Howard Rumsey, Founding Father of West Coast Jazz, Dies at 97
by Ken Poston
[Ken Poston is the director of the Los Angeles Jazz Institute, and this past May he presented a 5-day tribute to Howard Rumsey and the Lighthouse All Stars. A former deejay for KLON, Poston had collaborated with Rumsey on previous occasions and they were good friends]
Howard Rumsey, one of the most significant figures in modern jazz and one of the founding fathers of “West Coast Jazz” died on July 15 in Newport Beach, California. He was 97.
Rumsey put Hermosa Beach on the map by turning the Lighthouse into one of the most significant jazz venues of the 1950s and ‘60s. In the 1970s and ‘80s he ran Concerts by the Sea on the Pier in Redondo Beach.
His primary instrument was the string bass but it was his talent as a bandleader and nightclub operator that created an amazing legacy which touched the lives and careers of countless musicians and fans.
Howard Rumsey was born on November 7, 1917 in Brawley, CA in the heart of the Imperial Valley. He took piano lessons for 8 years followed by drums, trumpet and eventually the string bass.
He left Brawley after High School to attend Los Angeles City College where he continued his musical studies. He also began playing with a number of local bands around Southern California. His first job of note was with Vido Musso’s band, joining a rhythm section that included a young Stanley Kenton on piano.
The Lighthouse years
1949 was a major turning point in his career when he approached John Levine, owner of a small saloon on Pier Ave. in Hermosa Beach and convinced him to establish a weekly jam session on Sunday afternoons. Before long, The Lighthouse Cafe became the primary destination for modern jazz in Southern California.
The Sunday “Modern Jazz Concerts” were so successful that it wasn’t long before a Wednesday through Sunday format was established. The Sunday sessions put the Lighthouse on the map. They started at 2 in the afternoon and ended at 2 in morning with visiting musicians sitting in throughout the day and evening.
Howard had a unique vision in what the Lighthouse could become, and subsequently he created one of the most iconic jazz clubs of all time. By the early 1950s, the Lighthouse was the headquarters of the burgeoning west coast jazz movement and the house band, Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All Stars, became internationally renowned. Between 1952 and 1962 The collective members of the Lighthouse All Stars reads like a who’s who of modern jazz. Shorty Rogers, Jimmy Giuffre, Bob Cooper, Art Pepper, Maynard Ferguson, Hampton Hawes, Shelly Manne, Russ Freeman, Max Roach, Bud Shank, Conte Candoli, Stan Levey, Frank Rosolino, Victor Feldman, Claude Williamson and Vince Guaraldi all graced the Lighthouse stage throughout the 1950s.
Howard also understood the importance of developing an audience and was tireless in his promotion of the club’s activities. He knew that his core audience was college-aged students so he and the All Stars performed at numerous high schools and colleges throughout the year.
He was also a pioneer in jazz education long before any such thing existed. In 1954 he started an Inter-Collegiate Jazz Festival that took place every Easter Week until the mid 1960s. The All Stars acted as judges and awards were given to the most promising groups and individuals. It was a time when jazz wasn’t part of most University curriculums and it provided a showcase for aspiring young musicians. The list of students who took part in the Easter Week festivities include such future luminaries as Les McCann, Charlie Haden, Charles Lloyd, Charlie Shoemake, Mike Wofford, Gabe Baltazar, Pete Christlieb, Lanny Morgan, Tommy Tedesco, Bob Florence, Don Rader, Ray Manzarek and Daryl Dragon.
Concerts by the Sea
In 1971 Howard left the Lighthouse and opened his own club, Concerts By the Sea, which was located on the Redondo Beach Pier. It was a unique venue that quickly became one of the area’s top jazz rooms until Howard retired in 1985.
Upon his retirement, he led a quiet life but still continued his relentless support of live jazz and was especially interested in encouraging young musicians just starting out. He could often be seen at venues throughout Southern California listening to the music and supporting the artists. It was always a special treat when Howard was in the house and it wasn’t uncommon to see people lined up at the breaks just to say hello and thank him for all the things he had made possible through the years.
Last May, Howard was honored by the Los Angeles Jazz Institute with a five day festival that celebrated his immense contributions to the jazz scene in Southern California and beyond. Fans and musicians came from all over the world to pay tribute. Howard Rumsey leaves behind a truly remarkable legacy that will continue to impact the jazz world for many years to come. ER