The Extraordinary Leon Hefflin And His Groundbreaking Cavalcade Of Jazz
Growing up in Compton in the 1960s, Deborah Swan always looked forward to visits from her grandfather, Leon Hefflin Sr. A handsome, dapper man who wore a suit and a hat, Hefflin was a perpetual tinkerer. He had built her brother's bunk bed and created an aromatic tincture, Leon's Foot Ointment.
"He smoked a pipe and was very quiet. He never bragged about himself," Swan recalls. If he had been inclined to do so, he would've had plenty to say.
Hefflin was a dreamer, a serial entrepreneur, a breaker of color barriers and the producer of the Cavalcade of Jazz, a trailblazing annual music festival that L.A. Sentinel columnist Herman Hill once called "the biggest outdoor entertainment event of its kind in America."
For 14 years, from 1945 to 1958, the day-long Cavalcade of Jazz was held each summer at the 21,000-seat Wrigley Field Ballpark in South Los Angeles. Tens of thousands of Angelenos would attend what the L.A. Sentinel described it as "a blue-ribbon jazz fixture of the West Coast" and "one of the greatest events devoted to jazz in the entire country."
"Once a year, they used to have the big Cavalcade of Jazz where they'd start downtown, and they would march all the way down Central Avenue, round to Avalon, back up to Wrigley Field. And then, we had what was called a Cavalcade of Jazz, have all the bands set right on the field," renowned saxophonist Cecil "Big Jay" McNeely recalled in the book Central Avenue Sounds.
The performers were a who's who of popular music. Little Richard, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles and the Raelettes, Sarah Vaughn, Joe Turner, T-Bone Walker, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Dinah Washington, Dizzy Gillespie, Frankie Lane, Joe Adams, Betty Carter, Billy Eckstine, Gerald Wilson, Louis Jordan and Perez Prado. Homegrown stars like The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, Toni Harper and fan favorite Lionel Hampton also performed. Stars such as Josephine Baker and Sammy Davis Jr. were tapped to crown the annual Queen of the Cavalcade.
For Hefflin, the Cavalcade of Jazz was the crowning achievement in a storied life.
Born in Anderson County, Texas in 1898, Hefflin came to California as a child, after his blacksmith father was murdered. He moved to San Diego before heading to Los Angeles, where he lived with his extended family. A precocious carpenter and furniture designer, Hefflin's work was shown at a California state exhibition in 1915, when he was still a teenager. At 18, he was hired as a designer by the Los Angeles Furniture Company.
In the 1920s, Hefflin's siblings joined him in Los Angeles. His gregarious, outgoing brother Bill became a chauffeur for celebrities including Lionel Hampton (Bill would later make a name for himself as a club manager and music promoter). One of his sisters worked as a maid for theater and film director Vincente Minnelli, best known for the movie musicals Meet Me in St. Louis and Gigi.
With the support of his family, Hefflin in 1925 struck out on his own, and opened Hefflin Manufacturing, a furniture-making company. In an advertisement in The California Eagle, he asked Black Angelenos to buy stock in the venture. The ad read:
"When a man brings into this world children, he not only inherits the right to clothe, feed and educate them in their younger days, but he incurs the obligation to prepare for them a future that they may be able to get ahead in the future competitive business age. This tremendous task and responsibility can be made much easier and very secure through a substantial purchase of an interest in the Hefflin Manufacturing Company Inc. The Hefflin Manufacturing Company is a fast going and growing Industrial Furniture Manufacturing Firm and by the time your children have grown to be young men and women the returns from the Hefflin Investment will probably give them College Education or start them in business. Think well of the future."
"I cry every time I read it because he was telling people that this would be an investment in their kids' future and even the California Eagle was pleading to Black people, 'Look, we need to stand up. This is a Black person that's doing this. We need to support him,'" his granddaughter Swan says.
