For six decades, Hermosa Beach’s historical Lighthouse brings the genre’s best acts to the South Bay.
- Written byKirk Silsbee
If you have a taste for jazz on a Sunday, a trip to 30 Pier Avenue in Hermosa Beach will satisfy your craving. Hearing the long-established pros and emerging youngsters that Gloria Cadena books is not only a pleasant way to spend the shank of the day, it’s a way to touch a 60-year legacy.
In the spring of 1949, Howard Rumsey was a young man at a crossroads. As bassist for the Stan Kenton orchestra, he had traveled across the country many times. Rumsey knew the taste of fame with that band; he even had a feature number titled for his instrument: “Concerto for Doghouse.” But he’d left the road behind and had kicked around Los Angeles. He got a little work sidelining in films: Howard wrestled the bass behind Lauren Bacall as she mimed her way through a song in The Big Sleep. But jam sessions and occasional movie work didn’t look like a solid career choice. He seriously considered leaving music altogether and going to work in his family’s potpie restaurant.
Rumsey knew the South Bay from his Kenton days. “Back then,” he says from his Newport Beach home, “every beach city had a ballroom.” He walked into a sleepy bar near the Hermosa Pier and found the owner, John Levine. When Howard proposed Sunday jazz for the room, Levine—a street-smart gambler—was nonplussed. “Everybody else tells me what to do with this place,” said Levine, before adding, “Sunday afternoons are the worst time for the liquor business.” Levine reluctantly agreed to Sunday jam sessions.
Rumsey thought he had found a temporary refuge for his struggling musician friends. What he didn’t know was that he was founding a jazz institution that would live long and echo around the world. What began as Sundays evolved into a full-time music policy that turned a rough, waterfront dive into one of the most famous clubs in jazz history.
Rumsey’s house band, the Lighthouse All Stars, featured some of the greatest L.A. jazz musicians for more than a decade. Teddy Edwards, Hampton Hawes, Sonny Criss, Shorty Rogers, Bud Shank, Bob Cooper, Shelly Manne, Frank Rosolino, Stan Levey and many others formulated new sounds that were as novel as the Hawaiian shirts and the bamboo interior. Along with the Gerry Mulligan-Chet Baker band at The Haig on Wilshire Boulevard and Dave Brubeck at San Francisco’s Blackhawk, the Lighthouse was the third leg of the emerging West Coast jazz aesthetic.
Its location made for singular experiences. Muscle-man actor Steve Reeves came in off the beach in a pair of trunks, and Marlon Brando was a regular. Movie composer Leith Stevens sent a note on a napkin one night to trumpeter Shorty Rogers. Soon, Shorty was writing music for Brando’s Wild One movie. Jazz musicians gained entry into the closed-shop movie recording studios through Shorty’s success as a film composer.
The late broadcaster Will Thornbury once described his late-50s dating ritual at the Lighthouse. “You sat next to this young goddess,” he rhapsodized, “and the pearls that she’d borrowed from her mother laid across her suntanned clavicle. The smell of Sea & Ski mixed with 7UP and her hair dressing formed an intoxicating mixture of scents that—when combined with the pastel textures of the flute and oboe frontline on the bandstand and the imitation Tahitian décor—sent your head reeling. I’ve heard jazz in a lot of places but never in a setting remotely like the Lighthouse.”
As his musicians moved into more lucrative recording and band-leading careers, Rumsey disbanded his group in the early 60s and began booking national headliners. Though it was a world-class jazz showcase, the Lighthouse had lost some of its uniqueness.
Levine died in the early 70s, and Rumsey opened Concerts By The Sea in Redondo. The club became a rock venue—the Lighthouse Café—but not before the late jazz impresario Ozzie Cadena reinstituted jazz for a few years in the 80s and in the last decade took over on Sundays. His widow Gloria carries it on to this day.
In 1991, trumpeter Rogers spoke of the Sunday jam sessions: “It was the stereotypical California scene, except that it was brand new. Someone would wander in, sit down in their bathing suit, and at two in the morning they’d be at the same table–12 hours later!” Alto saxophonist Bud Shank added: “Traveling around the world–to this day–we meet members of the establishment—doctors, attorneys, politicians—and they say, ‘I was one of those sweaty bodies falling off a barstool.’ It’s amazing how many people went through that experience with us.”
Late in life, Shorty was unqualified in his gratitude for the Lighthouse experience: “I was able to get off the road, live in California and, for the first time, have a steady job playing jazz. God has been good to me.”