The Birthplace of Cool? A Look At The Lighthouse California
Called by some "Birdland of the West", this venerable nightclub was the impetus of the West Coast jazz movement that started in the mid-1950s and lasted to the 1960s, guided by the Sunday Jazz Jam hosted by Howard Rumsey.
Originally built in 1934 mere feet from the Pacific Ocean, the Lighthouse was a WWII hangout with a Polynesian theme that saw better days until John Levine bought it in the late 1940s. At the prodding of Howard Rumsey, he started a Sunday jazz jam that would be THE hangout for the Los Angeles jazz scene and eventually evolve into what is now called the "West Coast sound."
Lured by the sunshine and union scale, many jazz musicians fled the frigid climes of the East Coast and headed West to make money. One of the biggest success stories is that of Shorty Rogers, who got his big break in moviedom by scoring the soundtrack for Brando's "The Wild One".
Trombonist Milton Bernhart, who originally played in Stan Kenton's big band (a training ground of who's who of West Coasters) in the 1940s was an early member of Shorty Rogers' Giants. Bernhart recalls the mid-50s scene at the Lighthouse: "Weekends were packed, weeknights not as quite. Hermosa Beach was out-of-the-way for a lot of jazz-lovers and they mostly held out until the weekend. Sundays, we played from 12 noon to 12 midnight to full houses." In addition to attracting rabid jazz fans, the Sunday Lighthouse jams also brought in top notch performers.
Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse All-Stars included drummer Shelly Manne, Max Roach (who replaced Manne for a short time), Maynard Ferguson, Don Joham, Hampton Hawes, Bud Shank, and Jack Costanzo. Charlie Parker also made an appearance (who probably shocked the crowd, used to the "cool", horn-rimmed sounds of the West Coast sound) as did the Arizona-born Charles Mingus.
The Lighthouse also attracted the studios, who were looking for musicians for their movies. Adds Bernhart, "The producers of "The Wild One" decided to try Shorty and His Giants on the soundtrack, but first they wanted to make sure we weren't dope fiends (and) who could read music. So, they came incognito to the Lighthouse and spent several weekends watching every move we made--unbeknowst to us. Finally, they agreed we were responsible citizens and approached Shorty and gave him the news. This opened the door for all of us to Hollywood studio work. That's the way it came about."
After the Sunday jams lost appeal, and rock and roll became the ju dour, the club still had an occasional lure for performers. In 1970, bop trumpeteer Lee Morgan, in one of his final performances, blasted one of the best live jazz albums ever (ironically released on Blue Note). A wonderful full circle of events. After the West Coast movement petered out, most of its players stayed in Los Angeles and made their money in film work.
The Lighthouse these days is a all-purpose bar, with rock and roll, reggae, and comedy nights, its past mostly-ignored by drunken clientele. For the past couple of years in late May, it's been restored to its former glory, with West Coast reunions and performances from the surviving members of Rumsey's band.
Although a completely different article, the "West Coast" sound has been much maligned and shrugged off. Accused of being "too white" or "sterile" by critics and musicians, the sound could be heard as far back as Lester Young, who influenced Shorty Rogers. Heavy strains of "cool" are more than evident in Miles Davis' "Birth of the Cool, " the grandaddy of the cool movement. Much of the criticism was based on resentment. The differences were more in the marketing of the rivalary than the music. (Besides, one of the coolest of coolsters was New Yorker Lennie Tristano.) Pick up any Blue Note album from the mid-1950s and you'll get a dose of cold, dark hues, dark nights, and smoky nightclubs. What kind of themes did West Coast label Contemporary Records have on their covers? Some chick running out of the surf with a saxophone.
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