Each year, in our March issue, we ask prominent musicians to pay tribute to fellow artists who have passed in the previous year. This piece appeared in the March 2016 edition of JazzTimes.
Howard Rumsey, in a way, started jazz in California. He helped make people famous because he would sign them up to play at the Lighthouse Café in Hermosa Beach [which Rumsey booked from 1949 through the ’60s ] for a year at a time. Not only would he have West Coast guys like Conte Candoli, Frank Rosolino, Richie Kamuca, Shorty Rogers, Bud Shank, Stan Levey and Bob Cooper, but he brought in Max Roach and other players from New York. Look at the drummers he had on staff for a year at a time: Roach, Levey, Shelly Manne. He brought in Freddie Hubbard, anybody who was well known who could play.
He really built that place up. He didn’t own it-that was a guy named John Levine-but it was doing half-assed business and Howard talked him into letting him run shows once a week at first. After a while you couldn’t even get in.
I only played for him one time. I was working in Denver and he booked me for a Sunday. That was my day off, so I flew in and a friend of mine got me three great players-pianist Frank Strazzeri, bassist Monty Budwig and drummer Colin Bailey. We did two shows and it was so much fun. Howard was great to work for, and most people don’t know this, but he recorded everybody with great equipment, so we got to listen back to it after the gig was over and it sounded like it was recorded in the studio.
I don’t know how good a bass player he was, but I know that he loved music, and that’s why he kept the clubs going. The only person he really played with much was Stan Kenton, then at the Lighthouse [Rumsey led the Lighthouse All-Stars for many years]. But I don’t think guys thought of him so much as a bass player as for what he did with his clubs and the people he brought in. Howard Rumsey knew good players, and he was harmless-he let you play! They all signed a contract with him, so they must have liked him. The Lighthouse was a steady job for guys who came out of the big bands and moved out West. After that club ended he opened up his own club, Concerts by the Sea [in Redondo Beach, Calif.].
I got to know him more later on. He was my foil during my last eight or nine years working in town. Any time I played anywhere he’d show up and he’d be the only one in the place who was older than me. That gave me my opening line when I played, because when I worked for Steve Allen, he always said, “When you go out onstage, find an opening line, something to get the audience into what you’re doing, and they will become your friends instead of an audience.” Howard was my opening line all the time, up until the time he died! He showed up at every kind of jazz function there was. He wasn’t well in the last bunch of years, so there wasn’t much talking, but I got a lot of smiles from him.
Purchase this issue from Barnes & Noble or Apple Newsstand. Print and digital subscriptions are also available.