Undoubtedly the epicenter of the jazz scene in Los Angeles, the Dunbar Hotel was built in 1928 by Drs. John and Vada Sommerville as a place where black travelers could stay in style and comfort. The luxurious hotel soon attracted the likes of Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, and Billie Holiday. Journeymen jazz musicians hung against the outside wall or in the lobby or cocktail lounge, waiting to catch a break or a glimpse of their heroes.
“That’s my favorite spot on Central Avenue,” saxophonist Jackie Kelso recalled, “that spot in front of the Dunbar Hotel, because that to me was the hippest, most intimate, key spot of all the activity. That’s where all the night people hung out; the sportsmen, the businessmen, the dancers, everybody in show business, people who were somebody stayed at the hotel.” Norman Bowden recalled walking by the hotel as a youth, his trumpet in hand as he walked past his hometown idols. “When I passed in front of the Dunbar Hotel, they’d be hanging around talking,” he remembered. “On my way back from school [trumpeter] Claude Kennedy—he came from Houston—would say, ‘When are you going to give somebody a headache with that horn?’”
The music continued inside the hotel, in The Turban Room piano bar, where acts like Art Tatum and Gerald Wiggins played. Traveling big bands like Duke Ellington’s band and the Count Basie Orchestra would take over huge swaths of the hotel, rehearsing and partying, with “chicks and champagne everywhere.” Trumpet player Buck Clayton recalled what occurred when Ellington’s band heard their record, “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” playing on the jukebox in the Dunbar restaurant for the first time:
So much rhythm I’ve never heard, as guys were beating on the tables, instrument cases or anything else they could beat on with knives, forks, rolled-up newspapers or anything else they could find to make rhythm. It was absolutely crazy.
Today, the Dunbar Hotel is known as “Dunbar Village.” It operates as a low-income apartment building for elderly tenants.