Highlights from the Ethnomusicology Archive: Bette Cox collection now online

Bette Yarbrough Cox (1921-2017) was a music educator in Los Angeles for more than 30 years, the founder of the BEEM (Black Experience as Expressed through Music) Foundation for the Advancement of Music, a Commissioner of Cultural Affairs for the City of Los Angeles, and a longtime friend of former Mayor Tom Bradley.

As she recalled to the Los Angeles Times in 1995, the school district first accepted the teaching of Black history in the late 1960s, a seismic shift from her UCLA undergraduate days in 1938.  To enhance her classroom curriculum, Cox looked for books about the Black history of music in Southern California.  Her search through the usual channels – library shelves, newspaper clippings, etc. – came up mostly empty.  Cox decided to do something about this lacuna and spent the next 20 years unearthing the untold history behind the music of Black Los Angeles.  She ultimately published her research in the book Central Avenue--Its Rise and Fall, 1890-c. 1955: Including the Musical Renaissance of Black Los Angeles.

As Professor Jacqueline Cogdell Djedje says of the collection:  "Given the fact that African-American musical scholarship has focused primarily on the South, Midwest, and Northeast, the Bette Cox collection is important because it fills a much-needed void. The interviews she conducted with major figures in Los Angeles were used for her book, Central Avenue: Its Rise and Fall (1890-c.1955): Including the Musical Renaissance of Black Los Angeles (1996). Thus, not only was Bette Cox a pioneer in documenting the music of Black Los Angeles, she may have been the first music researcher to bring attention to the importance of the Central Avenue community as a setting for Black musical creativity. Instead of focusing on one genre such as jazz or gospel, her materials cover the entire spectrum of the Black experience in Los Angeles. They provide insights about Los Angeles musical artists representing classical music, religious music, jazz, and more. Since more research is needed on African American regional studies, especially California contributors to the history and development of Black musical traditions, the Cox collection is a major contribution to musical scholarship generally."

The Ethnomusicology Archive holds the Bette Cox collection and is thrilled to announce that all of her recordings relating to African American music in Los Angeles are now available online at California Light and Sound Collection (CLS) on the Internet Archive.  This in thanks to the California Audiovisual Preservation Project (CAVPP).  CAVPP is a partnership of 85 libraries, archives and museums developing a new research resource: an online database of film, video and audio recordings documenting California history.  The project takes a sampling of media from diverse institutions, digitizes them, and makes them freely accessible.  You can check out all the Archive's recordings currently on CLS by going to the Ethnomusicology Archive channel.

I thought I would highlight several of the interviews that were part of Cox's Black Experience as Expressed through Music (BEEM) series, Unsung Musical Heroes and Heroines in the Black Community of Southern California.


In 1935, Jester Hairston (1901-2000) was commissioned to perform in Warner Brothers' Green Pastures.  Hairston moved to Los Angeles in 1936 where he established a successful career as an actor and choir conductor for film music.  In 1949, Hairston began to arrange spirituals and compose when he worked at the College of the Pacific each summer. Not only did he compose the spiritual "Amen" for the film Lilies of the Field starring Sidney Poitier (he also supplied Poitier's singing voice in the film), he was also well known for his acting career in radio (Amos 'n' Andy) and TV  (Amos 'n' Andy, Amen, and That's My Mama).  In addition to being actively involved in the Los Angeles community as a conductor and arranger of spirituals, he traveled extensively to various parts of the world introducing and conducting spirituals.  In fact, the arrangements of his spirituals continue to be performed nationally and globally.


Buddy Collette was a Grammy-nominated jazz saxophonist, flautist, bandleader and educator who played important roles in Los Angeles jazz as a musician and an advocate for the rights of African American musicians.  He was one of the activists instrumental in the 1953 merging of the then all-African American musicians union Local 767 and the all-white Local 47.  Collette had already crossed the color bar before that in 1949 and 1950 by performing as the only African American musician in the orchestra for Groucho Marx's You Bet Your Life radio and television shows. Collette's many non-performing activities included urging the development of the UCLA Oral History project, Central Avenue Sounds, and the co-founding of JazzAmerica, a nonprofit organization working to provide education to gifted high school musicians.  In 1998, Mayor Richard J. Riordan designated Collette "A Living Los Angeles Cultural Treasure."  As an educator, Collette served on the faculties of Loyola Marymount University, Cal Poly Pomona, Cal State Long Beach and Cal State Dominguez Hills.


Pianist Florence Cadrez ''Tiny'' Brantley was the secretary of the Musicians Protective Union Local 767 for sixteen years.  Local 767 was the Black musicians union and was formed in 1920.  In 1953 local 767 merged with the white musicians union, local 47.  "On April 1, 1953, Local 767 and 47 of the American Federation of Musicians, with the approval and consent of their respective memberships, consolidated their two locals under the name of Local 47 American Federation of Musicians."


Ginger Smock (1920–1995) was a violinist, orchestra leader, and local Los Angeles television personality.  She starred in Dixie Showboat on KTLA and led one of the first all-female jazz combos to perform on television. She played in a variety of Los Angeles clubs in the 1940s and 1950s.  She is perhaps best known from her recordings with the Vivien Garry Quintet. In addition to her work in jazz and rhythm & blues, she performed with the All City Symphony Orchestra of Los Angeles.  She was voted into the Black Hall of Fame at the Black Museum of Southern California in 1995.

Again, you can see all the Cox materials online, here.  

And I wanted to finish with a wonderful home movie of Bette Cox from 1972.



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