The Lighthouse Cafe: West Coast Jazz By The Beach

The venue was an incredibly important meeting point for the West Coast jazz scene, a place where an entirely new sound flourished.

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Lee Morgan and Bennie Maupin outside the Lighthouse Cafe, a jazz institution
Lee Morgan and Bennie Maupin photo: Joel Franklin, courtesy of Blue Note Records

In the 1950s, musicians on the West Coast, specifically in Los Angeles and San Francisco, began to splinter off from the hard-bop and blues-forward jazz that pervaded the East Coast scene. Saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, trumpeter Chet Baker, and others developed a more lyrical style of jazz that favored composition and arrangement over improvisation. Their sound was smoother and more melodic, a musical complement to California’s laidback, sun-soaked vibes.

This style of jazz found a home at The Lighthouse Cafe, a historic venue located in Hermosa Beach, California that regularly hosted jam sessions. City slickers from Los Angeles would spend the day taking in the sun and surf, and then wander into the club for respite, sometimes still in their bathing suits, only to end up staying well into the night to enjoy the playful music and electric atmosphere.

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The Lighthouse Cafe eventually earned its title as the “Jazz Corner of the West” because of a serendipitous meeting between two misunderstood creatives: owner John Levine and bassist/bandleader Howard Rumsey. Originally opened in 1934 as a restaurant called Verpilates, the venue was converted into a Polynesian-style bar and renamed “The Lighthouse” to attract more local longshore workers and merchant seamen. Business was slow going, so when Rumsey, who had previously been a sideman in Stan Kenton’s Orchestra, proposed a Sunday night jam session in 1949, it was a low-stakes investment on Levine’s part.

Listen to Lee Morgan’s Live at the Lighthouse here.

The sessions became an instant success, not least because of the room itself. Generally speaking, West Coast jazz musicians favored larger ensembles, leading to a full and enveloping sound in the Lighthouse Cafe’s intimate space. The audience often felt swallowed up in the energy of the jam sessions. The venue was the foil to New York City’s Village Vanguard, where the music was a little more chamber-like. It didn’t hurt that the Lighthouse Cafe was able to lure the best-of-the-best: You could find Miles Davis, Max Roach, or any number of legendary artists improvising each week with the club’s house band, the Lighthouse All-Stars. With artists rotating on and off the stage, these jam sessions often lasted more than half a day, feeling more like a casual rehearsal or meandering conversation instead of a time-bound show.

During Rumsey’s tenure as bandleader and club manager at the Lighthouse Cafe, more than 50 musicians graced the venue’s stage. Some of them were influential in defining the West Coast style – like pianist Hampton Hawes and saxophonist Stan Getz, whose hit rendition of “The Girl From Ipanema” brought bossa nova music into the limelight in the United States. Others were regulars who worked out ever-evolving arrangements and wide-ranging melodic motifs with the Lighthouse All-Stars. Contemporary Records owner Les Koenig also enlisted the venue’s house band to record several albums on his label with different lineups. (They ultimately released 13 albums in total.)

More than two dozen jazz albums were recorded at the Lighthouse Cafe by the likes of Lee Morgan, Elvin Jones, and The Jazz Crusaders. Listen to any live recording of a Lighthouse Cafe session, and the energy is palpable: you can almost feel the warm neon lights and fervent snaps of beachgoers in the background.

One of the most electrifying live recorded sessions at the iconic venue recently got the full red carpet treatment. Lee Morgan’s The Complete Live at the Lighthouse is an expansive collection of all 12 sets of music the legendary trumpeter’s quintet recorded during their engagement at the Lighthouse Cafe in July of 1970. According to The Philadelphia Tribune’s Shannon J. Effinger, this recording “not only epitomized the turbulence of those changing times but also allowed Morgan to redefine who he was.” Originally released in 1971 as a 2-LP set, and later expanded to a 3-CD set in 1996, the new volume showcases 33 performances, including over four hours of previously unreleased music, with Morgan at his peak, effortlessly swinging and improvising toe-to-toe with his band.

The Lighthouse Cafe has been an important venue for West Coast jazz ever since that fateful Sunday afternoon in 1949, bringing together the greatest jazz minds to play together. Today, the venue still inspires younger musicians and up-and-comers. The Lighthouse figures prominently in La La Land, the 2016 film starring Ryan Gosling as a jazz pianist and Emma Stone as an aspiring actress, who meet and fall in love while pursuing their dreams in Los Angeles. In the film, they spend many evenings at the nightclub, and the nearby Hermosa Beach pier. Today, “Sunday Jazz Brunch” remains a highlight for locals and visitors alike, and the venue continues to be a fixture on Hermosa’s Pier Plaza.

Listen to Lee Morgan’s Live at the Lighthouse here.

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