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Howard Rumsey (1917-2015)

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Howard Rumsey, a West Coast jazz bassist who began his recording career in Stan Kenton's orchestra in 1941 and managed the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, Calif., a club that became ground zero for the West Coast jazz sound starting in the early 1950s, died July 15 in Newport Beach, Calif. He was 97.

When I interviewed Howard in 2009, it quickly became apparent that the Lighthouse and Howard's Lighthouse All-Stars had paved the way for the airy jazz sound that relied on the counterpoint of reeds and horns and reflected Los Angeles' beaches, highways and expanding suburbs in tone in the early '50s. In the days before cell phones, email and texting, the Lighthouse was where newly arrived musicians networked and kept their chops hot while waiting out their residency requirement for a union card, which allowed them to work.

To make my three-part interview with Howard Rumsey convenient for you, I've united all three parts below:

JazzWax: Were you born in California?

Howard Rumsey: Yes, in the Imperial Valley, which is way down south near the Salton Sea. The town is called Brawley. It was a great place to grow up. I was set up in music from an early age by my mother, who played the mandolin. She had no intention of making me a professional musician. She just thought music would be good for me.

JW: Was she right?

HR: And how. I had eight years of piano in grammar school and high school. While I was in high school, an Englishman named Horace Williams, a conservatory musician, was sent to the Imperial Valley to cure his asthma. When he arrived, he came to the high school and offered lessons on all the instruments. So I went to him and started taking drum lessons.

JW: Did you listen to records in the 1930s?

HR: A couple of musicians from San Diego came down to Brawley and brought records with them. I became friendly with them and got to hear their records. We also had a phonograph.

JW: Did you listen to jazz in that remote location?

HR: With the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, more beer gardens sprang up in the Imperial Valley, and musicians from bigger cities began to take jobs and hide out there to avoid paying alimony to their ex-wives. I also got to hear Louis Armstrong with his big band in San Diego and Teddy Wilson in Las Vegas. [Pictured: Louis Armstrong, right, in Culver City, CA, in the 1930s]

JW: Did the Depression affect your family financially?

HR: Lucky for us my father was well known in Brawley. He had a charitable program that was affiliated with The Elks Club to feed people who didn’t have anything to eat. Every morning he’d make gallons of soup, put it out in restaurants, and anyone who was hungry arriving on railroad cars could come over and have soup and then go about their business. I wasn’t really conscious of the Depression because my folks never discussed it in my presence or in front of my brother, who was four years older than me.

JW: How did you come to play the bass?

HR: One day I was at a root beer stand a block from my house. Those soda stands were popular out West back then, especially in the summer when it was red hot. When I heard the sound of a big bass coming out of the jukebox there, I fell in love with the instrument instantly. At high school, I noticed there was a bass in the auditorium. It was on a stand. No one had ever played it. It was just here. I told myself I should learn to play it. I already had piano and drums as a foundation, so it wasn’t too difficult picking up the bass, too.

JW: Your first band experience was with Vido Musso's orchestra in the late 1930s.

HR: I got that job through alto saxophonist Jack Ordean, who was a close friend. When Vido [pictured] hired him, Jack made Vido hire me. Vido's band played at Redondo Beach just south of Los Angeles. The place seated 235 people. Stan Kenton played piano in Vido's band. One day the band played at the black Elks Club in L.A. We were playing transcribed Jimmie Lunceford charts. On one of the songs, For Dancers Only, the groove was so good that when the song ended I kept playing the four-bar phrase over and over. Stan’s mouth fell open, and the band was quiet. Nobody said anything. Just me vamping, possessed, in this big hall. After about 12 bars, Stan started playing again, and Vido brought the band back in. That was a blast. That’s what set me up to play with Stan.

JW: You were Kenton’s first bassist in 1941?

HR: Yes, I’m the sole surviving member of the original band. For what it was at that time, Stan’s band was very good. It was formed around the sax section. Stan originally had five saxophones and only two trombones and three trumpets. Basically, the band was built on a sax section accompanied by five brass and a three-man rhythm section—guitar, bass and drums—because Stan rarely played piano then.

