All That Jazz! Celebrating the Lighthouse All-Stars and the legacy of Howard Rumsey
by Bondo Wyszpolski
Walking down Pier Avenue and stepping into the Lighthouse is quite different now than when Howard Rumsey showed up on May 29, 1949 to play his very first show. John Levine had purchased the club a year earlier and soon agreed to Rumsey’s replacing the rowdier element with an inviting atmosphere conducive to hearing modern, contemporary jazz. Throughout the 1950s and into the early ‘60s the Lighthouse was truly a beacon for West Coast jazz.
Beginning today and running through Sunday, the Los Angeles Jazz Institute is presenting “Music for Lighthousekeeping: An All-Star Tribute to Howard Rumsey.” By way of 27 concerts, rare films and special events, each offering not only celebrates Rumsey’s legacy, it also pays tribute to the music and to the musicians who emerged from this historically important venue.
For some attendees, it’s a nostalgic look back at a vanished era.
“People are coming from all over the world,” says Ken Poston, founder and director of the L.A. Jazz Institute. “We tried to put together an event that would pay tribute to Howard by really pointing out all of the impact that he had on the creation of the scene here in the 1950s. We wanted to cover Howard’s whole career from the beginning up to his retirement.”
After John Levine died in 1970 the Lighthouse was sold, and then sold again in 1981. The mostly-jazz policy had continued to wane, although by the mid-1990s the late Ozzie Cadena was instrumental in getting jazz reinstated on a one or two day a week basis. Meanwhile, Rumsey himself had moved on. He owned and operated Concerts by the Sea in Redondo Beach (later on morphing into Harvelle’s and Brixton) from 1971 to 1985.
Fittingly, “Remembering Concerts by the Sea” is the last event on Sunday night, and like almost all of the others it’s taking place at the Sheraton Gateway Hotel Los Angeles, near the airport.
Go west, young man
One might easily believe that Ken Poston had been raised in the Lighthouse itself, for he seems to have memorized every bit of information concerning its musical history, the lineups and personnel of the various Lighthouse All-Star groups, and which musicians came through town for an evening or a week to sit in with them (Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Miles Davis). So it’s a surprise to learn that he’s originally from Kansas City and that after graduating college worked for the Kansas City Jazz Commission. He moved to Southern California with his wife in 1987 to take a job at KLON, the jazz radio station, where he remained for 11 years.
Two years prior to that, Poston had come to the West Coast on his honeymoon. “One of the first things I wanted to do was to go see the Lighthouse,” he says, “because I’d grown up listening to those records.”
He’s referring in large part to the albums recorded at the Lighthouse between 1952 and 1956 for the Contemporary label.
Because some of the album covers were, let us say, a bit misleading, Poston initially thought the Lighthouse was situated in a real lighthouse. Driving over to 30 Pier Avenue, that’s what he had his eyes out for. Of course he saw his mistake once he found the building, which he recognized easily from old photographs.: “It was amazing to see that it looked the same as it did.”
That evening Poston and his wife went inside to hear the music, “and it was some horrible alternative rock thing, whatever they were doing in the mid-’80s.” Well, that area was a little seedy back then, although in a good way, laidback, lived-in, with an arthouse movie theater and an independent bookstore, and cheap places to eat.
When Poston moved out here in 1987 and began putting together events for the radio station, he quickly got in touch with the man whom he esteems to this day:
“Howard’s been important to me as a friend and as a mentor because he’s steered me in a lot of right directions over the years and been involved in a lot of the different events that we’ve done.”
Furthermore, Poston continues, “Howard was really an instrumental person in the beginning of the L.A. Jazz Institute. Howard’s archives were the beginning of all the different collections, and Howard’s involvement helped give us the legitimacy to then get other people’s archives and collections. So we want to put that archive on display, not just visually. What the concerts are all about is using all the original music and then enhancing that with films and photographs. It’s really a unique event in that it’s utilizing a lot of those materials.”
The music never stopped
It’s not Rumsey alone who is being honored and feted, but “all the different musicians that were part of the Lighthouse All-Stars. We thought it would be interesting to show that impact by having concerts of a lot of the alumni like the Bob Coopers and the Shorty Rogers and Jimmy Giuffres and all those guys, doing concerts of their music but showing the source of it all really coming from what Howard started.”
So what this means is that specific concerts are geared towards the different Lighthouse All-Star lineups, which varied over the years as players came and went, although with Howard Rumsey always featured on standup bass. For example, there is the first group in what is billed as the Shorty Rogers-Jimmy Giuffre-Shelly Manne era, which was prominent from around 1951 to 1953. Ron Stout, Ken Peplowski, Mike Fahn, Jeff Hamilton and others will commemorate the group and the music, which includes “Out of Somewhere,” “Swing Shift,” “Viva Zapata,” “Sunset Eyes,” and “Big Boy.” Rather importantly, the event takes place from 5:15 to 6:30 p.m. at the Lighthouse Cafe in Hermosa Beach. It’s the first and only concert to be held in the landmark venue itself.
Poston made sure to book the club for the occasion: “It would be disappointing for people if they came (for the jazz weekend) and were that close to the Lighthouse — especially the ones who’d never been there — and didn’t get a chance to go.”
