If you dig West Coast jazz, you have bassist Howard Rumsey to thank. Howard is the last surviving member of Stan Kenton's original 1941 band. He also was responsible for turning the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, CA, into one of the most exciting jazz clubs of the late 1940s and 1950s. As the club's manager, house bassist and promoter, Howard attracted jazz artists to the Lighthouse who had just relocated to California and were awaiting membership in the local musicians' union. What emerged from that casual surfside establishment came to be known as West Coast jazz.
In 1952, Howard formed the Lighthouse All Stars using leading artists such as Shorty Rogers, Jimmy Giuffre, Shelly Manne and others who played there. The All Stars (with different configurations of artists) recorded 12 albums under the group's name, and Howard easily did more single-handedly to promote the new form of jazz than virtually anyone else on the Los Angeles scene at the time.
What exactly is West Coast jazz? The form flowered in the early 1950s in California as bebop's traditional formula became worn. Rather than feature two or three horns racing furiously in tight formation, West Coast jazz was more linear. What appealed most to the ear were the harmonies—one instrument circling or supporting the other in cool counterpoint. In short, West Coast jazz in its purest form was a fusion of bop and Bach fugues.
In Part 1 of my three-part interview with Howard, 91, the legendary bassist, club manager and West Coast jazz pioneer talks about growing up in Southern California, joining Stan Kenton's band, the origins of Artistry in Rhythm, Jimmie Lunceford's influence on the band, the strange electric bass he played, and why he was fired by Stan a year after joining:
JazzWax: Were you born in California?
Howard Rumsey: Yes, in the Imperial Valley, which is way down south near the Salton Sea. The town is called Brawley. It was a great place to grow up. I was set up in music from an early age by my mother, who played the mandolin. She had no intention of making me a professional musician. She just thought music would be good for me.
JW: Was she right?
HR: And how. I had eight years of piano in grammar school and high school. While I was in high school, an Englishman named Horace Williams, a conservatory musician, was sent to the Imperial Valley to cure his asthma. When he arrived, he came to the high school and offered lessons on all the instruments. So I went to him and started taking drum lessons.
JW: Did you listen to records in the 1930s?
HR: A couple of musicians from San Diego came down to Brawley and brought records with them. I became friendly with them and got to hear their records. We also had a phonograph.
JW: Did you listen to jazz in that remote location?
HR: With the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, more beer gardens sprang up in the Imperial Valley, and musicians from bigger cities began to take jobs and hide out there to avoid paying alimony to their ex-wives. I also got to hear Louis Armstrong with his big band in San Diego and Teddy Wilson in Las Vegas. [Pictured: Louis Armstrong, right, in Culver City, CA, in the 1930s]
JW: Did the Depression affect your family financially?
HR: Lucky for us my father was well known in Brawley. He had a charitable program that was affiliated with The Elks Club to feed people who didn’t have anything to eat. Every morning he’d make gallons of soup, put it out in restaurants, and anyone who was hungry arriving on railroad cars could come over and have soup and then go about their business. I wasn’t really conscious of the Depression because my folks never discussed it in my presence or in front of my brother, who was four years older than me.
JW: How did you come to play the bass?
HR: One day I was at a root beer stand a block from my house. Those soda stands were popular out West back then, especially in the summer when it was red hot. When I heard the sound of a big bass coming out of the jukebox there, I fell in love with the instrument instantly. At high school, I noticed there was a bass in the auditorium. It was on a stand. No one had ever played it. It was just here. I told myself I should learn to play it. I already had piano and drums as a foundation, so it wasn’t too difficult picking up the bass, too.
JW: Your first band experience was with Vido Musso's orchestra in the late 1930s.
HR: I got that job through alto saxophonist Jack Ordean, who was a close friend. When Vido [pictured] hired him, Jack made Vido hire me. Vido's band played at Redondo Beach just south of Los Angeles. The place seated 235 people. Stan Kenton played piano in Vido's band. One day the band played at the black Elks Club in L.A. We were playing transcribed Jimmie Lunceford charts. On one of the songs, For Dancers Only, the groove was so good that when the song ended I kept playing the four-bar phrase over and over. Stan’s mouth fell open, and the band was quiet. Nobody said anything. Just me vamping, possessed, in this big hall. After about 12 bars, Stan started playing again, and Vido brought the band back in. That was a blast. That’s what set me up to play with Stan.
JW: You were Kenton’s first bassist in 1941?
HR: Yes, I’m the sole surviving member of the original band. For what it was at that time, Stan’s band was very good. It was formed around the sax section. Stan originally had five saxes and only two trombones and three trumpets. Basically, the band was built on a sax section accompanied by five brass and a three-man rhythm section—guitar, bass and drums—because Stan rarely played piano then.
JW: From the pictures I've seen, the bass you were playing looks pretty odd.
HR: [Laughs] Yes, it wasn’t an acoustic bass. It was an electric stand up bass with a very narrow body. It used tubes with the amplifier and speaker in a cabinet. The Rickenbacker guitar people made two prototypes. They gave one to me and another to Moses Allen, the bass player in Jimmie Lunceford's band. They gave it to us for free and asked us to play it for a year.