The company was a success and Hefflin eventually built a large factory and headquarters on four acres in Watts. At its height, in the late 1920s, Hefflin Manufacturing employed around 50 people. Then, the Great Depression hit.
Hefflin was forced to close and lay off his entire staff. "It breaks my heart because that was his gift. The furniture-making was his gift," Swan says. She believes that for years, Hefflin was wary of putting his name on his numerous projects because of the shame he felt over the failure of Hefflin Manufacturing.
Hefflin didn't stay down for long. Still in possession of his large headquarters, he transformed it into The Appomattox Country Club. In ads, he billed it as "the finest colored recreational club in the world." One full-page spread declared:
"You will find the Appomattox Country Club a recreational paradise. For your pleasure will be found the only outdoor plunge in Southern California available for mixed bathing- the only indoor miniature golf course in the city and a magnificent dance floor unsurpassed in size and beauty. Also, a dining room; a dressing room...and a most elaborate lobby...an exclusive resort offering a charming restful atmosphere of refinement and unusual beauty."
According to Swan, Lionel Hampton and Duke Ellington played at the grand opening of the Appomattox Club. Sororities, fraternities and Black businesses such as the California Eagle also rented the venue. The Appomattox, however, never took off, probably because most Black Angelenos during the Depression were unable to afford a country club fee. The Appomattox closed approximately three years after it opened, according to Swan.
Hefflin continued to find ways to cater to middle class and upper-income people of color in Los Angeles, who due to discriminatory laws were often barred from the most basic forms of entertainment and recreation.
During the 1930s and early '40s, he began producing and promoting dances and concerts for Black people around Los Angeles. Often working with his brother Bill and Central Avenue legend Curtis Mosby, the dances featured big bands like the ones led by Ellington and Count Basie. They transformed an old roller rink in Lincoln Park into a performance space called the Lincoln Ballroom (their permit was eventually revoked by racist officials).
However, as Swan notes, Heflin often lost money in his ventures, even the popular and culturally important ones. "It's one of the reasons my grandmother divorced him," Swan says. "He was putting out so much money. It was a cycle. He would put out a lot and not get it back, put out a lot and not get it back."
In 1944, Hefflin and Mosby produced the musical variety show Sweet N' Hot, at the Mayan Theater in downtown L.A. Starring a young Dorothy Dandridge, this "all-star colored review" would ran for 11 weeks, making it, at the time, the longest running Black musical financed by African American producers.
The success of Sweet N' Hot likely inspired Hefflin to put together the first Cavalcade of Jazz, held on September 23, 1945.
For the first festival, which took place at night, Hefflin rented out Wrigley Field. Located at 425 E. 42nd Place in the heart of Black Los Angeles, it was the home of minor league baseball's L.A. Angels, who played in the Pacific Coast League. Named after chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. who owned the team and the stadium, Wrigley Field opened in 1925 and was an important part of recreational life in the city until it was demolished in 1969. It was also large enough to hold the 15,000 attendees at the first Cavalcade of Jazz, headlined by the Count Basie Orchestra and Big Joe Turner.
The event was a hit and became the "crown jewel" of summertime entertainment in Black L.A. "They were very joyful events," Swan says.
To advertise each year's festival, Hefflin's son, Leon Jr., drove a sound truck through the city, blaring enticements. People were encouraged to enter raffles for prizes such as televisions, radios and glass bar sets that would be given away at the ballpark. Although the show was produced by and for Black Angelenos, Hefflin made sure to state that all people were welcome.
"In each of the Cavalcade programs, my grandfather would write that his wish was to cement, and that's the word he used, 'cement,' racial relations, so he had a variety of artists. He did not limit it to Black artists. He had people who were Hispanic and white as well," Swan says.
As a result of this progressive policy, the Los Angeles Sentinel reported, "The Cavalcade of Jazz is a tremendous talent showcase. It is eagerly looked forward to by countless entertainment goers of all ages, colors and creeds."
