The World Stage Fights for Survival


By Melina Paris, Music Columnist

Two days after a peaceful community rally against George Zimmerman’s acquittal turned violent by a dozen youth, organizers for the World Stage Rent Festival worried that continual heavy police presence may deter fans from attending the fundraiser.

By evening time, only two squad cars remained on Degnan Boulevard.

Writer, poet, and festival emcee Michael Datcher set the tone for the evening by explaining the purpose of the evening’s performance.

“The rent, meaning our bills and festival, meaning joy and the celebration of art and culture,” Datcher said. “We call the World Stage a church because there is a spiritual vibe here.”

Rent Fest brought two nights of live music and spoken word performances. Some of the best musicians and artists in Los Angeles came out to perform on the World Stage. They did so at no cost, speaking to the importance of this venue in the Southern California jazz scene and to its continuing legacy.

Jazz vocalist, Dwight Trible performed with a quartet of musicians who are at the vanguard of Los Angeles jazz scene. The members included John Beasley on piano, Miguel Atwood Ferguson on viola, Trevor Ware on upright bass, and Paul Legaspi on drums.

The Charles Owens Quartet opened the show and The Mayungo Jackson All Star Lineup closed it. It was a thrill to see that four of the young players in this sextet were University of Southern California jazz students.

It was Trible’s idea to host the festival. As a protege of jazz greats, Billy Higgins, Horace Tapscott, and poet Kamau Daaood, Trible has inherited the flame to carry on the legacy of the World Stage. Trible says the World Stage is why we have a Leimert Park.

“These people have given so much to me,”  Trible said. “I’m blessed that I was worthy of their time and wisdom. Instinctively they knew one day it may come down to me.”

The late jazz drummer Billy Higgins and Kamau Daaood co-founded the World Stage in 1989 for the purpose of creating a place for artists and musicians to meet, rehearse and share work in the community. It is now a Leimert Park-based arts institution that offers seven days of programs in both jazz and writing workshops. There is no paid staff. Everything is done on a volunteer basis. Trible was recently asked to take the helm of the World Stage by its board of directors and deal with the crisis.

After the 1992 Los Angeles Rebellion, Leimert Park’s growth as a center for African-American arts and culture mirrored the growth of other arts districts around Los Angeles, from Old Town Pasadena to Venice, and from Downtown Los Angeles to San Pedro. It was venues such as the World Stage and the Kaos Network (which fostered a thriving underground hip hop scene) that gave Leimert park the cultural cache that it enjoys today.

“We are in financial crisis for various reasons,”explained Datcher about the dilemma the venue is in. “In part because of the economy, in part, because of the downturn of this neighborhood, there is less foot traffic here. As a result, our clientele is shrinking. Our clientele have their particular financial difficulties as well. So as a result, that spinning effect, like the spider web, has been catching us. And now we’re caught.”

For more than 10 years, Leimert Park has been fighting to remain as a center of black cultural arts against the forces of shrinking foot traffic due to the economy and gentrification and the steady pricing out of local shop owners renting space in the area. Unlike other arts districts, even fewer artist-business owners own their building, making them all the more susceptible to gentrification.

For the past 10 years, developers have been buying up the buildings on Degnan Avenue. Few of the new property owners could care less whether the Leimert Park area maintains its credibility as cultural arts district. As tenants, the merchants only interaction with the owners is through a property management company that has been deploying aggressive management practices since the takeover.

The World Stage board of directors has tried to meet with their councilman, Herb Wesson. Leimert was annexed to the 10th District from Councilman Bernard Park’s 8th district in 2010. Trible and other Leimert Park residents say that Wesson’s office has paid little attention to them. It took Wesson’s office more than two months to meet with the group. They were scheduled to meet with Wesson on Aug. 7. Random Lengths called Wesson’s office for comment but  did not receive a response before the publication date.

As Dwight Trible said, “If there is no World Stage, there is no Leimert Park.”

That seems to be the rub. Merchants speculate that the buying frenzy in the area is due to the city’s commitment to extend the Crenshaw to LAX line station in the area, that will connect Leimert Park  to USC and the Los Angeles International Airport. There was a hard won fight to get a rail stop in Leimert Park on the Expo Line. Now it looks like this buy up is the unintended collateral damage of that battle.

Trible, however, is  hopeful. He says the World Stage needs to own  the property it is in to ensure its survival and protection from being bought out of the community.

Leimert Park resident and community activist, Damien Goodmon, concurs.

“There are two areas [in which] the community needs help. One is advocating for Leimert Park and the other is to focus on buying properties.The bottom line is until we own these structures we are susceptible to market pressures and demand.”

Goodmon, as executive director of the Crenshaw Subway Coalition, was instrumental in getting an Expo Line rail stop in Leimert Park. Goodmon noted that the plan saw local merchants and cultural institutions as being instrumental in keeping Leimert Park’s cultural fabric intact and thriving after the train is built. He noted that the City of Los Angeles owns two lots in the area.

“That is under the ownership of the public and we have a say in that,” Goodmon said.

Goodmon  noted that large corporations have long seen adjacent, affluent Baldwin Hills and View Park communities as reason enough to invest in Leimert Park. Goodmon noted that the challenge in such a scenario is getting those communities to buy into the uniqueness of African-American culture and businesses. It’s critical because we’re talking about preservation of a culture. The effort to share the arts and continue the legacy of the World Stage will go on.

“If it has to be that we have to leave Leimert Park to do that, so be it,” Trible noted. “I would hate for that to happen but we will carry on at a new location. The World Stage is a concept and an idea. I and many others plan to continue on with it one way or another.”

In the meantime, Trible and other World Stage alumni are going to host a major benefit concert on Aug. 18 and execute other initiatives until a long term survival of the venue is secured.

Details: (323) 293-2451
Venue: The World Stage
Location: 4344 Degnan Blvd., Los Angeles


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