It’s a bright Sunday in 1949 and you’re on the beach at Hermosa. The sun is shining. The sea is sparkling. There are swim caps, and umbrellas, and far less exposed flesh than you see on the beach today. And there is jazz, bebop jazz, and it’s alluring, it’s swinging, it’s bopping, and you follow it up to Pier Ave and into a place called The Lighthouse Café. And half-hour later you’re deep into a cocktail and toe-tapping joyously to The Lighthouse All-Stars.
That’s how it went for many folks in Los Angeles at this time. West Coast jazz happened long before this. Pre-World War II its nucleus was Central Avenue. “Just going there and listening to great musicians do their thing—it was a post-graduate education in jazz,” writes Robert Gordon in “Jazz West Coast.” But the Central Avenue scene lost its verve in the post-war years. West Coast jazz did not die, but it faded.
Enter bassist/band leader Howard Rumsey. In early 1949 he waltzes into The Lighthouse Café on Pier Avenue in Hermosa Beach. These were the bebop days of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Rumsey pitched his dream to the owner, John Levine: Live jazz on Sundays. Long, improvisational sets that will be as much for the musicians as the audience. No cover charge. No drink minimum. Just think of all those folks coming off the beach looking for a place to hang!
Levine said yes—albeit on a trial basis. They set the opening for May 29, 1949. Rumsey gathered his jazz-playing musician friends. They jammed. They crushed it. So began the first of many epic Sundays. Soon The Lighthouse became LA’s jazz epicenter.
In the early ‘50s The Lighthouse Jazz All-Stars were formed, with regulars Howard Rumsey, Bob Cooper, Conte Candoli, and Stan Levey, and guest musicians like Max Roach, Miles Davis, Chet Baker, and Gerry Mulligan, Shorty Rogers, Bud Shank, and many more.
“West Coast jazz.” According to the documentary “Jazz on the West Coast: The Lighthouse,” it was a moniker mostly invented by the media and jazz critics. The musicians paid little attention to it—they just wanted to play. But the West Coast sound was different—in texture, instrumentation, and temperature. And the aesthetic was overtly different. East Coast jazz was typically shown in low-lit clubs, with shadows and cigarette smoke. West Coast jazz was sunny and beachy. Witness Chet Baker playing his trumpet on the shoreline, waves licking his bare feet. Or the cover of “Jazz West Coast Vol. 3” shot by William Claxton.
The Lighthouse became a hangout for Hollywood royalty. Jazz DJ Sleepy Stein broadcasted his KNOB, the world’s first all-jazz radio station, from the club. The Lighthouse Jazz All-Stars would go on to score and soundtrack many films. The Lighthouse held a collegiate competition—rewarding and ushering in the next generation of great jazz musicians. A lot of great stuff happened in the wee hours—as the musicians from this period can attest.
My favorite story is this one. At the height of The Lighthouse’s popularity there were complaints from Hermosa residents that the jazz was playing too loud and too late. The City Council brought in John Levine, and proposed that he put a midnight cutoff time on the music. Not far from The Lighthouse was an aquarium with seals that would bark all night long. Levine said that if the City Council could get the seals to stop barking at midnight, he’d get his musicians to follow suit.
The seals kept barking. The music kept playing.