Hefflin and booker Ben C. Waller also made sure to stack the Cavalcade's bill with both established stars and newcomers, which led to some electrifying moments.
"When the top names in blues, swing, sweet ballads and jazz all get together on one program, they usually try to outdo each other in performance. For that reason, a friendly 'feud' is expected to develop which should mean quite an afternoon for everybody," The L.A. Sentinel reported in 1947.
Effervescent showman Lionel Hampton, along with his orchestra, headlined multiple Cavalcades, and was well known for whipping the audience into a frenzy.
"Music and antics of the band electrified 20,000 patrons attending, who with uncontrollable mirth danced, shouted and sang in one of the most spectacular... demonstrations ever accorded a swing band," the Sentinel said of Hampton's 1949 performance.
The following year, Hampton's rendition of his signature tune, "Flyin' High," sparked a small riot when fans in the stands of Wrigley Field threw a barrage of cushions and whiskey bottles onto the field, causing the prize portion of the show to be canceled. This led to changes at the park for next year's Cavalcade. In 1951, the Sentinel reported:
"Those who attended last year's Cavalcade will remember how he all but broke up the festivities with a whirlwind rendition of the ever popular 'Flying Home.' Fact is, the proceedings ended up in a shower of cushions on the field. This year, however, the management has barred the sale of cushions, and patrons will have to bring their own. Strict policing of the stands is aimed at preventing the dangerous practice of throwing cushions or other articles."
The 1952 Cavalcade of Jazz was another joyful success, reports The Sentinel:
"Beautiful Wrigley Field swarmed with thousands of spectators who turned out in full regalia last Sunday afternoon to view the Eighth Annual Cavalcade of Jazz presented by promoter Leon Hefflin. Colorfully garbed in costumes ranging from slacks to low cut evening gowns, the crowd greeted each participating artist with loud applause and enthusiastic cheers."
On the bill were Anna Mae Winburn and her All-Girl Orchestra, Roy Brown and His Mighty-Mighty Men, blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon and Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five. The star of the show was none other than Josephine Baker, who was there to crown the winner of the Cavalcade's yearly beauty contest. According to the Sentinel:
"Nothing less than a meteor could have drawn attention from these scintillating stars. And it came. Into the midst of the reveling walked Josephine Baker, to crown the Sun Crest Queen of the Cavalcade. Literally tearing herself from friends and admirers who almost smothered her, Miss Baker found her way to the microphone where she made an appeal for the United Negro College Fund. Then, surrounded by celebrities and photographers, she placed a crown on the head of pretty Tina Thomas, winner of the jazz Cavalcade beauty contest of 1952."
In 1955, Lionel Hampton almost caused another riot at the Cavalcade, this time with the help of Big Jay McNeely. At the show, Hampton's wife, Gladys, was none too pleased when McNeely and young rock n' roll crooner Jesse Belvin appeared to steal her husband's thunder.
"[Singer and writer] Jesse Belvin was working with me, because I was the first one who carried Jesse out on the road," McNeely recalled in Central Avenue Sounds. "Hamp's wife, Gladys, was very protective of Hamp. Nobody stole the show from Hampton. When she looked up and saw me, she had evidently heard about me before, she let Jesse sing one number and [snaps fingers] pulls us off, because we were the opening act."
Hampton was impressed with his fellow showman and invited McNeely onto the stage during his set. McNeely recalled:
"Hamp called me up to do 'Flying Home.' And then my brother and I jumped off the stage. We got all the way down to home plate, see. So then I lay down on the grass and started crawling on my back, and everybody started putting their attention towards me, so Hamp brought his band with him. So we all ended up in the dugout. Then after that, they wrote up 'Young Boy Breaks Up The Cavalcade of Jazz.' Gladys didn't like it, but there wasn't too much she could do about it."
That same year, the annual beauty contest crowned its most famous winner, Jeanna Limyou, Miss Cavalcade of Jazz 1955. Her career would include magazine spreads, acting and dancing with both Sammy Davis Jr. and the Lester Horton Dance Theater. "I've had a fabulous career come from that Cavalcade of Jazz," she says today.
