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

Part 102 - The Cleveland Cotton Club
Story filed November 3, 2005

It was 1954, the year that Sam Sheppard’s wife was murdered in Bay Village and the year the Indians lost to the New York Giants in the World Series. A man named Sam Firsten opened a Cleveland nightclub at 2230 East 4th Street, at the corner of 4th and Huron, in what was then called the Central Market area and today is adjacent to Gund Arena (recently renamed Quicken Loans Arena). Firsten decided to call his nightclub "The Cotton Club," in an obvious tribute to the 1920s Harlem nightclub where Duke Ellington first won national attention. It was actually the second nightclub in Cleveland to borrow the Cotton Club name.

Twenty years earlier, 1934, there had been another Cotton Club at 2226 East 55th Street, between Cedar and Central. That Cotton Club, owned by a man named Bernie Berstein, featured such early bands as the Don Redman and Fletcher Henderson orchestras. Hoping to repeat the popularity of the New York Cotton Club, Berstein, in October of 1934, booked Fletcher Henderson’s All-Star New York Review featuring Dewey Washington, Eunice Wilson, Mabel Scott, the Three Brown Bears, pantomimist Johnny Hudgins and Two Piano Queens. The show proved to be so successful that Berstein extended the engagement to four weeks. But, the first Cleveland Cotton Club on 55th did not last very long.

When Firsten opened the second Cleveland Cotton Club in 1954 in the Central Market area, he hired Cleveland singer Jimmy Scott to produce and emcee reviews. They included dancers, comedians and jazz, with entertainment seven nights a week and matinees on Sundays. By 1955, Firsten’s booking policy had drifted away from presenting mostly black-oriented reviews. He began presenting nationally-known jazz combos and began calling his Cotton Club at 4th and Huron "The jazz corner of Cleveland." Newspaper ads said, "Free admission, no cover charge and no minimum."

Beginning in June of 1955, the Cleveland Cotton Club presented an almost weekly line up of many of the most important musicians in jazz at the time, all playing seven nights a week from 9:30 p.m. until 3:30 a.m.

During the month of June, it was trumpeter Ruby Braff and his quintet. Then, for a week beginning July 4, the Cotton Club presented the Matt Matthews Jazz Quartet featuring flutist Herbie Mann. Twenty-five at the time, Mann was just beginning to attract national attention. A few months later he joined the Pete Rugolo Octet.

The following week, beginning July 11, the Cotton Club presented the popular Gene Ammons and his Quintet. Ammons was making his first appearance in Cleveland in almost two years, since he had been struck by a car and injured while playing at the Loop Lounge. Ammons was followed by saxophonist Arthur Prysock.

Beginning August 15, the "Jazz Corner of Cleveland" presented pianist Bud Powell with bassist Charlie Mingus. The Cotton Club ads said Powell was "second only to Art Tatum" (as a jazz pianist).

A week later, the bandstand at the Cotton Club featured Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers including Horace Silver. Blakey and his Messengers were touring heavily that summer with other gigs in Pittsburgh, Detroit, Baltimore, Washington and Las Vegas.

Following Blakey at the Cotton Club, for the week of September 5, were the extremely popular J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding. Trombonists Johnson, who had played with the bopsters in New York, and Winding, who had toured with Stan Kenton, formed a hugely popular quintet which became one of the most admired groups in jazz.

After J.J. and K. at the Cotton Club, the week of September 12, was pianist Thelonious Monk. A Call and Post reviewer wrote that Monk attracted both avid jazz fans and "guys and gals who have no more technical knowledge of music than Ferdinand the Bull." Following the week of Monk, Herbie Mann returned at the end of September.

Then in early October, Cal Tjader. One newspaper article called Tjader "a highly-touted vibraharp man from the West Coast.

When Tjader and his group checked out, they were followed by Miles Davis and his combo. At the time, Davis had just developed a mature style and was beginning the most creative and popular era of his long career. He had not yet recorded his most significant albums.

Gene Ammons returned for another week in November and was followed by the Teddy Wilson Trio for a week beginning December 4. The alumnus of the Benny Goodman trio and quartet, Wilson in the ‘50s was leading his own trio and playing in studios.

Following Wilson was the quartet of trumpeter Art Farmer and then, beginning December 18, the Art Tatum Trio with bassist Slam Stewart. The crowds for Tatum and Stewart were so big that a columnist in the Call and Post suggested catching the trio early in the week "and then sit back and laugh at the crowds on Friday, Saturday and Sunday."

Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers returned on December 19 and were followed by the Billy Taylor Trio. Long before he became a jazz educator, writer and broadcaster, Taylor was an excellent pianist who toured with his own trio throughout the 1950s.

It was a spectacular seven month run in 1955 for the jazz club at East 4th and Huron in Cleveland. Firsten had presented many of the most important artists in jazz nightly, usually for a week at a time. In late November of 1956, the Duke Ellington Orchestra played for a week at the Cotton Club.

In 1957, Cleveland drummer Fats Heard, who had toured and recorded with the Erroll Garner Trio, bought the Cotton Club and changed its name to the Modern Jazz Room. Heard continued to book most of the biggest names in jazz, including Garner, Davis, George Shearing and Dizzy Gillespie until 1960. After Heard sold the club, it became the Club Downbeat and featured such local jazz artists as Bobby Few and Lawrence "Jacktown" Jackson.

Many old-timers still remember the Cotton Club at East 4th and Huron as "The jazz corner of Cleveland."

Copyright 2005 Joe Mosbrook

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