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Interview: Howard Rumsey (Part 2)

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Howard Rumsey In 1949, when Howard Rumsey began contracting musicians for the Lighthouse, a seaside jazz club in Hermosa Beach, CA, he had more talent to choose from than could squeeze onto his small stage. Los Angeles was awash with winter-weary talent hungry for lucrative work in the movie and recording studios. In the years that followed, the numbers only swelled. Just 32 miles from downtown L.A., Hermosa Beach offered sand, surf and lots of restless young listeners looking for a new sound. With the rise of the car culture and introduction of the 10-inch LP in the early 1950s, Howard parlayed the Lighthouse into a trendy regional destination for growing fans of contrapuntal jazz.

The origins of West Coast jazz vary, depending on whom you ask. Like all forms of music, the truth is a combination of many factors. Gerry Mulligan's arrival in Los Angeles in 1952 certainly was an influence, especially when his piano-less quartet with Chet Baker caught on. But arranger-musicians Shorty Rogers and Jimmy Giuffre also played major roles. But why were so many superb jazz musicians so readily available and eager to play at the Lighthouse?

In Part 2 of my three-part interview with Howard, the legendary bassist and Lighthouse manager talks about the origins of the Lighthouse, how he got his job there, why the club's owner was initially skeptical about featuring music, and why so many musicians were available to him at the Lighthouse:

JazzWax: When did you settle in Hermosa Beach?
Howard Rumsey: In 1948. My wife and I loved it there. I had worked there 10 years earlier at a dime-a-dance place called the Hut Ballroom.

JW: Was the Lighthouse in existence back in the late '30s?
HR: Yes. The place had been there since the early 1930s. It was originally a restaurant named after the owner that served Italian food and drinks. At night, they got mostly diners who were heading home from the Hut Ballroom near by.

JW: When did it become a club for music?
HR: In the early 1940s, just after the war started. A new owner who lived in San Pedro changed the name to The Lighthouse. He wanted to cater to merchant seamen and longshoremen from the nearby port. He turned it into a coffee shop sort of place that was open 24 hours a day. There wasn't really any good food in Hermosa Beach. The Lighthouse at first attracted mostly factory workers from nearby El Segundo, where they were building the P-51 Mustang fighter and B-25 Mitchell Bomber [pictured].

JW: When was the Lighthouse sold?
HR: In 1948. A guy named John Levine bought it. With the war over, the place became seasonal again. Hermosa Beach had been a summertime place, growing in population by about 50% in the warmer months. During the war, the population had been pretty steady. After the war, year-round business declined again, and the people who came to the Lighthouse were mostly longshoremen. But Levine didn't know what to do with them.

JW: Didn't he want the business?
HR: He did, but they were rough and tough guys, and they could be rowdy. There was a pool hall across the alley. Levine found that he could rid them from the club by playing pool and losing so they'd wind up staying there.

JW: What was Levine's ultimate plan?
HR: He didn't know at first. He had bought the Lighthouse sight unseen. Levine and another guy owned 14 bars in L.A. during the war and never went to any of them [laughs]. They had a company that went around and picked up the money and put it in the bank. They were very successful.

JW: Why Hermosa Beach?
HR: Levine wanted to live there so he could go to nearby Gardena every night to play cards. He was an addicted gambler. Levine's brother-in-law was Art Kahn, a famous musician from Chicago. He had worked with his own band in a Chicago hotel for 10 years. Levine brought him out to Hermosa Beach with the hope that he might be able to go into the studios.

JW: How did Art make out?
HR: Well, it turned out he wasn't a good enough musician. So he became a vocal coach for promising female actresses, training them to mouth songs in movies that vocalists would then dub off-camera. He also was smart enough to assemble a band made up of musicians from the L.A. Police Department. So he had a concert band of cops [laughs], which kept them out of his way at The Lighthouse.

JW: What was Levine's first move?
HR: At the time, on Pier Avenue, there was another place called the High Seas. They employed black players. They were mostly older guys who had dropped off the road after playing with big bands. Levine hired some of them, but the club didn't do much business. So Levine had to let them go.

JW: You just walked in one day and asked to run the place, didn't you?
HR: Yes. Levine was behind the bar. He had already had all this trouble trying to make a go featuring jazz. When I met him, I asked if he wanted to feature jazz on Sunday afternoons.

JW: Why Sundays?
HR: I had the idea from something I had seen with Stan [Kenton] back in the early 1940s. There were several clubs on Central Avenue and around town where black musicians played. In these clubs, I had seen people just sitting and listening to a small jazz group rather than dancing. This was a new concept out here in the early 1940s. Everything was about dancing here then. The image of people listening to the music stuck in my head. I thought the concept might work at the Lighthouse.

JW: What did Levine say about your idea?
HR: He was up for anything. He just shrugged and said, “Sure why not." But he warned me that the place was dead Sunday afternoons. He figured he didn't really have anything to lose. So I became the Lighthouse's music contractor. I was responsible for putting together groups. Levine paid me a salary and an occasional bonus if we were doing great business.

