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Notes from a Former Downtown Jazz Man

By Ed Fuentes
Published: Thursday, June 07, 2007, at 07:59AM
Jazz Musician Ed Fuentes

With the help of a cane, Downtown resident Arch Belvia slowly headed for cool shade under the trees that line Pershing Square. He was taking a break from working a booth at last Sunday's "Meet your Neighbors" and at 86, he's someone who has seen an urban life that we are hoping for.

He now lives at Angelus Plaza, the retirement complex on Bunker Hill. In the early 60s, while working at LADWP, he watched as some downtowners who never learned to drive were almost stranded when the trolleys were removed. He started driving a cab. In 1977, he was one of the original 100 independently licensed cab driver who formed United Independent Taxi, “The green and white cars,” he adds. In 1984, he sold his share as a founder just after the Olympic Games ended. Before all that, he served in the Army during World War II as a member of the “all-black” 92nd Infantry Division. But in between being a Buffalo Soldier and a cabbie, he was part of Central Ave's jazz nightlife.

Much more after the jump.

Arch Belvia and his bass played the clubs along Central Ave when it was the West Coast center for jazz; the time when it almost rivaled the Harlem clubs. He modestly confessed, "Now, I was in a small group, not a known outfit. But we did play the DownBeat room all the time.” It was the smaller clubs like the DownBeat, and its neighbor Ivy Anderson’s Chicken Shack, that gave the streets around the Dunbar Hotel a legendary nightlife. Both clubs were located across the street from the Club Alabam, the "main room." He described how people of all “colors” came to see headliners like Jellyroll Morton, Miles Davis, and Charlie Parker play, couples looking for sounds and food, and music being heard from the clubs all at once. “The whole place was jumping,” he said, “It was a beautiful time."

He brought up how African-Americans were briefly in Little Tokyo while Japanese-Americans were interred during World War II, saying, “Now, there were clubs all up Central Ave. You know where The New Otani Hotel is now? Across the street was Sheps Playhouse, where we played all the time.’ Lowering to a whisper he added, “That was when it (Little Tokyo) was called ‘Bronzeville’.”

With a faster beat, he said, “Seeing people living downtown again. I’m so happy to see all these buildings alive again, with a mix of cultures.”

He started back to the booth where he was stationed and slowed down. For a moment I thought he was trying to get his balance. I looked back at Arch, and from the middle of Pershing Square with live music playing from the stage, he was looking at the towers on Bunker Hill and said "My city has grown. I'm so glad I got to see this."

Then he spotted the Spring Street Smoke House setting up their booth on the west end of the park. “Come on young man. Let’s get a bite!” he said as he quickly walked past me. He left me in the dust, and from behind he looked like he was back on Central Ave just after playing a set heading toward a café.

His cane was barely touching the ground.

Pictured: Arch Belvia at Pershing Square, Sunday, June 3rd. Photo/EF

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