Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series
Part 104 - Remembering Fred Sharp
He was a Cleveland guitar institution, Jim Hall’s first teacher, a jazz historian, and a good friend. Fred Sharp died December 14th at his retirement home in Sarasota, Florida. He was 82.
In the mid-1930s, when he was growing up in the Glenville area of Cleveland and listening to music on the radio, the guitar, with only a few exceptions, was not a solo jazz voice, but a rhythm instrument. One day he heard Cleveland guitarist Dick Lurie playing a guitar solo on a local broadcast. "That really got me started," said Sharp.
Almost immediately, the teenager ran out and bought a guitar at a shop on Prospect Avenue. His first guitar was a $4.95 Regal his mother purchased at Schubert’s Music House. He began taking lessons from Max Fischer at Schubert’s and soon was playing with his brother Jackie on radio station WTAM.
He also studied for about a year with Jerry Stone at the old Hippodrome Theatre Building on Euclid Avenue. It was Stone who first introduced Sharp to the guitar playing of Django Reinhardt who became one of the all-time masters of the jazz guitar. Influenced by Reinhardt’s records, young Sharp began playing gigs around Cleveland. He said, "I joined the union when I was 16 and was playing professionally before that."
After playing with Cleveland bands led by Clint Noble and Jack Horowitz, the 18-year-old Cleveland guitarist went to New York "to become famous." His father borrowed $50 from a life insurance policy to send Fred to New York. In the big city he rented a small room at 18th and 8th Avenue "below a whorehouse and above a stable" for about $5 a week. He found a few jobs, but they paid only about $4 and Sharp remembered, "I went broke in no time." He was reduced to searching for coins in public telephones. He found just enough to take a taxi back to his room. He was planning to clean out the room and call his father for money to return to Cleveland.
"I put my hand down on the seat next to me and there was a roll of bills! It was about $50," enough to eat for a couple of days before coming home. He returned to New York several times, but never got the big break he was hoping for.
While playing in Cleveland, Sharp got a call one day from the mother of 15-year-old Jim Hall who wanted to quit school and become a professional guitarist. She asked Sharp to teach her son. He did and persuaded him to stay in school. Years later, when Hall became one of the top guitarists in jazz, Sharp recalled, "He called me up especially to thank me for teaching him. He just said he felt remiss in all the years that have gone by that he never called and thanked me for helping him get started. I guess I did."
As he was teaching Hall, Sharp was also playing with pianist Hank Kahout and bassist Walter Breeze at Chin’s Golden Dragon restaurant on East 105th Street. The group was alternating with the Art Tatum Trio. The Adrian Rollini Trio was booked into Chin’s and Sharp finally got the big break that had eluded him in New York. He remembered, "Their guitar player was going in the Navy and Adrian needed a guitar player. He heard me one night and asked, ‘Can you come to New York?’ I said, ‘Are you kidding?!"
Sharp toured with Rollini for five years, playing mostly long engagements at top clubs around the country. He also played with Red Norvo’s big band and shared bandstands with Jack Teagarden, Muggsy Spanier and Pee Wee Russell.
By the 1950s, Sharp was back in Cleveland and playing guitar only on a part-time basis. The Clevelander, who had almost starved in New York City, became a successful manufacturer’s representative, selling electronic equipment. He was also busy doing a multitude of other interesting things. He was a ham radio operator and developed a method of transmitting slow-scan color TV pictures over ham radio. He learned to speak French, toured Europe eight times, became an oil painter, and wrote about jazz and electronics for a variety of publications.
Sharp also amassed the world’s largest collection of Django Reinhardt records, about 1,100 recordings, and compiled the Reinhardt discography for Charles Delaunay’s Django biography.
After playing for more than half a century in Cleveland, frequently in later years with flutist Mark Gridley, Sharp in 1990 sold his electronics business and retired with his wife Iris to Sarasota, Florida. There, he began playing with such well-known jazz artists as Bob Rosengarden, Bob Haggart, Dick Hyman, Jerry Jerome and Al Klink. Other neighbors included saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and bassist Milt Hinton.
Fred made a number of contributions to my ongoing efforts to chronicle Cleveland’s jazz history. When the second edition of the Cleveland Jazz History book was published in 2003, Fred said it inspired him to continue writing his autobiography. He never completed that work. But, in recent years, in his typical unselfish fashion, he compiled an extensive internet discography of his one-time student, Jim Hall.
Sharp’s son Todd, a very successful rock guitarist, said a memorial service was planned for January 15th in Sarasota and the burial will be in April at Cleveland’s Lakeview Cemetery where Iris was buried several years ago.
Copyright 2005 Joe Mosbrook
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