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

Part 109 - Young Dizzy in Cleveland
Story filed September 12, 2006

On Friday night, November 3, 1944 at the Metropolitan Theatre near East 55th and Euclid the Billy Eckstine Orchestra began a one-week engagement. That band is still considered by many to be the first bebop big band.

Members of Eckstine’s Orchestra that night included Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, Gene Ammons and a very young Sarah Vaughan. A review of the band by Leonard Feather said, "Eckstine’s personality (with a white smile and white suit) and his singing, sold the show commercially, and Dizzy Gillespie’s musicianship and fine arrangements did most for it musically. For a young band," said the reviewer, "this bunch kicks wonderfully."

Eckstine and Gillespie had both been working with small groups on New York’s 52nd Street during the spring of 1944 when Dizzy suggested that Billy form a big band. Eckstine agreed if Gillespie would serve as his music director. This was the year of the earliest bebop records and Gillespie wrote a number of big band arrangements for the Eckstine band in the new, progressive style he had been pioneering with Charlie Parker. Eckstine later admitted his band was on what he called "a bebop kick," which did not always compliment his ballad singing style. Parker had been a member of the band earlier, but left before the band came to Cleveland.

The Metropolitan Theatre seated 790 people and was mainly a movie theatre. Like the bigger Palace Theatre downtown, it tried to attract crowds for its movie and band presentations, but directed its appeal to an African-American audience. Later, when radio station WHK was in the same building, the Metropolitan Theatre was renamed the WHK Auditorium. In the early 1980s, it was renamed the New Hippodrome and tried briefly to again show movies. But, within a year, the Agora moved in and made the auditorium a rock ‘n roll hall, which continues today.

That week-long gig with the Eckstine band in November of 1944 was not Gillespie’s first appearance in Northeast Ohio. As early as October of 1939, when he was 21 years old and playing with the Cab Calloway Orchestra, Dizzy played at the Palace Theatre in Akron. That same band was also at the Canton Palace in September of 1941. In February of 1943, when he was playing with the Earl Hines Orchestra, Gillespie played at the Robbins Theatre in Warren.

Many have forgotten that in the early 1940s, Dizzy also played briefly with the Charlie Barnet band, Woody Herman and even Duke Ellington. The bebop pioneer had cut his musical teeth playing with swing bands.

Gillespie left the Eckstine band in 1945, two months after that gig in Cleveland and began recording a series of now classic small group bop records. They included some songs composed by Cleveland native Tadd Dameron.

Gillespie formed his own big band late in 1945. The following year, he brought it to Cleveland to play for a dance at Public Auditorium at East 6th and Lakeside. While he was here, Dizzy was looking for a new trombonist and Dameron suggested a Clevelander named William "Shep" Shepherd. "Dizzy said, ‘Tadd Dameron told me about you,’" recalled Shepherd. "‘I wanna hear you play.’ So I went out and got my horn. He said, ‘You can leave now or wait and come tomorrow and meet us in Pittsburgh.’ So I met him the next day in Pittsburgh and it was two years before I left. I was the section boss in about two or three weeks." Clevelander Shepherd was the lead trombonist in Gillespie’s big band until 1948.

Dizzy’s big band played here January 1, 1949 and came back in March during a series of one-nighters through Ohio that included performances in Cincinnati, Toledo, Columbus and on Tuesday night, March 29, in Cleveland.

Less than two weeks later, Gillespie and his big band played on Sunday night, April 10, 1949 at the Masonic Auditorium at East 40th and Chester. A newspaper ad for that performance said, "Triumphant Return Engagement of the King of Be-Bop, New All-American Trumpet Star, in Person." Tickets for Dizzy Gillespie and his Orchestra at Cleveland’s Masonic Auditorium ranged from $1.85 to $3.10.

It was during this period that Gillespie got into a debate with his old musical buddy, Charlie Parker. Bird had told Downbeat magazine that he believed bop had no roots in jazz, that it was something entirely separate and apart from the older traditions of jazz. Dizzy shot back in the next edition of the magazine, saying Parker was wrong about the relationship of bop and jazz. Gillespie said, "Bop is an interpretation of jazz, it’s all part of the same thing." Parker said bop has no continuity of beat, no steady chug-chug. "This lack of a steady beat, said Gillespie, "is what is wrong with bop today." According to Dizzy in the October 7, 1949 issue of Downbeat, "Bop is part of jazz, and jazz music is to dance to. The trouble with bop, as it is played now," said Gillespie, "is that people can’t dance to it. They don’t hear those four beats. We’ll never get bop across to a wide audience until they can dance to it. They’re not particular about whether you’re playing a flatted fifth or a ruptured 129th, as long as they can dance."

That was the problem with Gillespie’s big band. While musicians loved the new sounds, the audiences could not dance to them. While the Gillespie big band is remembered as a pioneering aggregation, it never won the popular appeal that Dizzy and his managers wanted. He broke up his big band in 1950, when he was 32 years old.

But he was back in Cleveland two years later. With a sextet, Dizzy played a week-long engagement in January 1952 at Lindsay’s Skybar, a popular long-time jazz club near East 105th and Euclid. Other members of that sextet included vibraphonist Milt Jackson and baritone saxophonist Bill Graham, but there was no pianist. Jackson, Graham and Gillespie all took turns doubling on piano.

While Gillespie, from the late 1930s to the early ‘50s, was amazing the world with his trumpet playing, and blazing new paths with the revolutionary new form of jazz called bebop, he spent most of his time in New York City. But he did tour from time to time. And now we know that during that period he played at least 25 dates in Northeast Ohio, including at least 15 in Cleveland. Of course, he performed in Cleveland many times in later years.

Copyright 2006 Joe Mosbrook

CLICK HERE for the last installment of "Jazzed in Cleveland"

You can hear radio versions of Cleveland Jazz History on WCPN/90.3 Monday nights at 9:30. The greatly-expanded second edition of Mosbrook’s Cleveland Jazz History book is available by calling (216) 252-0828.