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: Jazz on the West Coast: The Lighthouse

I’m not sure whether to applaud Apple’s iMovie for making it possible for amateur filmmakers to make movies about subjects which otherwise would never be documented, or to lambaste Apple’s iMovie for making it possible for amateur filmmakers to make movies about subjects which otherwise would never be documented. Actually I don’t know for certain that Jazz on the West Coast was done on iMovie, but with its copious use of the Ken Burns effect, basic graphics and sound design, it sure looks like it. However, if you can get beyond the stiff narration and cheap video look of the interviews, you are guaranteed to learn a great deal about jazz on the West Coast, in all its permutations.

Filmmaker Ken Koenig does have quite a story to tell-about a club in Hermosa Beach, Calif., that over the course of two decades came to be the epicenter of West Coast jazz, a style that this film goes a long way toward explaining and characterizing. The Lighthouse was owned by a rough-and-ready character named John Levine, who allowed jazz bassist Howard Rumsey to set up shop with a house band. That experiment turned into a long-running partnership of sorts between the club owner and musician, enabling Rumsey to bring in some of the greatest musicians of that era, both as regular bandmembers and as guests. Their relationship is one of the more interesting themes of the film. The colorful Levine loved to gamble, but also seemed to genuinely appreciate jazz. And given a free hand by Levine, Rumsey kept the music together in one of the longest house band stints in jazz’s history. The Lighthouse band included, at one time or another: Jimmy Giuffre, Conte Candoli, Victor Feldman, Shorty Rogers, Shelly Manne, Bud Shank and Stan Levey. Guests included Chet Baker, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Buddy Collette and Max Roach. The delicate issue of race appears and is handled directly by the filmmaker in interviews with Collette and others on the scene at the time. The club eventually lost its mojo in the late ’60s, but not before its reputation as a hot house for West Coast jazz was firmly cemented.

Koenig weaves in archival footage and stills along with interviews with Rumsey and a host of other musicians, critics and scenesters, some of whom are more camera-friendly than others, but all of whom shed light on the time and place. Notably, Kirk Silsbee’s thorough deconstruction of the West Coast sound is illuminating for those who still persist that all California jazzers were laid-back or that jazz musicians between the coasts had a running feud. The still photography is top-notch, including plenty from the likes of Ray Avery and William Claxton. But given the plodding pacing of the film, jazz fans should watch this documentary to get a history lesson in jazz, not to seek visual entertainment. The only extra is a 60-minute interview with Rumsey, but given his ubiquity in the film, it’s doubtful that viewers will feel the urge to see more.

Originally Published