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The Bach's Beach Vision Of Jazz Heaven

Arthur R George By

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If you want company, build a beach house and they will come. —Pete Douglas
Heaven for some is a baseball diamond in an Iowa cornfield. For Pete Douglas, it was a house on a beach with a jazz club in his living room, a would-be heaven also for anyone who dropped in. Douglas passed on, in 2014 at age 85, sitting at his desk overlooking the Pacific Ocean. But his vision lingers at the Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society, aka the Douglas Beach House, at Miramar Beach on Half Moon Bay in Northern California about 25 miles south of San Francisco.

The facility closed for about a year after Douglas' death, amid questions as to whether a venue so closely identified with its founder (it had been, after all, his actual house! ) would continue. It had been his labor of love. Middle daughter Barbara Douglas Riching, who had developed a career in corporate finance, methodical and kind of an opposite to her father's beachside bohemianism, stepped up to buy the house, with payments financed into the future to her two sisters, and to lead the nonprofit organization that is the operating business structure.

"The sisters all recognized a value in his legacy," Riching recalls, "and it kind of fell to me to keep it going. When I see the joy in people's eyes, it affirms that there's something really special here for others." So jazz on select Sunday afternoons, four seasons of more than a half dozen concerts each throughout the year, continues, as it has since 1964.

What Pete Douglas created continues in a wood-paneled listening room, with space for 200 guests on the main floor and a balcony loft above. Right across the street is the ocean, you can step directly onto the beach; immediately to the northwest and visible on a clear day or through the coastal fog can be the mega-waves of the surfing site known as Maverick's.

Natural light pours in through large windows facing the water. Food and beverages are available buffet style; people also picnic on-site or nearby. Several levels of wood decks wrap the building M.C. Escher-like, up a wooden staircases from a streetside patio. What started as a run-down beer joint with family sleeping space in the back is now a million-dollar-plus coastal property based on location alone, jazz added.

Dolphins and migrating whales pass by seasonally. Musicians too, hundreds of them over the years. Visualize: Duke Ellington, Teddy Wilson, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie; Dexter Gordon, Max Roach, McCoy Tyner, Sonny Stitt, Carmen McRae. More recently: Nicholas Payton, Miguel Zenon, The Bad Plus, Joey DeFrancesco, Jane Monheit, Larry Coryell, Hiromi. All up close and personal. Bill Evans recorded a live album Half Moon Bay there in 1973; other sessions yielded Blue Mitchell Live, Art Pepper Renascence and Live in the USA, and Richie Cole Live. This summer brings saxophonists Chico Freeman and Grace Kelly, bandleader Pete Escovedo, pianist Larry Vuckovich, vocalist Kendra Shank, the Django Festival All-Stars, and a tribute to Mel Martin.

Despite the club's long history, it is still kind of a mystery spot, even among jazz devotees in the San Francisco Bay Area. Many have heard of it, but never been there. It's on a stretch of coast known more for artichoke and pumpkin farming and weekend getaways than for top-flight music. It takes a bit of discovery to find, about two miles south of the harbor at Princeton-by-the-Sea: an easily-missed turn off of Highway 1 onto Magellan Avenue (named after the Portuguese explorer), then a turn onto Mirada (Spanish for "look," always a good way to find), and suddenly there it is: a gem resplendent, heaven-sent.

Some think it is a private organization, a "Society" open only to members, weirdly mating Bach and dancing in its name yet presenting mostly jazz. It does have tax-deductible memberships, with advance ticketing privileges, but this bit of heaven is open to the public.

One of Douglas' jazz aphorisms, Number 81 from a list of 153 on the Beach House website, is "If you want company, build a beach house and they will come." In 1957, Douglas bought a building that was not much more than a shack, a former beer bar, and moved in with his wife and young daughter. The beer joint was converted into an oceanfront cottage.

For Douglas, it offered a classic beat fantasy of his own: "the gritty coffee shop, the jazz trio." In his late teens, he had wandered in to what became Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse Café in Hermosa Beach, which similarly had been a broken-down sailor's bar steps from the water and begun offering jazz to fill an otherwise empty space. That tableau entranced Douglas, and later invoked dreams to recreate it in a place of his own.

But Douglas had not envisioned himself as a jazz entrepreneur. Music at the Beach House began in 1958 when Douglas, then armed with a sociology degree and working as a probation officer, encountered a teenage probationer who brought a saxophone into their meetings because the fellow's car wouldn't lock. Douglas took a shine to the young man, who had been convicted of stealing a package of baloney, and knew the kid was no kind of criminal. He invited him out to the beach to play; the youngster showed up with other musician friends and jam sessions were born.

That probationer grew up to become Pat Britt, Los Angeles-based saxophonist and producer for jazz reissues under a reincarnated Vee-Jay label and original jazz recordings for Catalyst. Tim Jackson, who went on to open the Kuumbwa Jazz Center further south in Santa Cruz and become artistic director of the Monterey Jazz Festival, started out as an apprentice to Douglas, living out of a Volkswagen van and a sleeping bag on site in trade for working as janitor and ticket-taker. Jackson, who played flute and surfed, was drawn by the waves and stayed for the music. Jackson still serves, now on the nonprofit's board of trustees.

Douglas from the beginning had a kind of open-door policy, inviting in various characters, wanderers, and explorers from many directions passing by, drawn by the beatnik spirit of the time and the music scene. Today that vibe continues as much as it can in this era, including listeners of all stripes, as cool and comfortable and engaging as one may wish for a coastal afternoon. Another of Douglas' jazz sayings, Number 7 of 153: "Hanging out around live music is not a waste of time, as one might have a serendipitous experience." The music may require great attention, but all is otherwise relaxed.

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