Will Rumsey himself be there? We hope so. But sitting in his Newport Beach home he’s frail and has some trouble remembering details. Although he’s attentive to everything Poston is saying, he no longer adds much to the conversation and tires easily. He is, after all, 97 years old, and time is running out. His standup bass resides in a darkened room without Rumsey’s once-nimble fingers bringing it to life.
After Rogers, Giuffre, and Manne departed in 1953, Rumsey assembled another lineup, and so began the Bud Shank-Bob Cooper-Claude Williamson-Max Roach era. Capturing the highlights of those years, which included tunes like “Witch Doctor,” “Who’s Sleepy,” “Jazz Invention,” and “Mad at the World,” will be musicians Bobby Shew, Pete Christlieb, Scott Whitfield, and Lanny Morgan.
Another lineup change occurred in 1957 with Rumsey, Vic Feldman, Bob Cooper, Frank Rosolino, and Stan Levey. While most of the earlier ensembles were recorded, thus leaving a legacy of sorts that can be listened to as well as read about, the later lineups were not. That was the case here. Poston calls the Rumsey-Feldman-Cooper-Rosolino-Levey group “one of the best groups of all,” and adds: “That group was together three or four years but it didn’t record. Can you imagine how great they sounded after playing every night for four years?”
However, Poston explains, “We’ve got some radio broadcasts of that group from the local AM station that did a weekly broadcast, and we’ll play some of those at the event. The show was called Night Life, and the announcer says, ‘From Hermosa Beach, we’re here at the Lighthouse.’ And so it’s kind of a neat Hermosa tie-in, too.”
As a working unit, the Lighthouse All-Stars recorded for the last time in 1956, which means that Vince Guaraldi (who stepped in when Victor Feldman stepped out) isn’t on any of their albums, nor are there recordings of the short-lived but vital lineup from the Art Pepper-Conte Candoli-Terry Trotter era, which was one of the last bands to wear the All-Stars moniker.
The bigger picture
A significant amount of music was created by members of the Lighthouse All-Stars, but Poston recently made a fascinating discovery. “I keep a timeline of everything related to Howard in terms of dates. I decided to plug into it the musicians that were part of the Lighthouse All-Stars, the recording sessions they did with other people and under their own name while they were members of the Lighthouse All-Stars.
“When you put all that in there you see the big picture,” he continues, pointing out that musicians like Shorty Rogers and Bud Shank were concurrently having an impact on West Coast jazz away from the club. But it was all or mostly generated from what was going on in downtown Hermosa Beach.
“That wouldn’t have happened without what Howard did,” Poston says, “and you can’t think that somebody else would have done it. He didn’t just throw the doors open and operate a nightclub like other people did.”
Spreading the good word
Unlike some members-only or restricted-access venues, Rumsey’s Lighthouse wasn’t about remaining aloof. As Poston phrases it, “Howard realized that becoming part of the community was important because that really wasn’t done, especially in Southern California as far as jazz was concerned.” In 1952 and perhaps even into 1953, Poston says, Rumsey penned a regular column for the Daily Breeze and also joined the local Chamber of Commerce with whom he partnered on a number of events.
But it went beyond this. From 1954 to 1961 or ‘62 yearly collegiate Easter weekend festivities took place at the Lighthouse in which young jazz musicians or jazz combos were invited to play at the club and then were critiqued by members of the Lighthouse All-Stars. “They didn’t have jazz programs in the colleges in those days,” Poston says, so this was an opportunity for jazz-minded students to get a little feedback and exposure.
Also during the 1950s, on the All-Stars’ days off, which were Monday and Tuesday, Rumsey took the group around to perform at local high schools and colleges. “It was brilliant,” Poston says, “because not only was it exposing the students to the music, it was creating an audience for the Lighthouse All-Stars.” Thus they were educating young people and promoting the club at the same time.
One should bear in mind that what Howard Rumsey was promoting was modern jazz and not the kind of swing or big band music that had been popular decades earlier — or would later on cool down and become soft jazz or adult contemporary. The 1950s was truly the era of the jazz greats (Coltrane, Parker, Davis, Monk, Holiday, Gillespie, Mingus, Brubeck…)
Another thing that Poston stresses is that the Lighthouse was a place, a center with some longevity at a crucial time when jazz blossomed. “It was more than just putting the group into the club. It was establishing this culture in the area. I’m trying to think of other examples of jazz clubs here in Southern California from that time period or any other…
He can’t, really, although Zardi’s Jazzland and the Haig in Hollywood are considered. Of the latter, “As important as it was for Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker, you wouldn’t have people coming from all over the world because it wasn’t the center of everything, it wasn’t this culturally significant place. It was just a place that did some important things and then was gone.”
The man, the legacy
“You can’t go to any of our events,” Poston says, “where Howard’s not inundated with people telling him about what they remember, going there in 1952 or 1956 or whatever year it was, and what they had to eat, and what they served. They all remember the Chinese food out of the kitchen and all the little details. And there’s very few places as far as jazz is concerned that you could compare that to. Maybe the original Birdland. It’s a special thing that Howard did that benefited so many people. In all honesty, this whole West Coast jazz thing would not have happened had it not been for him.”
Music for Lighthousekeeping: An All-Star Tribute to Howard Rumsey, today through Sunday at the Sheraton Gateway Hotel Los Angeles, features extensive programming. Information, (562) 200-5477 or lajazzinstitute.org.