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

Part 107 - Charlie Parker in Cleveland
Story filed May 5, 2006

Charlie Parker, one of the unquestioned giants of jazz, performed very infrequently in Cleveland, but some of those performances were memorable.

Despite many early contacts with Cleveland jazz musicians (Tadd Dameron in Kansas City in 1940, touring with Noble Sissle in 1942, and Bill deArango in New York in 1947), Parker did not perform in Cleveland until 1948.

He first came here as a member of a Norman Granz Jazz at the Philharmonic touring show. During a 17-city tour, Parker’s group played at the Cleveland Music Hall at East 6th and St. Clair the night of April 23, 1948. Playing with him that night were trumpeter Miles Davis, pianist Duke Jordan, bassist Tommy Potter, drummer Max Roach and singer Sarah Vaughan.

Parker’s second appearance in Cleveland came in April of 1949. During a series of one-nighters from Gary, Indiana to New York City, Bird played at the Café Tia Juana at East 105th and Massie in the Glenville section of Cleveland. That night, Parker, despite his national reputation, was second on the bill, playing second banana to a band led by rhythm and blues pianist Paul Gayten.

Bird was back in Cleveland September 30 of 1949 for another Jazz at the Philharmonic show at the Music Hall. He left the Granz troupe shortly after that performance.

By 1951, he had become one of the most respected players in jazz and was trying to extend his popularity beyond the sometimes cult-like bop fans to a wider audience. He recorded an album of standards with strings. For a week beginning May 7, 1951, he brought the full group to Lindsay’s Sky Bar, a venerable Cleveland jazz club run by Phil and Rickie Bash at East 105th and Euclid. Cleveland saxophonist and arranger Willie Smith remembered, "The Sky Bar was Cleveland’s first real jazz club and started bringing in the top acts like Charlie Parker." Performing with Parker at the Sky Bar, in addition to the string players, were trombonist Benny Harris, pianist Walter Bishop, bassist Teddy Kotick, and drummer Roy Haynes. The week-long engagement attracted so many fans that Parker returned to the Sky Bar, again with strings, for another week beginning August 27, 1951.

He was back at the Sky Bar for another week beginning November 26, 1951, this time without the strings, playing many of the classic Charlie Parker numbers.

After playing for a total of three weeks at Lindsay’s Sky Bar during 1951, Parker did not return to Cleveland until April of 1954. It was a week-long stay at the Loop Lounge at 612 Prospect Avenue, beginning April 19, 1954. There were only small, one-inch ads in the Cleveland Press announcing "Charlie Parker now playing at the Loop Lounge." Bird came to town alone and played with local musicians. Pianist Jimmy Saunders, the leader of the house band, was looking forward to playing with the now-legendary Parker. Saunders remembered, "I went down to the Record Rendezvous (a record shop) and spent all day listening to all the records I could of Charlie Parker."

But on the third night, the Cleveland pianist ran into a problem he never forgot. "He starts playing a ballad," recalled Saunders, "and I don’t recognize the song. When Charlie finished playing his solo, he turned to me and I just sat there in silence for 32 bars with nobody doing anything but the bass strumming and the drums brushing. After the 32 bars, he turned around and played again." According to Saunders, he and Parker never discussed the incident later.

Pianist Bobby Few, who later played for years with Steve Lacy in Europe, was also at the Loop Lounge that night. Few said, "I don’t know what happened. Some problem arose and Charlie just kept on playing."

Later during that engagement at the Loop Lounge, drummer Lawrence Jackson, known to most Cleveland jazz fans as "Jacktown," also played with Parker. Jacktown said, "When I first started playing music, I said to myself, ‘If I can play well enough to play with Charlie Parker, this is my ultimate goal. And this is what happened. I really felt that the drums were playing me. It was just that easy."

But, the enigmatic Parker was antagonizing some people here. Longtime Cleveland jazz fan Nehemiah "Chief" Story recalled, "Charlie came walking in an hour and a half late. Before he got half way through the bar, someone stopped him and started talking. He stood there and talked for another hour. Melvin, the boss of the Loop Lounge, looked at him and said, ‘He’ll never play here again.’ He never did. Never hired him again!"

There were also reports, that we have been unable to confirm, that Parker spent a night in the Cleveland jail after a drug raid at the Majestic Hotel on East 55th Street.

A year and a half later, on November 11, 1955, he died in New York City at the age of 35.

Copyright 2006 Joe Mosbrook

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