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Lighthouse Still a Beacon

Jazz Veterans of the seaside dive where West Coast sound took root and ruled will perform and discuss their experiences at a gala concert today.

May 29, 1999|BILL KOHLHAASE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Half a century after the Lighthouse club in Hermosa Beach turned into the fabled temple of West Coast jazz, just how it happened remains a mystery to Lighthouse impresario Howard Rumsey.

"It was like a puzzle," Rumsey said. "All the pieces were there. Somebody just had to put them together."

What those pieces were and how they were put in place will be explored today at the Hyatt Newporter by Rumsey and a number of the surviving veterans of the Lighthouse scene in a session titled "Jazz a la Lighthouse" (echoing the title of the first LP to document Rumsey's Lighthouse All Stars, recorded in 1953).

The discussion and a gala concert later this evening--called "Music for Lighthouse Keeping," the title of another Rumsey-led recording, are part of the four-day gathering "Jazz West Coast II: A Musical Celebration Of West Coast Jazz."

It was precisely 50 years ago today when bassist Rumsey first brought a band into the seaside dive for a Sunday jam session, a tradition that lasted some 20 years.

The Lighthouse became the musical home for Los Angeles jazz fans and a proving ground for a school of West Coast jazz centered on the music of composer-trumpeter Shorty Rogers, saxophonist Jimmy Giuffre and others that is cherished to this day.

When Rumsey, now 81, convinced then-Lighthouse owner John Levine to let his band play the sleepy little tippling establishment in 1949, no one knew how successful the idea would prove to be or how much impact it would have on the world of jazz.

Saxophonist Teddy Edwards, who played the club in its early years, remembers those Sundays well.

"We'd play from 2 [p.m.] to 2 [a.m.] with an hour break for dinner, and the place would be jammed the whole time. People were very enthusiastic, sitting two and three deep in each other's laps, a lot of them wearing swimsuits and beachwear," Edwards said. "It was so crowded it would take 20 minutes just to get from the bandstand to the restroom."

There were no such crowds before the music started. "Things were really slow down there after [World War II]," Rumsey remembers. "During the war all the beach towns had ballrooms and every place was busy. But that had ended when the war was over."

Rumsey, who was born in Brawley, Calif., not far from the Mexican border, had plenty of entertainment experience before joining forces with Levine at the Lighthouse. Both he and pianist Stan Kenton were sidemen in saxophonist Vido Musso's band in the late '30s, and when Kenton formed his own ensemble in 1941, he enlisted Rumsey to play bass.

"I was in San Diego with my parents at the time," Rumsey recalls, "and Stan walked into my mother's chicken pie shop and snowed her over in wonderment so she'd give me permission to go with him."

In the '40s, Rumsey made a living in Hollywood, performing on the soundtrack to the Humphrey Bogart movie "The Big Sleep," among others, but became disillusioned and wanted to lead his own band.

"I wanted to play jazz," he said. "When you have great jazz improvisationalists working together, it's like the aperitif of life. There's nothing more elegant and beautiful."

Rumsey had played a dance hall in Hermosa, the Hut, back in the '30s and had always loved the place. John Levine had purchased the Lighthouse, which had been an Italian restaurant, in 1948. When the two met, another piece of the puzzle fell into place.

"John loved music and he loved jazz," says Rumsey. "And I came along at the precise time for him. I told him a Sunday jam session would bring in some business. And he told me, 'Don't you know that Sunday is the worst day of the week for selling liquor?' "

Levine eventually went for the idea and the response, said Rumsey, was incredible. "People started coming in from San Bernardino and San Diego, from all over Los Angeles. It was a timely idea, with the rise of instrumental music and the imposition of the entertainment tax on drinking and dancing. All these little pieces just fit perfectly together."

Not everything worked perfectly. The African-American musicians who first played the club--Edwards, alto saxophonist Sonny Criss, pianist Hampton Hawes--were not welcome by some in the beach-side community.

"At the end of the night, a police car would always follow us out of town," Edwards recalled. "One time, I went out for the dinner break with two women I knew--one Caucasian--and when I got back, John Levine came over to me and said, 'You just made a big mistake. The police are watching you.' "

Rumsey, who fondly remembers his experiences along L.A.'s Central Avenue as a white musician and music fan in the black community, said he always wanted to create the same harmonious atmosphere at the Lighthouse.

"But one day a little voice, I won't say who, spoke to me and said that I should get rid of Teddy and Sonny and Hamp. I didn't pay any attention to that stuff, but everybody was trying to get John, and I had to take the heat off the club."

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