This research was originally published in the Dutch discography journal, Names & Numbers, No. 42, July 2007 and No. 44, January 2008 in slightly different form.
The recordings to be examined are commercial recordings that were issued on the Skylark, Lighthouse, Tampa and Contemporary labels within the time frame of the early 1950s when Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All Stars launched west coast jazz from their beachhead in Hermosa Beach. The recordings under discussion were the first commercial records to hit the retail market and make the Lighthouse All Stars an international sensation in jazz.
Les Koenig’s son, John, provides a condensed summary of the beginning of Contemporary Records in his member profile for the Internet Cello Society. The full profile can be found here.
I was raised around music. My father, Lester Koenig, ran a jazz record company, which he founded in 1949 in Los Angeles, a year before I was born. He’d started it as a kind of a hobby. He had been working in the movie industry, as second in command (typically credited as associate producer, which meant a lot more then than it does now) on all of Willy Wyler’s pictures (“The Best Years of Our Lives,” “Roman Holiday,” etc.) and as he was always interested in music, he made friends with many of the composers who worked on the pictures he worked on. Those included Aaron Copland (“The Heiress”), Gail Kubik (World War II documentaries with Wyler) and many others. So during the time he worked with Wyler, he started the label, Contemporary Records, in order to record “contemporary” classical music written by these composers and their colleagues, with the recordings supervised by the composers themselves. Notably among these were Roy Harris and Ernst Toch. He also recorded some other chamber music under the aegis of the Society for Forgotten Music, an organization founded by the composer Vladimir Dukelsky (who was also known as Vernon Duke when he wrote popular songs such as “April in Paris”) and among those recordings was a cello recital recording of some obscure but interesting pieces performed by the cellist George Neikrug. But my father was also interested in both traditional and modern jazz and so he recorded both of those idioms, as well. Soon, with the burgeoning West Coast “cool” jazz scene, the jazz part of the operation predominated. In 1953, my father left the film business because of the Hollywood blacklist, a subject I won’t get into here, and went into the record business full-time.
© 2004 by John Koenig
An ad in the April 22, 1953 issue of Down Beat magazine announced the availability of the first two classical releases on Contemporary Records, C2001, George Barati, String Quartet (1944) and C2002, John Vincent, Quartet No. 1 in G. The ad also noted that Contemporary Records was handling sales of C301, the Lighthouse Record Company release of Sunday Jazz A La Lighthouse, Vol. 1.
The Contemporary Records classical labels were dark green with gold lettering and established the circular design with CONTEMPORARY RECORDS spelled out on the outer circumference of the label with the content details reserved for the inner circle.
Jazz releases used a bright yellow background with black lettering except the Lighthouse releases that would retain the Lighthouse logo as “Lighthouse Series” above the Contemporary Records name.
Initial releases on Koenig’s Good Time Jazz label were 78 RPM singles. The first GTJ LP releases in 1951 were pressed on the standard 10” LP format that other west coast jazz labels had adopted. The Barati and Vincent releases were likewise issued in the 10” LP format and the new C2500 jazz series would also utilize the 10” LP format until 1955 when Contemporary Records and other west coast labels abandoned the 10” LP for the emerging 12” LP standard.
The first release in the new jazz series, C2501, SUNDAY JAZZ A LA LIGHTHOUSE VOL. 2, was also a live recording at the Lighthouse. The back liner notes describe the circumstances.
“Recorded in the Lighthouse, 30 Pier Avenue, Hermosa Beach, California, during an actual performance the night of May 15, 1953. The recording technique of engineer Cecil Charles was to “eavesdrop” the proceedings. The club was packed with an appreciative audience, which stimulated the musicians and they played without regard for the microphones placed strategically around the bandstand. The sounds of the Lighthouse, the laughter and conversation, the instruments practicing between numbers, the ringing of the cash registers behind the brar make this a documentary recording of the West Coast’s famous and exciting home of “modern sounds.” The cooperation of John Levine, owner of the Lighthouse, is gratefully acknowledged.”
A little over a month later Cecil Charles had the test pressings from Lewis-Rubner Mfg. Co., an Inglewood, California, pressing plant that handled record manufacturing for Dial Records among others.
Contemporary Records also issued a 78 RPM single from that Friday night session with LUAU and THE DUKE YOU SAY on C355. An ad in the August 28, 1953 issue of Down Beat offered a free copy of C355 in an autographed 78 sleeve if the reader clipped the ad and brought it to the Lighthouse before September 15, 1953. Many of these autographed sleeves have surfaced over the years with owners wondering what the value of these autographs are worth. The truth is that the signatures were stamped on to the sleeves with rubber stamps. Howard Rumsey donated these stamps along with his personal archive of memorabilia from the Lighthouse to the Los Angeles Jazz Institute where they reside.
The rubber stamp “autographs” were also applied to 45 sleeves as seen on the example above. The stamps were applied to both sides of the 45 sleeve as they probably would not all fit on a single side.
