Howard Rumsey dies at 97; bassist brought West Coast jazz to life
Howard Rumsey, a bass player who turned a down-at-the-heels sailors’ hangout in Hermosa Beach into ground zero for West Coast jazz, has died. He was 97.
Rumsey, whose Lighthouse Cafe provided a hip, popular showplace for established musicians and a proving ground for up-and-coming players, died July 15 in Newport Beach, his friend Ken Poston, director of the Los Angeles Jazz Institute, said.
“He came along at precisely the right time,” Poston said, “and was able to establish what became an iconic place in the history of jazz.”
In 1949, the Lighthouse drew a rough crowd of longshoremen and merchant seamen.
Rumsey, a tall, self-effacing musician who played dime-a-dance halls along the coast before hitting the road with big bands, wandered in for a beer one afternoon in May. Tired of traveling, he was patching together local gigs and tried to talk owner John Levine into letting him stage Sunday afternoon jazz performances.
“Hey, kid,” Levine said, “Sunday is the worst day of the week for the liquor business.”
But Rumsey persisted. “I pointed to the empty club and said, ‘What can you lose?’” he told The Times in 1989.
“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 drew on his old pals from Stan Kenton’s big band, and within a couple of years, his Lighthouse All-Stars played hard-driving bebop six nights a week. Big names in jazz — drummer Max Roach, composer-trumpeter Shorty Rogers, saxophonist Jimmy Giuffre — were part of the house combo.
In later years, Miles Davis and Lee Morgan swung by to play. Cannonball Adderley, Art Blakey, Wes Montgomery — all eventually took their turns.
One night, reclusive pianist Thelonious Monk came in.
For the record
8:49 a.m., July 25: An earlier version of this article misspelled pianist Thelonious Monk’s first name as Thelonius.
“He was trying to be very incognito, sitting quietly at the end of the bar,” Rumsey recalled. “Then his name was announced. He walked to the piano, played ‘Round Midnight,’ got up, took a bow and walked right out the front door. I never saw him again.”
In the early days, African American musicians had a tough time navigating around local police officers, who sometimes tailed them through town. To the chagrin of Levine and Rumsey, many quit coming and didn’t resume for several years.
Rumsey “just had to stick with it and overcome it,” Poston said. “He became a trusted member of the community and was able to break down some of that stuff.”
At Levine’s urging, Rumsey joined the local Chamber of Commerce. He wrote music columns for a local newspaper. The Lighthouse co-sponsored an annual beauty contest and participated in parades.
In addition to acting as the club’s frontman, Rumsey booked talent, announced acts, kibitzed with the guests, made people feel at home and, occasionally, picked up his bass. On busy Saturday nights, the Lighthouse turned away hundreds of would-be patrons, many of them students from UCLA and USC.
In 1956, NBC’s Dave Garroway, riding a wave of interest in California’s far-out beach scene, gave the Lighthouse national exposure.
“We just step out of the ocean and start for the music,” Garroway said, as a couple in swimsuits emerged from the surf and walked barefoot down the street.
“Oh, your feet will still leave little wet footprints on Pier Avenue every step of the way to John Levine’s Lighthouse Cafe,” Garroway said as the camera panned over a sun-baked crowd and the new sounds of California cool played in the background. “This is jazz — modern jazz — not for the cultist or the sectarian, but free-swinging music improvised with enthusiasm.”
Critics suggested that East Coast jazz and West Coast jazz were essentially different, but Rumsey didn’t completely buy it. In 2009, he offered his own description of the West Coast strain to jazz writer Marc Myers: “It’s the music of happy — in a hurry.”
Born Nov. 17, 1917, in Brawley, Calif., Rumsey started piano lessons when he was 4. By the time he was 18, he was playing bass in clubs. When Stan Kenton wanted him to play with his band at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa Beach, the great jazzman asked permission from Rumsey’s mother, who at the time ran a chicken pie shop in San Diego.
Ultimately, Rumsey spent two years on the road with Kenton’s band.
“He made a professional musician out of me — which was rather hard to do,” Rumsey said in a 2010 documentary, “Jazz on the West Coast: The Lighthouse.”
At the Lighthouse, Rumsey started annual collegiate jazz competitions, cultivating his audience and his future players at the same time. He took his Lighthouse All-Stars on college tours and, at one of them, met future wife Joyce. They were married for 47 years until her death in 1998.
In 1970, Levine, whom Rumsey said he saw as a second father, died suddenly.
When the club’s new owner, Levine’s son John, wanted to feature blues more prominently, Rumsey opened another jazz spot — the Concerts by the Sea club in Redondo Beach. After retiring in 1985, Rumseypursued a quiet life of golfing in Hemet.
Eventually, he moved back to Newport Beach. In his later years, he was an elder statesman of local jazz.
“Whenever Howard showed up, it was a big deal,” Poston said. “The musicians loved it, the patrons loved it — it was just a great scene.”
And so it was for Rumsey as well.
“When you have great jazz improvisationalists working together, it’s like the aperitif of life,” he told The Times in 1999. “There’s nothing more elegant and beautiful.”
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