JW: From the pictures I've seen, the bass you were playing looks pretty odd.

HR: [Laughs] Yes, it wasn’t an acoustic bass. It was an electric stand up bass with a very narrow body. It used tubes with the amplifier and speaker in a cabinet. The Rickenbacker guitar people made two prototypes. They gave one to me and another to Moses Allen, the bassist in Jimmie Lunceford's band. They gave it to us for free and asked us to play it for a year.

JW: What did Stan think?

HR: Stan didn’t mind. He didn’t like the sound of the instrument, but he put up with it. He had a sharp new band, and I was playing a sharp modern-looking bass.

JW: How did Artistry in Rhythm, Kenton’s theme, come about?

HR: Stan wrote it originally as an arrangement to rehearse the reeds. It wasn’t meant to be a featured arrangement, but eventually he worked it into the book. It came to him through a classical piece. He turned it from a classical thing into a 72-bar tune. It had a middle part that changed keys and double-timed. What made Artistry in Rhythm so popular was the voicing of the sax section. With Jack Ordean on first alto, he made the section sound like a new model aircraft.

JW: Did you tour with the band?

HR: Eventually we did some one-nighters locally. We did club dates in Glendale [CA]. And we played the ballrooms in all the beach towns along the coast. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday there would be four or five bands at each place. We also played all the theaters in the Los Angeles area in 1941.

JW: Did the band leave California?

HR: We tried. We were booked on a national tour and left from Sunset and Vine on a double-decker bus. But it broke down in Colorado and was replaced by a regular bus, and we had to return. Boy were we brought down. We played some dates on the way back.

JW: That band was pretty exciting, wasn't it?

HR: That band completely broke the mold of the past. Soon after we returned, Stan came to the realization that it was time to voice the saxophones and brass differently. The new sound was a beautiful change for the dancers and listeners. Our music was easy to dance to in places like the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa Beach because it was well known by the people who came and followed the band.

JW: How did it play on the East Coast?

HR: Terrible. When we went out on tour again in 1942 and arrived in New York, the band was hotter than hell and grooving like mad. Marvin George, our drummer, was working the bass-drum pedal so hard that that he went right through the head. He never had time to change it, so we opened at the Roseland Ballroom without a head on the bass drum [laughs].

JW: Did dancers get what the Kenton band was doing?

HR: No, they didn’t go for it. They’d dance by us and look up and ask what we were doing. Dolly Dawn and Her Dawn Patrol was the intermission band. She had played there for years and played the music people wanted to dance to.

JW: What happened?

HR: Roseland didn’t pick up our option. Stan was frustrated, and so were the people who owned the ballroom. They also cut his engagement down to a month. Stan was angry and started telling guys in the band not to play extra notes, just the ones in the charts. He aimed most of that warning at trumpeter Earl Collier, who played the jazz solos, and me. He fingered us, and it broke my heart. He just wanted me to play time.

JW: Did you?

HR: And some. When we moved on to the Summit Ballroom in Baltimore, I foolishly got loaded and wasn’t playing the parts as written. I had a solo to play on Concerto for Doghouse. I had to play my solo maybe two times each night. I wanted to mix it up. I was young. Looking back, I’d say I was taking advantage of Stan by getting a swell head and playing what I wanted to. Then two strings snapped off my bass, and I didn’t have extra strings. It was a mess. Stan grew enraged and took my music stand off the stage right in the middle of a performance and fired me. It kind of broke my heart.

JW: You sound pretty forgiving.

HR: I am. Hey, I’m 91 years old. You can’t go through life and live to be 91 if you’re going to be a person who holds grudges.

JW: What do you remember about that Kenton band? The sound?

HR: Oh sure. I loved the sound. Everyone else in the band was 100% sold on it, too. The sound was responsible for giving Stan his early success. He kept revising Artistry in Rhythm and had a completely new overture each time. It was remarkable for that alone. I got chills every time I played that son of a gun.

