Jazz historian Steven A. Cerra began a correspondence with me last summer, while conducting background research for what eventually emerged as an extremely complimentary review of my book about Guaraldi, which Steve published on his blog in late August.
During the course of our e-mails and phone calls, however, it became obvious that I had to return the favor. The result, obtained during a lengthy interview, is one of the most vivid anecdotes of the late 1950s and early ’60s Southern California jazz scene — with an essential Guaraldi element — that it has been my privilege to hear.
(Sadly, although this narrative includes some wonderful vintage photos that Steve shot back in the day, he didn't get any of Guaraldi.)
What follows comes almost verbatim from Steve, with very little editing or “prep” on my part. His memory is sharp, and his youthful adventures clearly left an indelible impression.
As a teenager growing up in Southern California, Steve was in the right place, and at the right time, to indulge his passion for jazz via regular visits to Hermosa Beach’s iconic Lighthouse, home of the Lighthouse All-Stars.
Nor was Steve an average patron. Although still a high school student during the late 1950s, he already was a well-established drummer in the local jazz scene.
“I had been working clubs for at least a year,” he recalls. “But the club owners and managers knew how old I was, so, during the breaks, they’d force me to leave. I’d have to go outside, often in a back alley, for a smoke. My playing might have been mature enough for the environment, but age-wise, they didn’t want the cops busting the place because of an underage kid lingering at the bar.”
|Steve Cerra, dimly visible beneath the Lighthouse marquee, poses just outside his|
favorite hangout, probably in the early summer of 1959 (based on the names showcased).
Steve believes he started hanging around The Lighthouse in 1959, drawn both by the nearby beach and the venue’s celebrated All-Stars.
“The Sunday afternoon jam sessions ran from 2 or 2:30 in the afternoon, to 2 a.m. the next morning. It was chicks and beer and jazz, and I was going on 17.
“What was not to love?”
Although able to hold his own on a stage, Steve nonetheless was aware of his limitations.
“I’d been self-taught up until then. When that’s the case, even when you have a feeling for the music, you hit certain walls and limitations. When you sit down with people who are legitimately trained, you can’t help noticing their speed and power. I had the feeling, but I didn’t have any technique to broaden it, and give it depth.”