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Jazz in Hermosa Beach


By Dick Williams, Entertainment Editor Los Angeles Mirror, Oct. 16, 1954


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. Now Hermosa isn't exactly the easiest place in the world to reach if you live in Pasadena, the San Fernando Valley or Long Beach. That's where many of these people came from.


And lately, the nightly fog along the coast has been as thick as spider webs in a haunted house.What's the lure? Last night, I found out when I wandered down through the mists to the foot of the Hermosa Pier.The Lighthouse is the home of an exceptional jazz group known as Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse All-Stars. In the last six years they have built the place into the top citadel of jazz on the south coast.


This sextet (a quintet on week nights) is a long jump ahead of most of the jazz squealers, howlers and blasters who rend the night from one end of L.A. to the other.

They operate in a long, low, oblong, dimly lit room with an informal, easy atmosphere for shirt-sleeve jazz. At one end are photos of Stan Kenton (most of this group including leader Rumsey are ex-Kentonites), June Christy and other artists. At the other is a green-lit clock and a couple of red glowing ship's lanterns.


Along the walls are a series of impressionistic paintings done in bas-relief with Plaster of Paris. They have such titles as "How Can I Understand You If You Don't Say What I Already Know Blues?" "Some Days I Feel Aggressive" and "Who's Got The Melody?"Overhead, above a false ceiling of open crossed batting strips, are a set of four, newly installed, giant hi-fidelity speakers. Their mission is to carry accurate sound without distortion to every far corner of the room. They do.The patrons sit in a semicircle at low tables around the small bandstand with its mirrored back, or on cushioned stools at the bar which runs the length of the room on the opposite side.

Very few patrons are from the Hermosa Beach vicinity. They're from all over the L.A. area. A great many of the UCLA, SC and L.A. City College crowd headquarter here, which may account for the uncommonly high percentage of classy, good-looking girls. The average age is in the mid-20s, but there are older and younger steady patrons.



One day after World War II, Rumsey, a tall black-haired chap, was strolling the town. He was tired of playing in big band groups and could get nowhere with his own big group. He walked into the Lighthouse. It was virtually empty. Developed that Owner John Levine had bought it, sight unseen, on the basis of its huge wartime business.

Rumsey asked Levine if he'd ever experimented with a music policy."Everybody and his brother has tried to tell me how to run this place," Levine snapped. "Now you walk in off the streets and tell me what I should do." But he finally agreed to give Rumsey a chance. "I hired the loudest musicians I could find," Rumsey reminisces. "We propped the front doors open and started to blast off. The people began to filter in. Pretty soon the place was full. There were more people than Levine had had in the entire preceeding two weeks."


Rumsey and his group were hired on the spot. Since then, Rumsey has had three different jazz groups. He considers the current one the finest of the lot. The personnel: Rumsey on bass, Bob Cooper (husband of singer June Christy) on tenor sax, Bud Shank on alto sax, Claude Williamson, piano, and Stan Levey, drums. Claude Williamson on trumpet, joins them in week ends.Eighty percent of their music are originals. They are tunes such as "Viva Zapata," "Witch Doctor," "Warm Winds," "Albatross," "Mambo Los Feliz," "Comin Thru the Rye Bread."


Last year Bob Cooper and Bud Shank decided to explore the possibilities of the flute and oboe in jazz. It was such a success that the group's latest long-play record for the Contemporary record label features their oboe-flute duets. Such tunes as "Aquarium," "Still Life" and "Hermosa Summer", with the soft brush of drums and Rumsey's forceful bass beat as accompaniment, are some of the most beautiful and moving jazz numbers I have heard.


The Insomniac


From November 28th, 1958 to 1963, Bob Hare ran The Insomniac coffeehouse in Hermosa Beach - a very happening place just up from the pier and across the street from the Lighthouse. The Insomniac presented folk music of all sorts, blues, world music (that term was probably nonexistent), 'poetry and silent films. The coffeehouse was open 7 days/nights a week and, for a while, 24 hours a day. A typical marquee listing would include Bessie Griffin and the Gospel Pearls, Mel Carter, The Fabulous Wayfarers, The Virgin Island Steel Drum Band with Limbo Dancers, Jazz Goes to Church and silent movies nightly. The list of celebs and noteworthy people that hung out and/or performed there is unbelievable.


The Book and Art Fair sold obscure poetry and world religion books as well as best sellers; original paintings; non-mainstream records; incense; flowers; art supplies. The surrounding festivities included a sidewalk espresso bar; a caricature artist; a guy with a typewriter strapped to his chest that would "write a personality sketch" for 50 cents; even a booth run by a "witch" that sold graveyard dust, monkey brains, etc.; well…you get the picture.



Insomniac Remembered

In 1966, at the invitation of Brian Wilson, Frank Holmes created the album cover art and seven booklet illustrations of lyrics for The Beach Boys Smile Album. Previously, Frank worked for four years at The Insomniac, and two years across the street at the Light House Jazz Club.  As he remembers, the Insomniac started out as a Beatnik coffeehouse and later grew into a well-known music club for the Folk scene. Bob Hare sold my first painting there in 1959 for forty dollars. I was quite proud, it was an abstract cityscape, and some tourist from NY bought it. Bob sold quite a few paintings for me during my four years there.


The interesting thing about the Insomniac was the music, and the musicians that were booked there. Sam Cook's agent, Bumps Blackwell, booked most of the acts. Many of them later developed Rock careers: The Chambers Brothers, Mel Carter, Carson and Van Dyke Parks, Steve Young, Jack Elliot, Dave Van Ronk, and folk heroes like Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, Jessie Fuller, and many others.



Playboy at the Insomniac

The July 1959 issue of Playboy “Entertainment for Men” Magazine featured an article on “The Coffee Houses of America”. As pictured, “Several beatniks uncooled enough to vote Maggie Ryan “Miss Coffee House.” Their camera caught her at the Insomniac. Also in this issue was a photo of a group of beat poetasters at the Insomniac paying oral homage to Howl, the magnum opus of the beatniks poet laureate, Allen Ginsberg.

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