JW: What did you do after you were fired?

HR: I headed home to California. What made it doubly painful was that my wife and my mother were with me. My mother had been in the East for vacation. It was so embarrassing. I was so depressed. The whole way back on the train there was no talking about the music. We just talked about the scenery. My wife and mother could tell how bad off I was.

JW: When you arrived back to Los Angeles, you eventually joined Freddie Slack. Margaret Whiting was in the band then.

HR: Margaret was great. Freddy, though, was an alcoholic. He had a band boy that brought along a valise for him with two fifths of gin inside. As a result of his drinking, Freddie wasn’t a very nice guy.

JW: In the spring of 1944, you joined Charlie Barnet and recorded on one of Barnet’s biggest hits, Skyliner.

HR: Yes, I think my bass sounded better on that tune than it ever has. Charlie was a great guy to work for. He came from a wealthy family and thought differently than Stan. Charlie wasn’t the least bit upset about small things. You didn’t have to have everything perfect. The world was already perfect for him.

JW: When did you settle in Hermosa Beach?

HR: 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.

JW: How would you describe West Coast jazz?

HR: It had a different sound. It wasn’t cool, like most people think. It was between cool and bop. As Shelly Manne said, the only difference was we were at the Lighthouse and other guys were in Chicago and New York [laughs].

JW: But how would you describe it?

HR: It’s the music of happy—in a hurry.

JW: Was Lighthouse owner John Levine happy?

HR: He was beside himself. Because he was making money. Starting in World War II, there was a 15% state tax in California on entertainment that featured singing or was for dancing. Customers saw the extra hit in their bills, and clubs passed it along to the state. But instrumental music was not taxed. That tax remained in force until the 1980s.

JW: What affect did this have on the club scene?

HR: Well, instrumentalists became more in demand by clubs that wanted to hold down costs. A couple of horns and a trio weren't as expensive for audiences.

JW: Yet the pressure was on these instrumental groups to be dynamic.

HR: That's right. Small groups had to be more and more entertaining to bring audiences in. That’s why there was no singing at the Lighthouse or with the All Stars—and could never be in the club, legally. Occasionally a girl singer would come in and do a couple of tunes, and we got away with that.

JW: What was Southern California like when you first started as manager of the Lighthouse in 1948?

HR: With the war over, the ports were booming, communities were spreading out, everyone was driving cars, factories were opening. There was a lot going on.

JW: How did you come up with the “All Stars" name?

HR: It just fit on a sign that Levine put up across the top of the club [laughs].

JW: Who was the primary audience for the music at the Lighthouse?

HR: College kids. The way I spread the word was to hold concerts at all the Southern California colleges. We wound up connecting with younger audiences and older guys who were in college on the G.I. Bill.

JW: What did you do? HR: I took the All Stars out to these places so locals could see them. Also, a lot of young people from the Hermosa Beach area came. Back in the 1930s, locals had danced at the ballrooms. When they had children, those kids in the 1950s came to the Lighthouse. You have to understand, back then everyone grew up listening to jazz—parents and teens. It was all very natural. But initially the local police were leery of the whole thing.

JW: Why?

HR: With all the cars parking in the lot, they weren’t quite sure what was going on and why the Lighthouse was so popular all the time. So to calm everyone down and put everyone at ease, I’d put the Lighthouse musicians in local parades. Once the community and police got to see them and know them, everyone settled down.

JW: Did the college audience change the type of music that was played at the Lighthouse in the early 1950s?

HR: When the college kids came in, they wanted a new sound, and we responded to their excitement. I was out at El Camino College several times with the All Stars playing one-hour concerts. I played eight to nine schools every semester. I built up a clientele that way. I loved to play and groove. We even played high schools.

JW: Did you know Gerry Mulligan when he came to town in 1952?

HR:
All I knew that he was a guy who was intent. He knew what he wanted to play and knew how to play it. Then he found Chet Baker. And they formed a group. They played at The Haig [the Los Angeles club] for a while. Then he went away to New York. When he came back to L.A., Judy Holliday was with him. She had a motion picture to do, so Gerry was right there with her.

