For two decades, one of the most popular jazz nightclubs in Cleveland was Gleasonís at East 55th and Woodland. From 1942 until 1962, when racial segregation was extensive in Cleveland, the owner, William "Jap" Gleason welcomed everybody who loved the music. It was one of the few spots in Cleveland at the time where the races mixed freely -- to hear jazz.
In the 1940s, Gleasonís concentrated on blues performers including Bo Diddley and B.B. King. James Brown, as a young singer, also swept floors and carried cases of beer at Gleason's to earn a little extra money.
Eventually, Jap Gleason began booking nationally-know jazz performers -- including pianist Nat Cole and his King Cole Trio. Cleveland pianist Jimmy Saunders remembers the time Nat Cole was about to begin a long engagement at Gleasonís: "His manager came in during the afternoon and went up on the bandstand. He plunked a couple of notes and said, `Nat "King" Cole canít play on this piano.í The owner made no bones about it. He immediately gave me $1,500 and said, `Go buy a piano.í"
Saunders and Cole became good friends. "He had Christmas dinner with me at a little house on Quincy Avenue," recalled Saunders, "and when my first son was born, he sends me a congratulatory telegram."
Nat Cole was only one of many nationally-known jazz artists who performed at Gleasonís. Ella Fitzgerald sang at the East 55th and Woodland club. So did Sammy Davis, Jr. Jack Teagarden played his trombone there, Dizzy Gillespie his trumpet and Charlie Parker his saxophone.
Saunders said, "They would have different groups come in. One was Eddie Chambers. Longtime Cleveland musician and jazz fan Neimiah "Chief" Story remembered Chambers would walk on the bar when he was playing his saxophone. "And people would have to move their glasses back so he wouldnít kick them over."
Another longtime favorite at Gleasonís was guitarist Tiny Grimes who had toured with pianist Art Tatum and bassist Slam Stewart before coming to Cleveland. Cleveland saxophonist Willie Smith, who had arranged for Lionel Hampton, remembered him well. "Thatís mainly where he played, at Gleasonís, all the time he was in Cleveland."
Saunders played with Grimesí popular group at Gleasonís. Saunders said, "Cleveland fell in love with him Ďcause he had a great saxophonist who was a hell of an entertainer, Red Prysock, and they loved the drummer, `Birdlegsí they called him. Everybody loved Birdlegs. And then, Ike Isaacs was a heck of a bass player. Ike went on to play for and marry Carmen McRae."
William Gleason closed his jazz nightclub in 1962 and went into the real estate business. He died April 26th, 1996 at the age of 88. When he died, many Clevelanders, including many Cleveland jazz musicians, remembered the many contributions Gleason had made to jazz at his nightclub at East 55th and Woodland.
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Copyright 1996 Joe Mosbrook
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).