Once the supply of the Lighthouse Record Company edition of SUNDAY JAZZ A LA LIGHTHOUSE, VOL. 1, C301, was sold out, Contemporary Records kept the 12” LP in stock with new pressings with the Contemporary Records, Lighthouse Series, label and the same jacket art by Rodney Evans Bacon whose paintings adorned the walls of the Lighthouse and who would play the conga drum on the Thursday night ‘mambo’ sessions at the Lighthouse. Later releases of C3501 dropped the Bacon artwork for a photo of the All Stars on the bandstand.
While Les Koenig was in Europe with William Wyler working on “Roman Holiday” he seized that opportunity to license recordings from some of the top emerging jazz artists to supplement his new jazz series. Following the release of C2501, JAZZ A LA LIGHTHOUSE VOL. 2, the next release featured a French ensemble led by Henri Renaud, C2502, MODERN SOUNDS: FRANCE, that was followed by a Dizzy Gillespie session recorded in Paris by Vogue Records, C2504, DIZZY IN PARIS. While Koenig was absent in Paris his associates at Contemporary Records signed Shelly Manne to the label and his first recording for the label was the third release in the new jazz series, C2503, SHELLY MANNE AND HIS MEN. The fifth release was another European master, this time featuring Lars Gullin, C2505, MODERN SOUNDS: SWEDEN.
The third volume of the Lighthouse All Stars coupled the four tracks recorded for the Lighthouse Record Company from July 22, 1952 with four new tracks recorded at Capitol Records, Studio A, on October 20, 1953. There had been a changing of the guard earlier that fall with the departure of Rogers, Giuffre, Patchen and Manne from the regular line up of the All Stars. Bob Cooper was now a regular member of the All Stars and Bud Shank had also become a fixture at the Lighthouse. Claude Williamson was filling in for Frank Patchen and Max Roach held the drum sticks on this October session. They were joined by guests Rolf Ericson and Herb Geller plus Milt Bernhart and Jack Costanzo on some tracks.
Howard Rumsey had encouraged members of the All Stars to compose and contribute new original compositions to the book at the Lighthouse. Shorty Rogers and Jimmy Giuffre left a considerable legacy of original compositions that would continue to be performed on a regular basis by the musicians filling the current roster of All Stars. Volume Four of the Lighthouse All Stars on Contemporary Records C 2510 continued that tradition with original compositions by Max Roach, Claude Williamson, Bud Shank and Bob Cooper. The brief liner note on the back of C 2510 explains Claxton’s cover photo composition of flutes and oboes.
“The Bob Cooper-Bud Shank oboe-flute duets started at The Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, the experimental center of West Coast modern sounds, in December 1953.
This was the first time the jazz possibilities of the flute and oboe had been explored, and public response was instantaneous and enthusiastic. The popularity of the duets indicated a recording session, and since no suitable body of literature existed for the combination, the performers sat down and wrote six of the tunes included in this set.
The records were made in Los Angeles February 25th and 26th under the supervision of Lester Koenig. John Palladino was the recording engineer. Cover photos and individual portraits (taken at the recording session) by William Claxton.”
© 1954 by Contemporary Records
Volume 5 of the Lighthouse All Stars, C 2515, IN THE SOLO SPOTLIGHT, would be the last release of the Lighthouse All Stars on the 10” LP format for Contemporary Records. In was recorded in August of 1954 for release later that fall and Les Koenig would release three more albums in the 10” LP format before adopting the 12” LP format for releases on his label in 1955. The five Lighthouse regulars who appeared on Volume 4 would be joined by Stu Williamson (Claude’s brother), Bob Enevoldsen and Bob Gordon.
The volume numbers and LP formats on Contemporary Records did not follow a chronological number release series when the original 10” LPs were reissued in the 12” LP format. This was due mainly to the fact that the decision to reissue albums varied. Also adding to the confusion was the release of Volume 6 in the 12” LP format as C 3504 with Volume 1 remaining in the catalogue as C 3501.
All of the Lighthouse 10” LPs would require additional tracks to fill out the 12” LP format. Volume 3 would be reissued as C 3508. Lighthouse At Laguna (the seventh volume of recordings by the Lighthouse All Stars) was issued as C 3509. Volume 5 would be reissued as C 3517. The decision to reissue Volume 4 would follow that as C 3520. The last recording of the Lighthouse All Stars to be released by Contemporary Records was Volume 8, MUSIC FOR LIGHTHOUSEKEEPING, C 3528. A confusing progression of volumes and release numbers between the 10” and 12” LP formats. Many years later another live recording by Cecil Charles would be issued on LP with visiting artists Miles Davis and Chet Baker.
The release of four Lighthouse All Stars 10” LP albums on the Contemporary Records label in 1953/1954 did not go un-noticed by Robert Scherman at Skylark Records. He would reissue his recording of the Lighthouse All Stars performing BIG BOY as the inflated M.B.B. (MORE BIG BOY) on his Tampa label. Those releases will be discussed in Part Four of this examination of the first Lighthouse All Stars recordings.