Saturday, April 25, 2015

Lighthouse memories

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.”

Wanting to improve his work, and with the bold impetuousness of youth, Steve saw no reason to seek assistance elsewhere. He therefore focused on Stan Levey, who at the time was the drummer for the All-Stars.

Stan Levey on drums, left, and Howard Rumsey on bass.
Photo by Steve Cerra, again circa summer 1959
“I always idolized Stan; I really liked his style of playing. And I thought, well, maybe I could talk him into giving me drum lessons. But he was a big, rough, gruff guy, and very hard to approach. As it happens, he also was self-taught, and I later learned that people like me badgered him constantly, for lessons.

“Trouble was, Stan couldn’t ‘speak drums.’ He couldn’t tell you the difference between a flamadiddle and a paradiddle, or a five-stroke roll and a seven-stroke roll; he didn’t know any of that stuff. So being gruff was his way of pushing us away, without revealing his limitations.”

“But I wouldn’t take no for an answer. I chased him all over the club for weeks, and he finally pushed me in Victor Feldman’s direction, saying that he knew all the rudiments. Victor was playing conga and percussion then; he’d pretty much given up what he called ‘sit-down drums.’ But he was starving. He was in Hollywood; I was in Burbank; he said fine, let’s give it a try.”

That’s how Feldman became Steve’s first drum teacher.

(Feldman also played vibes and piano, his instruments of choice on his Fantasy album Latinsville, some of which was recorded in 1959.)

From left, Stan Levey (drums), Howard Rumsey (bass), Frank Rosolino (trombone) and
Bob Cooper (tenor sax and flute). Photo by Steve Cerra, once again during summer 1959.
Several months passed, during which Steve realized that he had caught the Lighthouse All-Stars during a transitional period.

“People had been there for awhile; it was time to move on. Stan thought he had overstayed his welcome, and was leading the rebellion; Frank Rosolino had been there for awhile, and also was ready to make a break for it.

“So, I walked in one Sunday afternoon, and the regular All-Stars weren’t there! Victor was playing drums, and Howard Rumsey was on bass, and Vince Guaraldi was playing piano.”

[This matches Guaraldi’s known timeline; he left his final stint with Woody Herman in late August 1959, and began working with the All-Stars on the last day of that month.]

“Conte Candoli was there, and it might have been Bud Shank on sax. That was the beginning of the change that ultimately led to Nick Martinis replacing Stan. Art Pepper worked the front line with Conte for awhile, but Art was constantly getting busted.

“I also noticed that the bandstand had been rearranged. The piano was off to the right, but it was turned forward; Vince was looking out toward the audience. Victor used to have it turned the other way, because he’d get up from the piano bench and turn around to play vibes, which faced toward the audience. But the vibes were gone, and the front of the piano was turned to where the vibes had been, and there was Vince. Howard and Victor were to his right, in the center of the stage; Howard was stage-forward, between Vince and Victor. The two horn players, as you stared straight ahead from the audience, were on the left-hand side of the stage.

“Now, you have to picture this: The stage was elevated, and — depending on what angle you had — you’d be looking up toward the front of the piano. Vince was so short, that if the music rack was up, you wouldn’t even see him.

“When you walked into the club, via the main entrance, the bar was to your left, along the wall. You’d see the piano, but unless you continued to walk toward the center of the stage, it would look like the piano was playing itself!”

Steve found the change disconcerting, to say the least.

“First of all, I was fascinated by the fact that my teacher was up there, playing drums ... which he rarely did, unless he was giving me a lesson. I figured he must’ve been sitting in for somebody who hadn’t shown up.

“And I had an idea of who Vince was, from his earlier association with Cal Tjader, but I wasn’t that familiar with his music.”

It quickly became apparent that Guaraldi, as the new kid on the block, was floundering ... and doing his best to avoid going under for the third time.

“Howard liked to be organized,” Steve continues, “and he had this incredibly big book of arrangements, which had evolved over a 10-year period. They were wonderful arrangements, and very intricate; contributions had been made by people like Bill Holman, Shorty Rogers and Jimmy Giuffre. It was a West Coast jazz treasure chest of charts.

“But Vince didn’t read well, and I could see that Victor was talking to him, and showing him things, like ‘stop time’ at the bridge ... stuff Vince was supposed to catch. Victor was aware of Vince’s limitations, because they’d played together with Woody Herman. Well, Howard was standing in front of this process, and he was steaming. In fairness, I think he may have been steamed in general, because of the personnel transition; on top of that, here was this guy, filling in for Victor, who didn’t know the charts, with Victor having to coach him through the arrangements.

