This Week on “Jazz Club Friday:” Music Recorded at The Lighthouse
Fridays on All Night Jazz, since seeing live jazz is difficult to do right now we bring the live jazz to you on “Jazz Club Friday” on the Jazz Trip@Ten. This week, Steve Splane featured music recorded at The Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach California, just outside Los Angeles. It has a fascinating story that began in 1949 when a restaurant started hosting a Sunday jazz jam. WUSF’s Mike Cornette has more:
In the 1940s big bands were still kings but a new style of music began to fester. It started in New York and it was called bebop. Stan Kenton heard inklings of the new sound and tried to incorporate it into the first rendition of his band, the Stan Kenton Orchestra.
It did not go well. Despite the band’s incredible musicianship and modern energetic style, the swing dance crowd and the critics dismissed it. A frustrated Kenton told the band to turn it down; play the music without the “extra notes.” A bass player for the orchestra did not heed Kenton’s warning. His revolution did not go well.
It culminated on an evening in 1942 when, while slightly intoxicated, the bassist took his solo, attempted to add a few notes from the emerging bebop lexicon and, instead, ended up breaking two strings on his bass. Not only did Kenton fire him, he physically removed his music stand from the stage on the spot.
The bassist was Howard Rumsey from Hermosa Beach, California. “It broke my heart,” Rumsey told Marc Meyers in JazzWax, “He just wanted me to play time.”
With nowhere else to go he went home, downtrodden. He tried touring with a few other bands, but it really never took. “I had been out on the road before and hated it.”
Meanwhile, in Hermosa Beach there was a small Italian restaurant called Verpilate’s. It had opened on the beach in 1934 at 30 Pier Avenue, just steps from the Pacific Ocean. After the war in 1948 a businessman named John Levine purchased the restaurant.
He owned 14 other bars, which he rarely visited. He tried music and other concepts, but they never really took either. The club became a haven for longshoremen and merchant seamen.
In walks Howard Rumsey. He’d seen clubs move from dance rooms to listening rooms, particularly in downtown L.A. on Central, just 30 miles away, where the bebop movement was really heating up. Since Sunday afternoons were relatively quiet, Rumsey suggested starting a jazz jam session on Sundays.
Rumsey told the L.A. Times in 1989 that Levine’s response was, “Hey, kid, Sunday is the worst day of the week for the liquor business.” Rumsey persisted, “I pointed to the empty club and said, ‘What can you lose?”
“Sure, why not?” Levine told Rumsey.
In January of 1949 The Lighthouse was reborn as jazz club. “The next week we propped open the two front doors and blasted music out onto the street, and in a couple of hours there were more people in there than he’d seen in six weeks,” Rumsey said.
“He [Rumsey] came along at precisely the right time,” Ken Poston of the Los Angeles Jazz Institute told the L.A. Times in Rumsey’s obituary, “and was able to establish what became an iconic place in the history of jazz.”
Rumsey became the contractor for all musicians playing at the club. In those days the union had a rule to try to control musicians coming out to Hollywood to play the studios and leave. You have to live in L.A. for a year to get a union card.
Playing for the Hollywood studios was lucrative. Additionally the state had a 15% entertainment tax on singers and dance clubs. The all instrumental policy at the Lighthouse was exempt and helped hold down costs.
Soon there were quite a few musicians looking for additional work. The Lighthouse fit the bill. The Sunday afternoon concerts starting expanding from 2 PM straight through to 2 AM. Rumsey started a band, the Lighthouse All-Stars with trumpeter Shorty Rogers and others. The All-Stars recorded 12 albums.
“It was a great time for jazz. There was a big revival going on,” trumpeter Shorty Rogers told Steve Cerra on the “Jazz Profiles” blog. “Sunday we had jazz all day,” Shorty recalled, “The Lighthouse is just half a block from the beach”.
People would come into the club in their bathing suits in the afternoon. And at two in the morning, when we closed, some of them would still be sitting there in their swimsuits.”
The club quickly garnered a reputation for helping create the West Coast Sound. “It had a different sound,” Rumsey told JazzWax, “It wasn’t cool, like most people think. It was between cool and bop. As [drummer] Shelly Manne said, the only difference was we were at the Lighthouse and other guys were in Chicago and New York…It was the music of happy—in a hurry.”
According to the “Oxford Companion to Jazz,” “By the mid-1950s, the cool school on the West Coast had grown into a virtual university. Classes were in session almost every night at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach where up and coming musicians…made waves.”
Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker and Art Pepper were frequent guests at the Lighthouse. Pianist Russ Freeman told Matthew Ruddick in his biography of Baker, “Funny Valentine,” “A lot of things that were being done on the West Coast were, in retrospect, really not very good. But Gerry and Chet were astonishing.”
Max Roach was the house drummer for a time. Miles Davis played there, recorded with the All-Stars and famously got into a fist fight with one of the bartenders.
Other musicians followed and soon the club became a destination for record labels looking to make live recordings. Cannonball Adderley, The Jazz Crusaders, The Modern Jazz Quartet and Lee Morgan all recorded at the Lighthouse.
John Levine died in 1970 and Rumsey moved on in 1971 to operate the “Concerts by the Sea” venue in Redondo Beach.
The Lighthouse changed music policy soon after but jazz slowly came back starting in the ‘90s. Until the pandemic, the club now known as the Lighthouse Café, was still booking music regularly just steps from the beach.
It was also a featured backdrop for Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in the film “La La Land.”
All because of two broken bass strings and an idea for a Sunday jazz jam session.