Raised in the Crenshaw-Adams district by a Black mother and Asian father, 16-year-old Limyou was an up-and-coming dancer and model when her mother entered her in the Cavalcade's beauty contest. "One of my prizes was to go to Las Vegas, to the Moulin Rouge. The Moulin Rouge was brand new. That's the only Black hotel and casino they had. They gave me luggage and I took my youngest brother, who was like 10, and my mom, and we flew to Vegas," Limyou says.
In Vegas, Limyou met many people who would help her career. Since she was increasingly booking gigs, she attended the famous Hollywood Professional School for her senior year of high school. In December 1955, she landed on the cover of Ebony Magazine, under the title, "Do Negroes have a Future in Hollywood?"
Sadly, that cover would expose Limyou to racism that she had yet to experience. According to her, a white classmate brought a copy of Ebony to school officials who had believed she was Asian. Limyou was told by one official that Black students were not allowed to study at the school although she could remain as long as she never had any of her Black friends come to the school or pick her up.
"I went to my locker, got my stuff and walked out. She says, 'Jeanna, if you leave here now, you will not get your diploma.' And I left... Every summer, my mother had made me go to summer school so I was like 15 credits over anyway."
Racism and discrimination may have inspired Hefflin to use the Cavalcade as a platform for social justice in small but meaningful ways. In 1954, he called for essays from students on "what jazz has contributed to race relations." The winner would receive a scholarship. In 1956, he made sure that it was noted in local papers that the Cavalcade's annual beauty contest would be interracial.
Besides producing the annual Cavalcade, Hefflin continued to hold dances and smaller shows throughout the year. For a time, he owned the Santa Rosa Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, which catered to middle-class Black guests. He and his brother, Bill, briefly owned the legendary Club Alabam space. By the late '50s, he was no longer wary of using his name as a promotional tool.
"The name Leon Hefflin is synonymous with the Cavalcade of Jazz," The L.A. Sentinel reported in 1958. "Come good years or bad, Leon Hefflin has always managed to pay his bills, meet his obligations... and be back in business for the next year. Quiet, unruffled and possessing an extraordinary sense of humor, Hefflin may be best compared to old man river... he just keeps rolling along."
On August 3, 1958, the Cavalcade of Jazz, featuring Sam Cooke and Ray Charles, was held at the Shrine Auditorium. Sadly, it would be the last. As Swan notes, her grandfather insisted on paying top dollar to his talent and his dreams overshadowed his budget. "I think he took a big, huge loss on it, especially the last one," his granddaughter Swan says.
According to Swan, Hefflin seems to have bowed out of organizing events after the heavy financial losses he incurred in the last Cavalcade. He remarried and continued his hit-or-miss entrepreneurial ways, marketing his foot ointment and a pipe cleaner. He also sold wholesale clothing to women in South L.A. and managed an apartment complex.
Leon Hefflin died in 1975 at age of 79 and is buried in Evergreen Cemetery. His legacy lives on in his granddaughter, who is currently working on a book about his extraordinary life.
A teacher for 20 years, Swan has used her grandfather's life as an example for her students during Black History Month, teaching them about their roots and introducing them to the wonders of jazz. She also runs the Hefflin Legacy Foundation, which aims to share Hefflin's story and other aspects of Black L.A. history.
"To me the characteristics that he had -- his perseverance, his determination, never giving up when he had loss after loss after loss -- that's the kind of perseverance that I want to be able to pass on to children, especially African American children," Swan says. "Despite what you see around you, you can still achieve your dream, and you still can do what you want to do. I'm sure a lot of people told my grandfather, 'No, you can't do that' and were surprised that he did it."
Because of Hefflin's dogged persistence, beautiful music was made, and thousands of Angelenos, often kept from recreation activities because of their race, experienced some symphonic time in the sun.