“It felt really, really uncomfortable. Through no fault of his own, Vince had arrived at the right place ... but at the wrong time.”

“I just stood and watched. At the break, Vince followed Victor off the stage. The musicians had a table toward the back of the club, right in front of the entrance to the kitchen. Victor saw me, and motioned me to join them as they headed toward the back of the club, toward their table. He introduced me to Vince, who looked at me and said, ‘Oh, you’ve also got small hands.’ I quipped it away by saying something like, ‘Yes, but I use longer drumsticks.’ That made him smile, and it was the first time I’d seen him smile, since I arrived.

“It wound up being an ice-breaker for Vince, and we all sat down and relaxed. I smoked Pall Mall cigarettes in those days; it was a good cigarette for drummers, because sometimes when you finished a tune, there’d actually be a little cigarette left at the end. Vince bummed a cigarette from me, and we chatted.

“I listened while Victor gave Vince a tutorial, a post-mortem, about the set they had just finished. I don’t think there was any piano unison voicing in any of those charts; the trumpet and sax played the line. So, it was more a question of Vince having to know the changes, having to go into a 6/8 Latin feel at the bridge: that sort of thing. But Vince was having trouble, until Victor said, ‘Hey, man; just count it in two.’

“Right away, I saw the look of recognition on Vince’s face. Instead of 1-2-3-4-5-6/1-2-3-4-5-6, it just became one ... two ... one ... two, like a marching band feeling. Victor made it easier for Vince to settle into the music ... because, remember, it was a huge book of charts. This wasn’t exactly Vince’s forté, so he had a tiger by the tail.

“Howard was a stickler for opening the afternoon concert with arranged music. Customers were paying good money, and he didn’t want people to think of it as a ‘blowing session.’ There was a method to his madness; Howard made that gig a real success for a long, long time. He knew what worked, and he wasn’t going to depart from that. So, before things opened up, and other people could come onto the stand, he wanted to deliver a couple of sets that showed this was an organized group, with people who were professional, and knew what they were doing.

“To that end, Howard required the guys to wear suits, as a means to further legitimize the music. Vince was wearing a suit like everybody else; he also had his mustache, and black horn-rimmed glasses — which I also wore — as was the fashion at that time.

“Anyway, on this day, there was one more set to go, before the dinner break. The stage would ‘go dark’ from about 5:30 to 7:30, so the musicians could relax and get something to eat. The final set before the dinner break would be the jam session. Teddy Edwards happened to be at the club, and he called for ‘All the Things You Are” [a Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II tune, written for the musical Very Warm for May]. Victor motioned to me to come onto the stand. Howard knew who I was, and he knew I wouldn’t embarrass anybody.

“So I got up there, and I played about 15 minutes of ‘All the Things You Are’ with Vince on piano, and Howard on bass. The best part of it was that Vince relaxed. All of a sudden, the ‘real’ Vince Guaraldi showed up: the one that we now know and love. He was comfortable; he got grooves going; he was kickin’ the horns in the ass with his comps; he was riffing; we were catching things together.

“Even Howard loosened up, and started to giggle.

“Creating grooves was what Vince did well. He was one of the best ‘groove pianists’ I ever heard in my life. It worked so well because it was rhythmic and simple, and he wouldn’t let it go until he had wrung every drop out of it. When he finally was satisfied with the first little figure, he’d come up with another one, bluesy and funky, and the same thing would happen all over again. You were just lifted off your feet.

“And that was my experience with Vince, musically, the very first time I met him.”

Steve never again shared the stage with Guaraldi. But as the weeks passed, it became obvious that Dr. Funk was gaining confidence.

“I caught Vince with the group a few times after that first day. He soon settled in. I think it was partly because they brought Bob Cooper back [on sax and oboe], to take over for the erratic Art Pepper. Coop was one of the sweetest guys on the planet, and he definitely made a difference.

“Vince went from somebody who struggled to fit in, to becoming a comfortable part of the band. The first few times I saw him, he hardly opened his mouth; he was trying to get his bearings, and the music was very demanding, complicated stuff. You could be in the wrong bar, with the wrong change, in the blink of an eye.

