Our Jazz Years

During the post-war years, Hermosa Beach’s The Lighthouse Café emerged as a shiny beacon of the West Coast jazz scene. The sound may have changed, but the history behind those brick walls is cemented in music history.

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    Amber Klinck

There’s something about live music—a draw that pulls you in. Whether it’s a group of people gathered around a piano, strangers huddled close to hear a musician playing on the street, or a mob of fans moving in unison at the Hollywood Bowl … seeing an artist perform live has a way of capturing your attention, the melody taking authority over your mood. 

Jazz musician Howard Rumsey knew this, and it was his ability to convince John Levine, the owner of a dive called The Lighthouse Café, to host a series of Sunday jam sessions that eventually saved the local watering hole and transformed it into the epicenter for West Coast jazz.

Rumsey began his career as a professional musician in 1938, playing with big band names such as Stan Kenton, Charlie Barnet and Barney Bigard. But it was in 1937 that he first visited Hermosa, immediately falling in love with the coastal town.

At the age of 34, Rumsey settled permanently in Los Angeles. With hopes of making a home near the beach, Rumsey returned to Hermosa looking for a steady gig.

The Lighthouse was a popular hangout for sailors during World War II. But when Levine purchased the bar in 1949, that popularity was beginning to fade. As the ‘40s were coming to an end, so was the steady stream of thirsty patrons—making it a struggle for Levine to keep the business afloat.

On a devastatingly slow afternoon, Rumsey walked into The Lighthouse to find an empty bar and pitched the introduction of Sunday jazz performances to a skeptical Levine. He was doubtful of the plan and reluctant to take the advice of a stranger off the street.

But Rumsey’s confidence and professionalism won over the surly owner—that and the fact that he didn’t have much to lose. On May 29, 1949, the Lighthouse opened with its first Sunday of jazz.

The sweet sounds of music poured from the bar onto the pier. Ross Levine, the owner’s son, recounts the magic of those first music-filled days. 

“I remember a sense of good times and Howard up there making love to the bass. It was wonderful,” he says with a smile. “It was something the world may never see again, because it was open. To hell with the club; the music went right out into the street, right down to the ocean.”

The personalities of the two men were very different, making for an unlikely collaboration. Not to mention they both carried reputations: Levine as a heavy gambler and Rumsey as “the guy who always had pot.”

But it worked for them, both personally and professionally. People began flooding into the bar, covered in sand, settling in to listen to the musicians on stage well into the evening. Soon patrons were traveling from distances further than the beach below to listen to the bebop jazz coming from The Lighthouse.

In a 1954 article featured in the Los Angeles Mirror, Dick Williams describes a night at The Lighthouse: “Some 400 people were turned away at a little beachfront jazz bistro in Hermosa Beach called The Lighthouse last Saturday night. Several hundred others, who arrived early, managed to sandwich themselves inside.”

Throughout the 1950s The Lighthouse was the leading jazz club in Los Angeles. It served as a platform for many young musicians, some of whom went on to become jazz legends while also challenging the racial and religious barriers of the time.

“There was a lot of racial tension. Many of the African-American acts were not particularly welcome outside of the club itself,” explains Christopher O. Uebelhor, curator and manager of the Hermosa Beach Historical Society. He adds that this mentality was “not unlike a lot of other parts of the country during the 1950s and 1960s.” 

In fact the owner of The Lighthouse had faced his own share of discrimination after moving to the South Bay. Levine, who was Jewish, was initially viewed as an outsider and at one point was denied housing. However he was determined to stand his ground and stick it out—a decision that clearly served him well. A true character, Levine won over people from all walks of life, from fellow gamblers to politicians.

As the club’s popularity grew, the Sunday jam sessions transitioned into more polished jazz concerts and were held multiple nights of the week. Rumsey put together the Lighthouse All-Stars, which for a time boasted the addition of Max Roach, accredited by some as the greatest drummer in the history of jazz.

It wasn’t long before The Lighthouse was attracting some big names on stage as well as in the audience. Stars like Marlon Brando, Mickey Rooney and Ava Gardner could be spotted in the audience, while quintessential jazz figures such as Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, James Moody, Cannonball Adderley and Charles Mingus left their mark on the stage.

Ironically, while the club’s reputation was associated with excellence, little changed in the way of its appearance. The Lighthouse remained a dive. A dive with an impressive marquee, but a dive no less. 

With a small kitchen serving Chinese food, cheap drinks and no cover, The Lighthouse attracted fans of all ages. Though, as Williams points out, The Lighthouse was infamous for having an “uncommonly high percentage of classy, good-looking girls.”

While Rumsey, Levine and a growing number of jazz aficionados were enjoying the rapid growth and success of The Lighthouse, the city of Hermosa Beach was not. In response to many of the townspeople’s negative disposition, Levine and Rumsey created their own version of a public relations campaign.

Levine became friendly with the chief of police and began hiring bartenders who eventually became police officers. Rumsey joined the chamber of commerce and led the Lighthouse All-Stars in their participation in city parades and concerts for the Lions Club and even co-sponsored a beauty contest. Soon Levine, Rumsey and The Lighthouse itself became embedded enough in the community to gain the tolerance of its members.

Another big break for the club came after an interior remodel in order to increase recording capabilities. Sleepy Stein, a radio disc jockey for the world’s first all-jazz radio station, often broadcasted a live show from The Lighthouse. The exposure only further extended the reach of the club’s popularity—strengthening its hold as the hub for West Coast jazz.

With the rise of rock ‘n’ roll toward the end of the 1950s, however, the lure of jazz began to lose its luster. When it became a struggle to book talent for the Lighthouse All-Stars, Rumsey disbanded the group. But it was the sudden death of John Levine in the early 1970s that really ended the jazz era for the club, as well as Rumsey’s time at The Lighthouse.

After 22 years of working together, Levine had been both a mentor and a friend to Rumsey. The two created a legacy out of a struggling, beachfront dive, and they enjoyed doing it. In true representation of the American dream, these two renegades bent the rules and followed their instincts—and it worked.

Rumsey later described Levine as a father figure, as well as one of the three most influential men in his life. Howard Rumsey died on July 15, 2015. He was 97. 

With the height of the jazz era behind it, The Lighthouse did what it could to evolve with the music of the times … first with a subtle transition into the blues and rock ‘n’ roll, then a sharper pivot during the punk explosion of the 1970s. In a 2004 article written by Heidi Siegmund Cuda, The Lighthouse Café is described as “a mecca for South Bay punk.”

Today The Lighthouse continues to draw a crowd of music lovers, though a much more versatile one. Depending on the night, the music coming from the club could vary from the sounds of jam bands, rock, reggae, salsa, country and of course jazz.

It remains a local favorite with its proximity to the beach and its centralized location. But for those who know the club’s past, there’s a deeper draw.

“I think it’s the history behind it,” says Uebelhor. “I mean that’s why I like it. It has so much character going back to the 1940s.”

And it’s true, even today, with the brick walls lined with images of a booming past, the long, dark bar and a stage that’s seen so much. From the moment you walk in the door at The Lighthouse Café, it’s hard not to get lost in time.