Pete Douglas of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society
by Bob Hershon
I had been advised sometime ago that Pete Douglas had the reputation of being a bit of a grouch as well as a recluse. As I was to discover, these two labels were how society chose to view an outsider through its one-way mirror. Whatever distemper that does exist, which he freely admits to, is a result of the not-so-benign neglect by the mainstream media for the thirty years of hard work Pete put into transforming a broken down beer joint into a musical treasure. Who among us would have opened our house to all those strangers for all those years? Only those who have dropped in on Pete Douglas’s Beach House, aka the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, in Half Moon Bay, California over the past few decades can appreciate the artistry that has gone into creating this ecosystem of sound and sea.
The location was natural for someone who grew up in the shadow of the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, as Pete Pointed out. “One day I was informed that there was a music policy at this bar in Hermosa Beach. When we stumbled into the club in our swimming trunks and sandals we found the club was deserted save for one lonely drunk, the owner and pianist Matt Dennis who invited us in despite the fact we were underage. One by one musicians sidled into the club making their way through the marijuana smoke that was becoming as thick as the ever-present L. A. smog. All of a sudden an especially cadaverous-looking bass player appeared through the haze and asked Matt if he could blow some bass. Later in 1949 after the bass player, who turned out to be Howard Rumsey, was released from jail on substance abuse charges, he approached the owner with the idea of booking the bands. an alumnus of Stan Kenton, Howard brought in the Shorty Rogers All Stars-Jimmy Guiffre, Shelley Manne, Vido Musso, etc. Rumsey with his gyrations also brought a needed show business element along with some stellar guest soloists like Miles Davis, who was escorted from the club for fighting instead of blowing during his appearance. In general Shorty concentrated on making the club attractive to the general public by fostering a wholesome image of the musicians who could now be found with orange juice in their hands instead of the stronger stuff. My experience at the Lighthouse was the beginning of my real education in music.”
Pete Douglas graduated from Santa Barbara College in 1955 and shortly thereafter found himself with a wife and child. Having no desire to return to L.A. (“I could see what was happening even in the late fifties”) he settled in Northern California. ” I found work as an adult probation officer for San Mateo County,” Peter said. “At the time Jazz was the furthest thing from my mind.”
The pressures of dealing with the public and the conservative legal system took its toll on this freethinker. One especially harrowing experience involved Pete Douglas’s work with a member of the National Guard who had been entrapped on a marijuana charge. Pete’s recommendation to the court was for three months in the county jail and probation. The judge made a public demonstration of the powerlessness of Pete’s position, dismissing his evaluation in favor of sending the young man for a stretch in San Quentin.
“My only salvation was to get back to the beach,” Douglas explained. “I drove out to Half Moon Bay, which was a farm community, and the only lace for sale was on the only street along the beach. So I managed to put a down payment on this broken down beer joint which sold for $8,000. I instantly had this hipster vision of a beat-espresso coffee shop.”
The visions of this beat on the beach quickly evaporated under the harsh light of reality and familial obligations. So he continued to work as a probation officer, where a client he had helped offered to bring his band to a BYOB at the Douglas’s newly renovated beachfront property. From that point in 1958 musicians started to drop by on a regular basis. The police also chose to drop in on one of the soirés, trying to bust him for serving liquor after hours to his friends. Failing that, they chose to stake out his hangout where they accused him of running a “beatnik establishment with known narcotics suspects and homosexuals.” It was also about this time that the cottage got its name. “A guy brought some dynamite to set off on the beach,” Pete recalled, “We put on Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. Someone said, ‘Hey, that’s a good 4/4 tune. Let’s dance to it.” So we were dancing to Bach, the dynamite was going off in the background and an inebriated high school teacher said, ‘Obviously this is The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society,’ and the name just stuck.”
In 1966 he built a two-story house over the old cottage and went public, featuring among others, a fine pianist name George Maribus. Pete went on to say, “It was all fun and games at that point and though I was surprised at the level of talent, I was not a dedicated fan of Jazz and opening a club was not on the agenda. I just enjoyed presenting the music program. In 1972 we started our present schedule of production and started attracting artists of some repute like John Handy, Bobby Hutcherson, Bola Sete and Vince Guaraldi, who was a better bebop pianist than most people realized. It was about this time I got a feel for the magic and artistry these players could generate. It was more than just training or craftsmanship. In 1976 I added Friday Night Classical Concerts. I have always wanted to breakdown the barriers that have been created between the classical musician and his audience and have received great support from the artists for this effort.”
It was about this time Pete Douglas made BDDS into a non-profit entity, receiving funds for renting out his establishment for the concerts as well as the receptions and weddings which were the financial lifeblood of the concern. In the process of booking such stars as Bill Evans, Art Blakey and Carmen McRae, Pete gained some real insights into the music business. When he was block-booking with clubs like Keystone Korner and The Great American Music Hall, Bach was an automatic whistle-stop (as well as a welcome rest stop), and an extra date for a band that might make the difference for a band trying to make the trip out west. Then slowly the almighty buck became the main concern of many of the big agencies back east. They cared not that the musicians enjoyed playing there or that they were paid well and on time. Peter was dealing with automatons who demanded a certain number of seats and a standard fee.
Money concerns got worse and worse. I still thought of it as supporting the musicians. I had no trouble with breaking even if I could get a great program. I stretched for the musicians and ended up getting worked over by the management companies who started steering away acts that had been here before even though I was paying more. They looked upon me and Tim (Jackson) at Kuumbwa as if we were some crazy fans and the long term success we had enjoyed was merely a fluke. What’s more of a fluke than having a food and beverage man booking Jazz? The fact that an experience of hearing someone like Bill Evans play a few feet away can turn someone from a fan to advocate meant nothing to them. They had no idea what it means to create a culture that supports the music and the musicians. They dealt with Jazz as if it was pop music. It has never been able to compete with pop. Dealing with these dumb motherf*#kers started to burn me in the same way as my dealings with the justice system.”
As disillusioned as Pete Douglas became with the music it never affected his sense of generosity for the up-and-coming musician or promoter, provided their heart was in the right place. Just ask Tim Jackson, the force behind the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz and one of the guiding lights at the Monterey Jazz Festival.
“Twenty years ago I was attending the College of San Mateo and needed a place to stay.” Tim explained. “In exchange for some work around his place, Pete let me camp there. He not only helped teach me the business but was extremely helpful while I worked to set up Kuumbwa. When it came time to attend my first Jazztimes Convention, he paid my way. He makes time for interested people. He’ll end up talking to someone who’s calling to buy tickets for twenty minutes.”
There probably should be an environmental impact study done every time they think of closing a Jazz club down. The impact reaches far into the community landscape, as Pete Douglas points out.
“If you look past the monetary value, you can see how the performance of music impacts the community and reaches to the soul of the people who live there. It doesn’t use any fuel, rape any part of the world, or cut down a forest. When I try to examine what the hell I’ve been doing for the past thirty years, I guess I have been choreographing an experience with the music, the people, that room and the sea.”
Peter Douglas steers the Bach Dancing and Dynamite society with a firm hand but is thrilled to have you along. He’s got a salty temper. “I used to tell overbearing bassists, I kill every third bass player.” Pete can be found swabbing hundreds of feet of glass before every performance at the age of sixty-four by himself. The room is so bound up with who he is, you know it can’t last forever. The best way to end this is to leave you with a phrase he after uses before a promising set: “You are now about to hear what the rest of the world is about to miss.”
by Bob Hershon