Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
Jazzed in Cleveland Complete Index

Part 1 - Clevelandís Links to Jazz History
Story filed May 15, 1996

To much of the world, music in Cleveland means the Cleveland Orchestra, polka bands and rock Ďn 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 Ellingtonís few music teachers.

Noble Sissle, who graduated from Clevelandís 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, Clevelandís 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 Wylieís 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 Osterís 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 didnít 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 weekís 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 Valís in the Alley. It was off Cedar Avenue near East 87th. Veteran Cleveland saxophonist Andy Anderson recalled Valís "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 Valís 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 Valís and persuaded him to go to New York. But, he quickly became homesick and returned to Valís 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 Valís in the Alley to play that piano."

One night, the pianist with the traveling Bennie Moten Band stopped in at Valís 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 Valís. When he first met Tatum at Valís, he wanted to show off and play for Tatum. Then, he heard Tatum play and Peterson said, "I couldnít 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.

Copyright 1996 Joe Mosbrook


You can hear radio versions of Cleveland Jazz History on WCPN/90.3 Monday nights at 9:30.