Sunday, July 19, 2015

Howard Rumsey, Founding Father of West Coast Jazz, Dies at 97

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Ken Poston, the Founder and Director of the Los Angeles Jazz Institute, sent along the following regarding the recent passing of Howard Rumsey and I thought I’d share it with you as I doubt that anyone had a closer working relationship with Howard over the last three decades of his life than Ken did.

“Howard Rumsey, one of the most significant figures in modern jazz and one of the founding fathers of “West Coast Jazz”  died on July 15 in Newport Beach, California.   He was 97

His primary instrument was the string bass but it was his talent as a bandleader and nightclub operator that created an amazing legacy which touched the lives and careers of countless musicians and fans.

Howard Rumsey was born on November 7, 1917 in Brawley CA in the heart of the Imperial Valley.   He took piano lessons for 8 years followed by drums, trumpet and eventually the string bass.

He left Brawley after High School to attend Los Angeles City College where he continued his musical studies.   He also began playing with a number of local bands around Southern California.  His first job of note was with Vido Musso’s band joining a rhythm section that included a young Stanley Kenton on piano.

After a stint with Gus Arnheim he joined the band of Johnny Scat Davis  and toured throughout the United States.  They played all the major ballrooms and theaters which gave Howard an opportunity to see the music business, as he liked to say, “from the top down”.  

After Scat Davis, Howard joined Stanley Kenton’s newly formed Orchestra which debuted during the summer of 1941 at Balboa Beach. It was during his stay with Kenton that he started to develop a reputation in the jazz world and was the featured soloist on an early Kenton number titled “Concerto for Doghouse”. He stayed with Kenton until 1942 then returned to Southern California where he worked with a variety of bands including Charlie Barnet, Freddie Slack and Barney Bigard.

1949 was a major turning point in his career when he approached John Levine, owner of a small saloon on Pier Ave. in Hermosa Beach and convinced him to establish a weekly jam session on Sunday afternoons.    Before long, The Lighthouse Cafe became the primary destination for modern jazz in Southern California.

The Sunday “Modern Jazz Concerts” were so successful that it wasn’t long before a Wednesday through Sunday format was established. The Sunday sessions put the Lighthouse on the map.   They started at 2 in the afternoon and ended at 2 in morning with visiting musicians sitting in throughout the day and evening.  

Howard had a unique vision in what the Lighthouse could become and subsequently created one of the most iconic jazz clubs of all time.   By the early 1950s, the Lighthouse was the headquarters of the burgeoning west coast jazz movement and the house band, Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All Stars, became internationally renowned. Between 1952 and 1962   The collective members of the Lighthouse All Stars reads like a who's who of modern jazz.   Shorty Rogers, Jimmy Giuffre, Bob Cooper, Art Pepper, Maynard Ferguson, Hampton Hawes, Shelly Manne, Russ Freeman, Max Roach, Bud Shank, Conte Candoli, Stan Levey, Frank Rosolino, Victor Feldman, Claude Williamson and Vince Guaraldi all graced the Lighthouse stage throughout the 1950s.  

Howard also understood the importance of developing an audience and was tireless in his promotion of the club’s activities.  He knew that his core audience was college aged students so he and the All Stars performed at numerous high schools and colleges throughout the year.

He was also a pioneer in jazz education long before any such thing existed.  In 1954 he started an Inter-Collegiate Jazz Festival that happened every Easter Week until the mid 1960s.   The All Stars acted as judges and awards were given to the most promising groups and individuals.   It was a time when jazz wasn’t part of most University curriculums and it provided a showcase for aspiring young musicians.   The list of students who took part in the Easter Week festivities include such future luminaries as Les McCann, Charlie Haden, Charles Lloyd, Charlie Shoemake, Mike Wofford, Gabe Baltazar, Pete Christlieb, Lanny Morgan, Tommy Tedesco, Bob Florence, Don Rader, Ray Manzarek, Barry Zweig, Harvey Newmark, Steve Cerra and Daryl Dragon.

The above photo features the 1962 Intercollegiate Jazz Festival winners with from left to right Barry Zweig, guitar, Steve Cerra, drums, Harvey Newmark, bass, Ernie Del Fante, flute and alto sax and John Bellah, piano.

In 1971 Howard left the Lighthouse and opened his own club, Concerts By the Sea, which was located on the Redondo Beach Pier.  It was a unique venue that quickly became one of Southern California’s top jazz rooms until Howard retired in 1985.   

Upon his retirement, he led a quiet life but still continued his relentless support of live jazz and was especially interested in encouraging young musicians just starting out.

He could often be seen at venues throughout Southern California listening to the music and supporting the artists.   It was always a special treat when Howard was in the house and it wasn’t uncommon to see people lined up at the breaks just to say hello and thank him for all the things he had made possible through the years.

Last May, Howard was honored by the Los Angeles Jazz Institute with a Five Day Festival that celebrated his immense contributions to the jazz scene in Southern California and beyond.   Fans and musicians came from all over the world to pay tribute.

Howard was a double lifetime member of The Los Angeles , American Federation of Musicians, Local 47.

He leaves behind a truly remarkable legacy that will continue to impact the jazz world for many years to come.”

The following video features bassist Howard and the Lighthouse All Stars on Bill Holman’s Latin for Lovers featuring Conte Candoli, trumpet, Frank Rosolino, trombone, Bob Cooper, tenor saxophone, Sonny Clark, piano and Stan Levey drums.

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