When pianist Pete Jolly moved to Southern California from Phoenix in 1954, he found the jazz scene vibrant.
"Things were just beautiful for jazz then," he recalled recently from his San Fernando Valley home. "There were numerous rooms to play . . . and they'd hire guys for six nights or a week, not like today when they give you one night. And the record companies were gung-ho. You could make a living playing jazz."
Jolly arrived during the creative hubbub that would later be deemed West Coast jazz. As a fresh face in town, he was right in the middle of it.
"Why they ended up calling it West Coast jazz doesn't make a lot of sense," said Jolly, who will perform in Fullerton tonight. "After all, a lot of us guys were from the East Coast."
Jolly was born in Connecticut in 1932. Before he turned 4, his father started him on accordion, which Jolly has continued to play on and off during his career. He began piano lessons at 8 and played in a local dance band in grammar school.
The family moved to Arizona when Jolly was in the eighth grade, and eventually he became house pianist at the Jazz Mill, a Phoenix club where he backed everyone from Benny Carter to Chet Baker.
While visiting Los Angeles in 1952, Jolly was asked to sit in at the Lighthouse jazz club. "[Owner] Howard Rumsey called me to come in and play with [trumpeter-composer] Shorty Rogers' All Stars. Somebody couldn't make it. After the gig, Shorty drove me back to the Valley, and I went back to Phoenix."
When Jolly made the move to Los Angeles, Rogers almost immediately enlisted him to join his quintet. Soon the pianist was touring the country with Rogers, drummer Shelly Manne, bassist Curtis Counce and saxophonist Jimmy Giuffre and playing concerts in halls from Los Angeles' Shrine Auditorium to New York's Carnegie Hall.
Rogers was an artistic director for RCA Records, and in 1955 he helped Jolly land the recording contract that led to his first album, "Jolly Jumps In," featuring Manne and Counce.
"Shorty was very influential in the music business at that time," Jolly said. "He was always in great demand, and he worked with the best musicians. He could do no wrong, and he never did."
"I was a little bit younger, and to me, Shorty and Shelly were legends. I learned so much from them. Shorty had his signature on everything he did. If he wrote a chart, you knew it was his. He didn't copy anybody."
The Rogers connection led to lots of work for Jolly, including studio dates for such Rogers-arranged movie scores as "I Want to Live" (score by Johnny Mandel) and "The Man With the Golden Arm" (Elmer Bernstein).
He recorded on albums with trumpeter Baker, saxophonist Art Pepper, vibraphonist Terry Gibbs (for whom he played accordion on the album "Terry Plays the Duke") and clarinetist Buddy DeFranco. He backed Billie Holiday on the 1958 television show "Stars of Jazz."
"It was a wonderful era," Jolly said of the days when the West Coast jazz movement was at its peak. "You could record during the day and play the clubs at night. Both, working together, made for a wonderful existence."
The scene began to dry up in the '60s "because of the Beatles and the Monkees and all the rock 'n' roll," Jolly said. He retreated into the studios to make his living, playing for the mid-'60s television series "I Spy," backing Herb Alpert on his 1968 pop hit "This Guy's in Love With You" and playing Don Costa's arrangements for Frank Sinatra.
He received two Grammy nominations in the early '60s, one for his signature composition "Little Bird," the other for his album "Sweet September." After leaving RCA, he recorded albums under his own name for MGM, Columbia and A&M.;
In 1965, Jolly brought together bassist Chuck Berghofer and drummer Nick Martinis to play the Red Chimney jazz club and, later, a long-running engagement at Donte's in North Hollywood. The trio has been together ever since. Tonight, Jolly and Martinis, with bassist Bob Maize sitting in for Berghofer, play Steamers Cafe in Fullerton.
New interest in the West Coast jazz movement means new interest in Jolly. "Jolly Jumps In" will be reissued by RCA/BMG later this year, with added tracks from an EP issued at the same time. (Jolly's three other RCA recordings are on CD.) In July, he plays the Ottawa Jazz Festival in Canada, followed by two nights at Pearl's, a San Francisco jazz club.
"It's not as easy to keep this music alive today," Jolly said. "But there's still a lot of wonderful people out there who support it."
* The Pete Jolly Trio plays tonight at Steamers Cafe, 138 W. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton. 8:30 p.m. Two-item minimum. (714) 871-8800.