JW: What did Stan think?
HR: Stan didn’t mind. He didn’t like the sound of the instrument, but he put up with it. He had a sharp new band, and I was playing a sharp modern-looking bass.
JW: How did Artistry in Rhythm, Kenton’s theme, come about?
HR: Stan wrote it originally as an arrangement to rehearse the reeds. It wasn’t meant to be a featured arrangement, but eventually he worked it into the book. It came to him through a classical piece. He turned it from a classical thing into a 72-bar tune. It had a middle part that changed keys and double-timed. What made Artistry in Rhythm so popular was the voicing of the sax section. With Jack Ordean on first alto, he made the section sound like a new model aircraft.
JW: Did you tour with the band?
HR: Eventually we did some one-nighters locally. We did club dates in Glendale [CA]. And we played the ballrooms in all the beach towns along the coast. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday there would be four or five bands at each place. We also played all the theaters in the Los Angeles area in 1941.
JW: Did the band leave California?
HR: We tried. We were booked on a national tour and left from Sunset and Vine on a double-decker bus. But it broke down in Colorado and was replaced by a regular bus, and we had to return. Boy were we brought down. We played some dates on the way back.
JW: That band was pretty exciting, wasn't it?
HR: That band completely broke the mold of the past. Soon after we returned, Stan came to the realization that it was time to voice the saxophones and brass differently. The new sound was a beautiful change for the dancers and listeners. Our music was easy to dance to in places like the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa Beach because it was well known by the people who came and followed the band.
JW: How did it play on the East Coast?
HR: Terrible. When we went out on tour again in 1942 and arrived in New York, the band was hotter than hell and grooving like mad. Marvin George, our drummer, was working the bass-drum pedal so hard that that he went right through the head. He never had time to change it, so we opened at the Roseland Ballroom without a head on the bass drum [laughs].
JW: Did dancers get what the Kenton band was doing?
HR: No, they didn’t go for it. They’d dance by us and look up and ask what we were doing. Dolly Dawn and Her Dawn Patrol was the intermission band. She had played there for years and played the music people wanted to dance to.
JW: What happened?
HR: Roseland didn’t pick up our option. Stan was frustrated, and so were the people who owned the ballroom. They also cut his engagement down to a month. Stan was angry and started telling guys in the band not to play extra notes, just the ones in the charts. He aimed most of that warning at trumpeter Earl Collier, who played the jazz solos, and me. He fingered us, and it broke my heart. He just wanted me to play time.
JW: Did you?
HR: And some. When we moved on to the Summit Ballroom in Baltimore, I foolishly got loaded and wasn’t playing the parts as written. I had a solo to play on Concerto for Doghouse. I had to play my solo maybe two times each night. I wanted to mix it up. I was young. Looking back, I’d say I was taking advantage of Stan by getting a swell head and playing what I wanted to. Then two strings snapped off my bass, and I didn’t have extra strings. It was a mess. Stan grew enraged and took my music stand off the stage right in the middle of a performance and fired me. It kind of broke my heart.
JW: You sound pretty forgiving.
HR: I am. Hey, I’m 91 years old. You can’t go through life and live to be 91 if you’re going to be a person who holds grudges.
JW: What do you remember about that Kenton band? The sound?
HR: Oh sure. I loved the sound. Everyone else in the band was 100% sold on it, too. The sound was responsible for giving Stan his early success. He kept revising Artistry in Rhythm and had a completely new overture each time. It was remarkable for that alone. I got chills every time I played that son of a gun.
JW: What did you do after you were fired?
HR: I headed home to California. What made it doubly painful was that my wife and my mother were with me. My mother had been in the East for vacation. It was so embarrassing. I was so depressed. The whole way back on the train there was no talking about the music. We just talked about the scenery. My wife and mother could tell how bad off I was.
JW: When you arrived back to Los Angeles, you eventually joined Freddie Slack. Margaret Whiting was in the band then.
HR: Margaret was great. Freddy, though, was an alcoholic. He had a band boy that brought along a valise for him with two fifths of gin inside. As a result of his drinking, Freddie wasn’t a very nice guy.
JW: In the spring of 1944, you joined Charlie Barnet and recorded on one of Barnet’s biggest hits, Skyliner.
HR: Yes, I think my bass sounded better on that tune than it ever has. Charlie was a great guy to work for. He came from a wealthy family and thought differently than Stan. Charlie wasn’t the least bit upset about small things. You didn’t have to have everything perfect. The world was already perfect for him.
Tomorrow, Howard talks about becoming the Lighthouse's manager in 1948, how he managed to attract so much top talent to the club, going after the college market, and which musicians were most responsible for the West Coast sound.
JazzWax tracks: To hear how formidable Howard Rumsey was in Kenton's 1941 band, download The Uncollected Stan Kenton & His Orchestra, Vol. 2. What's interesting about this collection of radio transcriptions is that they were recorded in November and December 1941, just before and just after Pearl Harbor and the start of World War II. You can hear the edge in the music. The album is available as a download at iTunes or here at Amazon.