To much of the world, music in Cleveland means the Cleveland Orchestra, polka bands and rock and roll. But, over the years, Greater Cleveland has also made significant contributions to jazz -- and continues to do so.
As far back as 1905, Will Marion Cook, who had studied at Oberlin College, was the first to introduce the saxophone to dance bands. In the 1920s, Cook was also one of Duke Ellington s few music teachers.
Noble Sissle, who graduated from Cleveland's old Central High School in 1907, was among the first to perform jazz music. He was a member of the 369th Infantry Band which played and recorded jazz during World War I in Europe.
Jazz records were being made in Cleveland as early as 1925, the same year Louis Armstrong made the first of his classic Hot Five records. In February of 1925, the Emerson Gill Orchestra, a popular Cleveland dance band which was playing at the Bamboo Gardens at East 88th and Euclid, recorded "Birmingham Bound" in Cleveland for the Okeh Record Company. Later that year, Cleveland s Austin Wylie Orchestra, playing at the time at the Golden Pheasant Chinese Restaurant on Prospect Avenue, recorded for Vocalion Records.
In 1927, a young musician from New Haven came to Cleveland and soon joined Wylie's band. Artie Shaw spent three years playing in Cleveland before becoming one of the biggest names in jazz history. Wylie became his manager.
In July of 1927, Fletcher Henderson first brought his extremely influential band to Cleveland. Performing his own arrangements instead of stock charts, Henderson, who influenced a whole generation of big bands, played here at such places as Oster's Ballroom at East 46th and Euclid, the old Hollenden Hotel at East 6th and Superior and Buckeye Lake.
In 1929, a former high school athletic director from Memphis came to Cleveland and formed his first professional orchestra. Jimmie Lunceford later said he nearly starved in Cleveland because he didn t get much work here. But, four years later, his band became one of the most popular big bands in the country.
In January of 1929, the legendary Bix Beiderbecke suffered a tragic breakdown at the Hotel Cleveland on Public Square. He came here to play a week's engagement with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra at the Palace Theatre but failed to show up at the theatre. After the concert, other band members returned to the hotel and discovered Bix had cracked up and wrecked his hotel room in what was described as an alcoholic fit. Two years later, after several other similar incidents, Beiderbecke, still one of the biggest names in jazz history, was dead at the age of 28.
It was also during the late 1920s that a pianist from Toledo came to Cleveland and began playing for beers at an after-hours joint called Val's in the Alley. It was off Cedar Avenue near East 87th. Veteran Cleveland saxophonist Andy Anderson recalled Val's was a small spot, holding about 50 or 60 people, with tight aisles, a little bar for beer, that piano and Art Tatum. All the musicians who came to Cleveland went to Val's to hear Tatum play that beat-up, old upright piano.
Duke Ellington later said, it had a most compelling sound and the action was obviously just right because Tatum loved that piano. Paul Whiteman first heard Tatum at Val's and persuaded him to go to New York. But, he quickly became homesick and returned to Val's in the Alley. Tatum returned to New York in the early 1930s and became one of the most celebrated artists in jazz. But, as famous as he became, said Ellington, he would always return to Val's in the Alley to play that piano.
One night, the pianist with the traveling Bennie Moten Band stopped in at Val's and decided to try to show off for some of the girls in the bar. Count Basie later recalled Tatum came in, sat down -- like a gladiator protecting his turf -- and musically blew away the intruder. Basie remembered that one of the girls at the bar smiled at him and said, "I could have told you this would happen."
Despite his embarrassment, Basie later married a girl from Cleveland and their only child was born in Cleveland.
Oscar Peterson later had a similar experience at Val s. When he first met Tatum at Val's, he wanted to show off and play for Tatum. Then, he heard Tatum play and Peterson said, I couldn t believe what I was hearing. I was leaning against the piano and my legs just went to water. I went back to my hotel and I was in tears. Years later, Peterson admitted on the stage of Severance Hall that he had once made a serious mistake in Cleveland.
By the 1930s, Cleveland was beginning to develop its own musicians who would soon make their own contributions to jazz history. Over the years, hundreds have played key roles and many significant events in jazz history have occurred in Cleveland.
"She shook her head as she left and said, "That bandleader is crazy!" But when she got back to New York, she returned to the club to hear the band and see the leader.
A few months later in Detroit, two of her friends finally introduced her formally to William "Count" Basie. She smiled. He aimed his finger at her and said, "Bam!" It was almost ten years after their paths had first crossed.
Don't miss it...next week in cleveland.oh.us!
You can hear radio versions of Cleveland Jazz History on WCPN/90.3 Monday nights at 9:30 and
Friday afternoons at 12:30. Mosbrook's 1993 Cleveland Jazz History book, based on research for
earlier broadcasts, is available from some Cleveland area bookstores, libraries, and the Northeast Ohio
Jazz Society (216-397-9900).