“He struggled for awhile, but to his credit, he turned it around, and made it happen. That’s not easy for a guy who isn’t oriented that way. Vince preferred to play Vince’s music. Being somebody’s piano player in a quintet, and laying down changes; that’s not where he wanted to be.”

Which raised the obvious question. What, I asked Steve, was ‘Vince’s music’?

“I always thought of him as the West Coast Red Garland. I can’t think of Vince without thinking of 12-bar blues. I also hear a tremendous tie to Count Basie’s music. Basie used the rhythm section; if you listen to the early Basie band — with Freddie Green on guitar, Walter Page on bass, and Papa Jo Jones on drums — Basie ‘floated’ over them, and that’s the way Vince played. He always had to get it to the point where it could be simple, rhythmic and bluesy; then you were in his wheelhouse. That was his core.

“He liked little ‘gliss notes.’ Drummers would call them flams; it was like one finger falling off a key. It was Vince’s way of compensating on the keyboard, because he didn’t have big chops. But he always knew where the pocket was, and when he got in it, he took everybody with him. Then, suddenly, it was like a bunch of kids in a schoolyard, finding a clubhouse together, where everybody would gather and have a good time.

“Whenever Vince got to that point in the music, you always had a good time.

“It’s interesting, looking back on it. I met a Vince who was in the right place, but didn’t feel that he was. But he got comfortable, and he changed the feeling of the band dramatically, from the piano bench. The band took on the sort of rhythmic grooviness that I mentioned earlier, in part because Victor was a more percussive, pushy kind of player.

“And once Vince truly relaxed, you’d see that he was a very laconic, droll kind of guy, who could suddenly say something, and just bust you up. He was a real master of the unexpected gibe: a lot of fun to be around.”

Rumsey relaxed as well, once Guaraldi had established himself as an integral part of the “new” All-Stars. This shift became obvious once Rumsey made his new pianist part of the on-stage banter.

Although the Lighthouse All-Stars had released a series of albums on the Contemporary label between 1953 and ’57, Rumsey inexplicably stopped the studio work for five years; as a result, Guaraldi never recorded with the band during his eight-month stay. He was back in Northern California by the middle of April 1960.

But Guaraldi did record one album with what could be considered an offshoot of the Lighthouse All-Stars: 1960’s Little Band, Big Jazz, which was released in mid-1960. The combo was dubbed the Conte Candoli All Stars, and it featured Candoli (trumpet), Buddy Collette (tenor sax), Leroy Vinnegar (bass) and Stan Levey (drums), along with Guaraldi on piano.

And Lighthouse patrons got plenty of exposure to some of that music.

“The band often played some of the tunes that wound up on that Crown LP,” Steve confirms, resuming his story. “I don’t know who wrote those charts, but they were in Howard’s book; they were a regular part of the repertoire. Crown wasn’t a very respected label at the time — it was a budget label — and Howard often made fun of it, when he talked about it on stage. He’d say stuff like, ‘The guys have an album coming out, on the Square Records label.’

“Vince would laugh along with the joke, and you could see that, finally, he was truly comfortable.”

But then, just as suddenly, Guaraldi was gone. Steve dropped by the Lighthouse for one of his usual visits, in the early spring of 1960, and Dr. Funk simply wasn’t there any more. He had returned to San Francisco.

As it happened, though, Steve’s path crossed Guaraldi’s one final time.

“I met him again, very briefly, when I was up in San Francisco in 1962. I went by the Blackhawk for the Sunday afternoon jam, and I played with Lonnie Hewitt that day. I had been playing for awhile, and I was off the bandstand, between sets, when Vince came into the club.

“I remember this, because he came right up to me, tapped me on the shoulder, and asked if I still smoked Pall Malls. It was right around the time that he released ‘Cast Your Fate to the Wind,’ and you’d never have known what was about to happen. At that moment, Vince was still the same.

“And that was the last time I saw him, either in a casual way, or at a gig.”

Roughly a year later, once it became obvious that “Fate” had turned Guaraldi into a star, Steve was delighted ... and he remains so, to this day.

“I couldn’t have been happier for him. And, you know, that’s the really interesting thing about Vince: the number of successes he was destined to enjoy. That’s not often the case, with a jazz guy. He had incredible staying power, and incredible persistence, and he also had a lot of musical talent.

“At the core, though, he was always a swinger. And that’s how I like to remember him.”

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