JW: Who was most responsible for West Coast jazz?

HR: It was a combination of Gerry Mulligan and Shorty Rogers. They changed the whole scene. They get the big medals. Mulligan was a friend of Gil Evans. Gil was originally from Newport Beach and had a band at the Rendezvous Ballroom. Then he started writing arrangements for Claude Thornhill. Mulligan had a whole new cool sound, and when he came out to L.A., he brought cool with him. He and Chet capitalized on that and sold it. Shorty was a monster arranger, constantly inventing. And tireless. And everywhere back then.

JW: What was at the heart of the West Coast sound?

HR: The gimmick was not to put too much emphasis on the after-beat. Mulligan had such a great sound. So did Shorty. They had to keep the action going. So they kept talking to each other harmonically with lines.

JW: You and the All Stars recorded 12 albums. Which one stands out for you and why?

HR: My favorite is In the Solo Spotlight. We recorded three on there with Lennie Niehaus that led to a 16-piece band that we put together to play the homecoming at UCLA. That was something I had always wanted to do. [Igor] Stravinsky had played there 10 years earlier.

JW: In 1971, you started Concerts by the Sea, a club in Redondo Beach.

HR: Yes, after John Levine died in 1970, I stayed at the Lighthouse for a year. But by then, John’s son wanted to turn the Lighthouse into a blues club, and I wanted to try something new. An opportunity came up down in Redondo Beach. Stan Kenton’s brother-in-law was the city manager, and the town had just put in a new horseshoe-shaped pier. My club was on one end, and a restaurant was on the other.

JW: After 15 years, you closed down. Why?

HR: I no longer understood the music. Musicians showed up with tons of equipment and wires—so much that in the end we had to put in heavy lumber just to get the stuff in. And then getting it out was even harder. The music was changing, and I was worn out.

JW: Looking back, was your jazz life fun? You look so happy in pictures.

HR: Oh yeah. The best fun of all times. I had a great time. It’s hard to believe how good it was.

JW: So, what’s the secret of running a successful jazz club?

HR: Have the musicians start on time [laughs]. If a guy drives 20 miles to be there and wants to hear music at 9 o'clock, you owe it to him to start on time. If you do that, the guy will be back. With friends.

JazzWax clips: Here are a few favorite Howard Rumsey clips:

Here's Howard Rumsey and the Lighthouse All-Stars with Out of Somewhere in July 1952 featuring Shorty Rogers (tp), Milt Bernhart (tb), Jimmy Giuffre and Bob Cooper (ts), Frank Patchen (p), Howard Rumsey (b) and Shelly Manne (d)...

 

Here's Teddy Edwards' Sunset Eyes, featuring Shorty Rogers (tp), Milt Bernhart (tb), Bob Cooper and Jimmy Giuffre (ts), Russ Freeman (p), Howard Rumsey (b) and Shelly Manne (d)...

 

Here's Howard with Stan Kenton in 1941 playing Adios...

 

Here's Howard with Charlie Barnet in 1944 on Skyliner...

 

Here's Howard with Miles Davis and the Lighthouse All-Stars playing Shorty Rogers Infinite Prominade in 1953, featuring  Miles Davis and Rolf Ericson (tp), Bud Shank (as,bar), Bob Cooper (ts), Lorraine Geller (p), Howard Rumsey (b) and Max Roach (d)...

 

Here's Howard on Hermosa Summer in 1954, with Bob Cooper (oboe,eng-hrn), Bud Shank (fl,alto-fl), Claude Williamson (p), Howard Rumsey (b) and Max Roach (d)...

 

And here's Long Ago and Far Away in 1954, featuring Stu Williamson (tp,v-tb), Bob Enevoldsen (v-tb,ts), Bud Shank (as,bar), Bob Cooper (ts), Bob Gordon (bar), Claude Williamson (p), Howard Rumsey (b) and Stan Levey (d)...

 

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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