Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series

Part 100 - Andy Anderson
Story filed August 22, 2005

Andy Anderson, the acknowledged father figure of Cleveland jazz musicians, died July 15 at the age of 92. A talented musician and a gracious gentleman, Anderson played here for more than 75 years and was a frequent contributor to our efforts to chronicle Cleveland’s links to jazz history.

In a series of interviews over the years, Anderson told me he grew up in Toledo with pianist Art Tatum. After Andy’s family moved to Cleveland, he graduated in 1932 from old Central High School on East 55th Street, a predominantly black high school that had an unusually strong reputation for music. Anderson recalled, "You could take five subjects consisting of nothing but music." The band director at the time was James Lee who had toured with jazz bands before becoming a teacher. "Everybody who came out of Central," said Anderson, "could read and write music."

When he was at Central, there were dances every Thursday night and some of the high school musicians played for dances on Friday and Saturday nights at the YMCA.

After he graduated from Central, Anderson joined a band led by Marion Sears, the brother of Al Sears who later played with Duke Ellington. "We were working one-night gigs," said Anderson, "and playing twice a week at Oster’s Ballroom." Among the musicians in that band were Buster Harding who later arranged for Artie Shaw, Cab Calloway and Count Basie; and Francis Williams who later played trumpet with the Ellington Orchestra. Andy smiled as he remembered, "We blowed like mad!"

At about the time Anderson was playing with the Marion Sears Orchestra, his old childhood friend from Toledo, Art Tatum, was playing piano in a Cleveland after-hours club near East 84th and Cedar. It was called Val’s in the Alley and was run by a man named Milo Valentine. "It was a small spot," remembered Andy, "held about 50 or 60 people, had a little bar for beer and a piano." Musicians, after completing their jobs, would go to the after-hours club to hear the all-time master of jazz piano. Visiting celebrities, including Ellington, Basie, Paul Whiteman, Mary Lou Williams and others, flocked to Val’s to hear Tatum play.

Anderson played with Tatum at Val’s in the Alley and remembered when he took a solo, "Tatum would frequently pick up on what your were playing, and take off with it in all sorts of different directions." But Anderson said it was a pleasure playing with his longtime friend and said he always learned something new from Tatum.

As boys in Toledo, Anderson and the almost-blind Tatum had roller skated together. As adult musicians in Cleveland in the ‘30s, Anderson said that on Sunday mornings they rode bicycles on Cedar Avenue. "His eyesight would come and go," said Anderson. "Sometimes he could see clearly and other times it was kind of blurry."

By the mid-1930s, Anderson said big bands were very popular in Cleveland. All the nationally-known bands came to town. He remembered going to Public Auditorium downtown one time to hear what they called "a battle of the bands" with the Chick Webb band playing on a bandstand at one end and the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra playing at the other end of the big hall – trying to outplay each other. The admission charge was 50 cents. He said there were about half-a-dozen active dance halls in Cleveland at the time and he particularly remembered the Ben Pollack band playing at the Mayfair Casino, a nightclub in the Ohio Theatre building. "Those boys could really blow," said Andy. The band members included such future jazz stars as Harry James, Freddy Slack, Matty Matlock, Eddie Miller and Cleveland drummer Morey Feld who later joined Benny Goodman.

In 1938, Anderson left Cleveland and went to the West Coast to play with the Eddie Barefield Band. He stayed in California for 12 years and filled in on the Duke Ellington and Jimmie Lunceford Orchestras. He also appeared with Louis Armstrong in a film called Going Places and jammed with such all-time jazz giants as Lester Young, Ben Webster, Billy Strayhorn, Charlie Christian, Paul Gonsalves and Jimmy Blanton.

In the early 1950s, Andy returned to Cleveland, took a job as a post office letter carrier, and played with a variety of groups here for more than 50 years. Recently, he played regularly with George Foley’s group at the Tavern Company on Lee Road, where he celebrated his 90th birthday by playing his sax for an appreciative audience.

Following the funeral service for Anderson, Foley organized a jazz reception at the Barking Spider Tavern in University Circle. His many friends remembered the man whose career almost paralleled the history of jazz.

Copyright 2005 Joe Mosbrook


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