JW: How much did that bonus rise to?
HR: Some weeks it might be five bills. That's how busy we were. You have to understand that Levine was only interested in gambling. I had complete control of the music. The room wasn't very big, so only small groups would fit. And the guys I would get were the best.

JW: But you did much more than book musicians.
HR: [Laughs] That's true. When I first walked into the Lighthouse in 1948, the only people who were coming in were the people who worked the docks or made their living in the aircraft industry. They were kind of swingers. They loved to drink and have a good time. They also were a bit older. I made friends with them by playing old standards, which made them feel the music was meant for them. This kept my core audience coming back.

JW: What did you do next?
HR: In January 1949 I started my Sunday afternoon jam sessions. The musicians who played there were playing a new sound. All those lines and harmonies. Within a couple of years, the record companies started calling it West Coast jazz. They wanted to record the groups that I assembled at the Lighthouse. So I put together a formal group and called us the Lighthouse All Stars. None of my bass parts were written out. I comped, and it made me better over time, though I'm not sure everyone would think that [laughs]. Sometimes I thought I wasn't playing as well as I should have.

JW: You didn't tour?
HR: I didn't want to. I had been out on the road before and hated it. Once Lester Koenig [founder of Contemporary Records] started recording us in 1952, the bigger record companies started picking off the All Stars, like Shorty Rogers and Shelly Manne. The All Stars made 12 albums from 1951 to 1957, with different guys in the group at different times, of course. The All Stars became a brand.

JW: Who did you attract to the club initially?
HR: Shorty Rogers, Milt Bernhart, Art Pepper, Bob Cooper, Hampton Hawes, Jimmy Giuffre, Frank Patchen, Shelly Manne and others.

JW: How were you able to attract so many great musicians?
HR: Most were working off their card.

JW: Explain for readers who might not understand what that meant.
HR: Back in the 1940s and 1950s, there was so much work in the L.A. recording and movie studios that the local musicians' union had a rule: You had to live out here full time for six months before you could get your union card. Without a union card, you couldn't work. Also, the weather out here was great, and many musicians wanted to move here. The place was jammed.

JW: Why was the six-month rule set up?
HR: It prevented musicians from coming out and taking away studio jobs from guys who were already here. Many of the new guys needed work, so they'd play casual gigs at the Lighthouse. These informal gigs paid them a few bucks and kept their chops in shape while waiting for the six months to elapse. [Pictured at the Lighthouse, from left, Frank Rosolino, Richie Kamuca and Bob Cooper]

JW: Where did these musicians come from?
HR: Some migrated out West, but most left the big bands that settled here in the winter, like Woody [Herman], Les Brown, Stan Kenton, Charlie Barnet and others. The musicians could work casual with me at the Lighthouse, and the union would allow it. But they couldn't work in the L.A. studios for six months. That's why Shorty [Rogers] worked the Lighthouse at first. The Lighthouse was a true jazz gig. [Pictured: Shorty Rogers and Howard at the Lighthouse]

JW: So those Sunday concerts caught on fast didn't they?
HR: Yes. There was no shortage of great musicians, and audiences were growing larger and getting younger. And the sound of the jazz was changing. The Sunday concerts became so popular that I had them running from 2 pm to 2 am, with different guys coming and going. It was wild. Levine couldn't believe it.

Tomorrow, Howard sums up West Coast jazz in eight words and talks about why audiences were younger at the Lighthouse, which musicians were most responsible for the development of West Coast jazz, his favorite Lighthouse All Stars recording, and his next club--Concerts by the Sea in Redondo Beach--and his secret for running a successful jazz spot.

JazzWax tracks: One of my favorite Lighthouse All Stars recordings is Sunday Jazz a la Lighthouse Vol. 2 (1953), with Shorty Rogers (trumpet), Milt Bernhart (trombone), Bob Cooper and Jimmy Giuffre (tenor saxes), Hampton Hawes (piano), Howard Rumsey (bass) and Shelly Manne (drums). It's available here.

In addition to Howard's Lighthouse All Stars recordings, several artists were recorded blowing brilliantly at the club with Rumsey on bass. The best of these includes a recording of Art Pepper and Shorty Rogers in action in 1951. Originally released on Xanadu as Popo, you can find the tracks at a much lower price on a Jazz Factory release called Art Pepper: Complete Lighthouse Sessions. It's available here.

Another beaut is Stan Getz and the Lighthouse All Stars, recorded in 1953. It features Stan Getz and Bob Cooper (tenor saxes), Jimmy Giuffre (baritone sax), Teddy Charles (vibes), Russ Freeman (piano), Howard Rumsey (bass) and Shelly Manne (drums). Teddy Charles told me he was actually the leader on this date, having been sent to the West Coast by Prestige to produce sessions in 1953. You'll find the CD here.

JazzWax clip: Here's Teddy Edwards' Sunset Eyes from the Sunday Jazz a la Lighthouse album from 1953 mentioned above...


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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved.
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