African-Americans, Jews, Asians, and Russians all lived next door to each other.

Ok, so all of that is fine and dandy. However, there was something in the water in Watts. There has been more than one book written about the musicians that have come from Watts, in particular Jordan High School. The era of the 40’s swing, jazz and latin jazz and big band orchestras had very formidable musicians that all came from the Watts area. Famous musicians Anthony Ortega, Ray Vasquez, Ray Victor, Paul Lopez, Chico Sesma, Chuy Ruiz, Buddy Collette to name a few all came from this neighborhood. So I decided to take a drive down to Jordan High School in Watts to see for myself how things had changed. Turns out nothing had changed. Nothing had changed in 77 years.

Mr. Herb McMullen Classically Trained Musician and Music Teacher Photo Credit Raquel Vasquez

For over half a century Jordan High School Music Department has stayed alive with zero help, without any outside support. I walked into the music department to see such a mix of very old equipment and somewhat new. Two worlds that were mixing like a glass of oil and water. The piano that is prominently displayed in the classroom made me wonder if I was in a High School or a haunted house. Yet the students were smiling and had an innocence to them. It was my observation that these kids have been sheltered. Sheltered under the umbrella of a completely undeveloped city with nothing in it. You do not hear these kids crying to “save our ghetto” like the communities of Highland Park, and Echo Park. Maybe because there are no mom and pop shops.

There is no fresh smell of pan dulce and cafe con leche as you walk down these barren streets. There are no fashion stores, auto body shops, car washes and pinata party stores. There is nothing. They don’t have interesting book store’s, cafe’s or pedicure salons. There are no beautiful bowling alleys or craft beer bars to complain about. Jordan High School is surrounded by three of the largest housing projects west of the Mississippi. You have the Jordan Downs Projects, the Imperial Courts Projects, and the Nickersons Projects. All creators of bloods and crips gangs. Over 2000 units of housing authority projects were built in the 50’s. You see dusty narrow streets with no sidewalks. You see empty lots and alcoholic bums asleep on the street. You’ll see unemployed men loitering, all within blocks of the city schools and the Watts Towers. (the city’s notable art installation by Italian artist Simon Rodia.)

Post World War II, instead of beating segregation, hate and racism world wide, we only beat it for Europe, and kept it alive and kicking in America. In Los Angeles 1944, the city council established the Los Angeles Bureau of Music as part of the Municipal Art Department. I called the LAUSD yesterday to inquire about funding. They had twenty reasons why they couldn’t answer one of my questions. Their websites art page was inactive, and the music education page was currently unavailable.

The Haunted Piano at Jordan High Photo Credit Raquel Vasquez

Today, Jordan High has the gift of music director Mr. Herb McMullen. “Mr. Mac” is an educated man. He has his Masters degree in Music Composition Jazz Performance and Musicology, and his BA in Music Education. His love of music was sprouted from a sibling tug of war.

“My sister came home with a music book in her hand, and I said “what’s that?, I want one too!” Mr. Mac has been at Jordan High school since 1995. As educated as he is, he can relate to these kids because he grew up in the projects of Ohio. I had the wonderful honor of interviewing Mr. Mac. First thing I noticed is how available he is to his students. I asked Mr. Mac what are some of his observations of the community?

“Gangs are still here, grandparents are raising kids, siblings are raising kids because of drug addict parents, and moving a lot. Parents can’t afford the rent so they have to move.” At one time, Jordan High School offered a brass marching band and symphonic concert orchestra, harmony, glee club, and acapella choir classes. This was a way to have opportunity handed to you, a way to change your life forever. Being able to play music at an assembly gives a kid confidence. “Programming is something we’re working on, so students can take music for more than two years.”

“Two years is not long enough to learn how to read and write music.” As I was interviewing Mr. Mac, I noticed his class also offers music lessons to special ed students. Mr. Mac said, “most students want to do better. They have me call their parents to make sure they can participate.” Mr. Mac has the support of the generation prior to his class of today. These kids parents attended the same high school. “These are the good kids” says Mr Mac.” The bad kids don’t even come to school, they’re in the projects doing what they do.”

As I sat there in class, none of the students were shy, none of them intimidated. 7 out of 9 of his students when asked, had never heard of LACMA. Los Angeles County Museum of Art is 19 miles away. One 17 year old student told me her parents were immigrants. Her father is a painter and handyman, her mother in the custodial field. When asked if she would consider music as a lifelong profession she said “yes” but the look on her pretty face tells me she had never considered it.

I asked Mr Mac what is the most important thing needed for this department, without hesitation he uttered ‘instruments.” Another student, who never stopped hitting the practice drum pads the whole time I was there said, “I’m not interested in learning beat machines, I play the drums.” Songs like “Satin Doll” by Duke Ellington and “killer Joe” by Quincy Jones are introduced in Mr Mac’s curriculum, the students say “how OLD are these songs?!”

Mr. Mac Keeps a Good Attitude on the Broken Instruments Photo Credit Raquel Vasquez

After this interview I decided to call the local Musicians Union 47. The same exact musicians union that advocated fair wages, fair working conditions through solidarity and collective action with dignity and respect for musicians since 1897. I had called a few times, and finally got a hold of vice president Mr Rick Babtist. I asked Mr Babtist if the union was involved with any organisations to encourage and support young musicians today.

Mr Babtist was very pleased to tell me everything the union had to offer students in the areas of Burbank, Glendale, La Canada, and Verdugo areas. All areas with a median income of $157,000 per household, (according to a 2008 estimate) compared to the median annual income of $31,380 of Watts. I asked how and who started this? Mr Babtist answered “the parents reached out to us.” 

This presents a clear challenge. Who is going to reach out for the kids of Watts? How do we encourage diversity to unions, organizations and charities? How do we get instruments for Jordan High School?

The student musicians of Jordan High School have proudly participated in live performances with Jennifer Hudson and Sheila E for XQ School Live, Partnership for LA Schools Annual Gala, The Watts Christmas Parade, and Dodgers Gala for the LAFD. They have also been invited to perform at the Disney Studio for a screening of Coco and were featured in a drum and line performance for a Mayor Garcetti Press Conference.

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