In 1954, twenty-six-year-old jazz pianist Lorraine Geller recorded what would be her sole album as a leader: Lorraine Geller – At the Piano. She worked hard and played widely with big names like Miles Davis and Philly Joe Jones. Her touch was firm and elegant, her solos full of complex ideas and shifting moods, and she could cook on the fast songs. Along with pianists Jutta Hipp, Mary Lou Williams, and Mary McPartland, she was one of the few female instrumentalists playing in this male-dominated, mid-century genre. A week after playing the first Monterey Jazz Festival in 1958, she died from pulmonary edema. She was thirty-years-old.
Lorraine’s career developed quickly. From 1949 to 1952, she played with an all-female big band named the Sweethearts of Rhythm. Led by vocalist Anna Mae Winburn, its earlier incarnation was the first racially integrated all female-group in America, had toured widely and garnered a big following. Although this period of Lorraine’s musical life is hazy, in 1949 she found herself in Los Angeles jamming with an alto saxophonist named Herb Geller.
They hit it off and kept playing together, and romance blossomed. Herb was playing with Billy May’s and Claude Thornhill’s orchestras in New York, so he and Lorraine moved there in the fall of 1952 and got married. That year, she played with trumpeter Norma Carson’s all-female group, which did a brief residency at The Welcome Bar in Atlantic City. When May’s band relocated to Los Angeles in 1953, the Gellers did too, and they built themselves into in-demand players.As the JazzTimes put it: “For the next half-decade, the Gellers were integral participants in the heyday of so-called West Coast jazz.” They did studio work to make money. They played shows at night and recorded albums during the day, joining big names like Clifford Brown, Red Mitchell, and Dinah Washington. And they formed their own quartet, called The Gellers, which released three albums in 1954 and 1955. In 1955, they moved into a house in the Hollywood Hills.
During her Los Angeles years, Lorraine alone played with a who’s-who of West Coast jazz, including Zoot Sims, Stan Getz, Red Mitchell, and even Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. But the jazz life was inconsistent. Lorraine took gigs in strip clubs to make money. Lots of people did. It was a booming supplemental market. As pianist Dick Whittington told Ted Gioia in West Coast Jazz, during some of the 1950s, “The bottom dropped out so far as jazz work was concerned … there were probably ten strip joints in LA, and they would hire a three-piece band. They’d have saxophone, piano, and drums. No bass─they didn’t feel they needed that. They just wanted a melody and the rhythm, especially that drum beat. Everyone worked strip gigs. Hampton Hawes, Carl Perkins, Walter Norris, Herb and Lorraine Geller.”
One of the most important developments in her career was the rise of a club in Hermosa Beach called The Lighthouse. In 1949, the bar’s owner let bassist Howard Rumsey host a regular Saturday night jam session there; when it became popular, Rumsey became club manager, and he built the place into one of the centers of West Coast jazz from the 1950s to the 1970s. Touring bands played there. Record labels recorded live albums there. The club even birthed its own group called─blandly─the Lighthouse All-Stars. Early iterations featured saxophonists Gerry Mulligan and Sonny Criss, with pianists Sonny Clark and Hampton Hawes. One version included Lorraine.
When the famous bop drummer Max Roach came from New York to temporarily replace the Lighthouse’s house drummer in 1953, he brought Miles Davis and Charles Mingus with him. On Roach’s first night playing the venue on September 13, both Davis and Baker played trumpet together. Davis famously disliked Baker (you can see this in Ethan Hawk’s movie about him, Born to Be Blue), and this was the only time the two played music together. Lorraine provided the piano. A fan recorded the show. It took thirty-two years for the tapes to surface officially, and the recording, titled At Last!, captures a hard-hitting Geller playing over an overly hard-hitting Max Roach on drums.
Lorraine Geller died suddenly at age 30.