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Howard Rumsey: The Lighthouse All Star

Rex  Butters By

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Jack Kapp saw me coming in with that electric bass, and he said, 'Don't you know we've never recorded one of those thing successfully?' I said, 'Well, this will be the first one.'
Reprinted from August 2007.

With the release of Ken Koenig's exhaustive, enlightening, and entertaining DVD history of a SoCal treasure, Jazz on the West Coast: The Lighthouse (RoseKing Productions, 2005), 89 year-old Howard Rumsey returns to the spotlight. Bassist, booker, and raconteur extraordinaire, Rumsey presented the best jazz shows in Los Angeles for 33 consecutive years. First with a group of studio musicians and 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 perennial host is now the featured guest.

Despite all the focus on his past, Rumsey would rather talk about his latest night out, a UCLA tribute to Kenny Burrell, an event that drew a who's who of LA-based jazz greats, Howard's crowd. 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.

"It's great to hear young people play who already have the feel, isn't it? I asked.

"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 sixties and seventies by artists like Miles Davis, Lee Morgan, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Grant Green, the Jazz Crusaders, and Elvin Jones. I asked Rumsey about recording.

I had a real fine recording set-up in there, he 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. We did a live recording that day Miles Davis and Rolf Erickson were in the band. It wasn't very well-recorded, and it was a bunch of material that didn't seem relevant, it didn't have a very good theme. It was a quick shot, which is never any good in jazz. You can't do that.

"I went to a recording session one night. Stan Levey was working on that date that became [Stan Getz's] For Musicians Only (Verve, 1956), I went over with Stan. 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 Eyes. Then, they recorded a few takes on something else. Getz, Sonny Stitt, and John Lewis were on that date, too.

"Anyway, 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.

"What made [Lighthouse All Star] Shorty Rogers so great in the studio, in a three hour session, you knew you were going to have the session competed. He had the ability to write this material, run it down once, and record it. He could record an album in three hours without fail. That's what the studios were looking for.

"With Norman Granz, it didn't matter. He didn't have to ask a bunch of executives how much it cost to do that.

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 Lunceford, and they gave one to me with Stan Kenton, to endorse the instrument. You had 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.


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