With Ken Koenig's enlightening and entertaining DVD history of a SoCal treasure, Jazz on the West Coast: The Lighthouse
, ninety year-old Howard Rumsey returns to the spotlight. Bassist, booker and raconteur extraordinaire, Rumsey presented the best jazz shows in LA for thirty-three consecutive years. First with a group of studio musicians and Stan Kenton veterans, he ran the ongoing jam and experimentation of the Lighthouse All-Stars, establishing the springboard for the soon-to-be-ballyhooed "West Coast Jazz sound.
After more than a decade of successful recording and personnel changes, Rumsey didn't feel it anymore and concentrated on booking world-class jazz artists to play his waterfront dive. After another decade, he moved down the coast to the Redondo Beach Pier for his tenure at Concerts by the Sea for another ten-plus, finally bringing the curtain down on a major chapter in LA jazz. The host is now the featured guest.
Despite the focus on his past, Rumsey would rather talk about something more recent, a December 2006 tribute to Kenny Burrell; an event that drew a who's who of LA-based jazz greats. He enthused about the whole show, but especially the kids: "They had a high school band play one set, halfway through the show, he recalled. "How they got those kids warmed up, I'll never know. They decided to play 'Move,' and it was really bright. They just hit it, bang and went right through it. Absolutely phenomenal performance. By high school kids! I just couldn't believe it. They just hit right on 'Move.' There were four soloists and they were so professional, it was unbelievable.
"There are more young players now than ever before. Many, many, many very fine young players. All the universities, colleges, junior colleges and high schools, it's just amazing. It all goes back to the premise of a steady job. All the guys who are teaching those kids were players in big bands who settled down to take a position on a faculty in order to have a monthly pay check. There's nothing sadder than to see an old player who still plays well, scuffling and playing gigs for $25. It happens around this town. So, that's my message: a steady gig is what we all need.
Outside LA, The Lighthouse bears renown for a variety of albums recorded there through the 1950s-1970s by artists like Miles Davis, Lee Morgan, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Grant Green, The Jazz Crusaders and Elvin Jones. "I had a real fine recording set up in there, Rumsey said. "I had an Ampex rigged in there. On slow nights I would record the group, and then on intermission we'd all sit around and listen to it. It was a way to keep the band sharp.
"I went to a recording session one night. Stan Levey was working on that date that became For Musicians Only (Verve, 1956). I went over with Stan [Getz]. Norman Granz was there and for the first forty-five minutes of that date there wasn't a note played. Nobody was even talking to each other. Norman was just sitting in the control room. That's what it took to get these guys in a mood to play. Diz was saying, 'I want to do "Dark Eyes. ' So, then they did 'Dark Eye.s. Then, they recorded a few takes on something else. Getz, Sonny Stitt and John Lewis were on that date, too. ...They got two tunes done and took a break, just goofing around. Eventually they all decided they wanted to play again and then they played. That's how Norman got the album.
During his time in the original Stan Kenton band, Rumsey recorded some of the first electric bass to make tape. "Rickenbacker made an electric bass. They gave one to Moses Allen with [Jimmie] Lunceford and they gave one to me with Stan Kenton, to endorse the instrument. You had to be sold on it 100% to touch it and you couldn't change your mind. One night in Baltimore I decided I wasn't going to play it again, so I left it in my landlady's basement and never went back for it.
"The amp would only play on AC, so when we went east of New York, I had to rent a converter to get the thing to play. We were doing one-nighters in the northeast and it was just a real pain in the ass. They didn't know how to record it, either. When I went into Decca over here in Hollywood with the original Kenton band, Jack Kapp was standing right there and he saw me coming in with that electric bass and he said, 'Don't you know we've never recorded one of those things successfully?'
"It scared me so bad and I said, 'Well, this will be the first one.' And I ducked under him and went in the studio. I recorded with it. I did the original Kenton library for the McGregor Transcriptions with that and they're now available on CD. In New York a guy said to me, 'Why don't you put a propeller on it and fly it?' One night the police calls came over it just before the curtain went up. Three or four years later, everyone of those New York players were doubling on electric bass.
Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse All-Stars, Jazz Invention (Contemporary, 1989)