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

Part 112 - The Modern Jazz Room
Story filed February 5, 2007

One of Clevelandís legendary jazz clubs of the 1950s was the Modern Jazz Room at East 4th and Huron, in what was then known as the Central Market area, and is now near the Quicken Loans Arena. For several years, club owner Sam Firsten presented some of the biggest names in jazz.

It opened in 1954 as "The Cotton Club," and by early 1955, Firsten began presenting national jazz acts, usually for a week at a time. They included Herbie Mann, Gene Ammons, Bud Powell, Charlie Mingus, Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers and the very popular J. J. Johnson and Kai Winding.

From May 28 to June 3, 1956, trumpeter Clifford Brown and an all-star line-up, which included saxophonist Sonny Rollins and drummer Max Roach, played at the club. It was one of Brownís last gigs. On June 26, he was killed in a traffic accident on the Pennsylvania Turnpike at the age of 25.

Early in 1957, Firsten changed the name of the club from "The Cotton Club" to "The Modern Jazz Room" and he began promoting it as "The Jazz Corner of Cleveland." Among the many who flocked to the Modern Jazz Room was a psychologist and teacher named Jim Bard, who said, "I visited the Jazz Room a number of times because Sam Firsten, the owner at the time, brought in some top notch people."

Bard, who described himself as "a wanna-be" jazz pianist, had come to Cleveland seven or eight years earlier and was friendly with native Cleveland drummer Fats Heard. He said, "Fats and I became really close friends."

Heard, a graduate of Clevelandís old Central High School, had toured with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra, and with Bardís help became a key member of the very popular Erroll Garner trio from 1953 to 1955. After touring with Garner, Heard returned to Cleveland and frequently played in the house group at Firstenís jazz club.

Bard does not remember exactly when it was, but he said he and Heard decided to form a business partnership. "I always sort of had the idea in the back of my mind of having my own jazz club," said Bard, "and I got the information or the impression that Sam was interested in getting out of the business." Bard said he and Heard decided to buy the club. Bard would put up the money and Heard would run it. Bard was busy with a private practice and teaching at Fenn College and said, "Fats did the booking, the bookkeeping, tended bar and probably swept up the joint."

They ran ads for their club in the local newspapers and began getting good crowds, including a professional football player who was just starting to play with the Cleveland Browns. "I remember Jim Brown showed up," he said, "and I accidently bumped into him. It was like walking into a large oak tree!"

Bard described the Modern Jazz Room in these words: "A dingy saloon, not bright and not dark, sort of in between. The furniture was very unpretentious. Iím being kind. The chairs were chrome and plastic and the tables were less than three feet square, so there was just room for four glasses. And the bar was just a bar. Then there was a piano, and as I recall, it was a decent piano. But that was it. It was a relatively small room." He said the club could seat only about 50 or 60 people.

From other sources, we know that multi-instrumentalist Don Elliott recorded at the Modern Jazz Room in 1956. Longtime Cleveland jazz singer Marilyn Holderfield recalled seeing singer Billie Holiday there in 1957. And on May 3, 1958, all-time trombone giant Jack Teagarden did a radio broadcast on WERE-FM from the club.

But, when Bard and Heard took over, Bard said they soon stopped the earlier practice of booking big national artists. "We could not afford the high-priced stuff," said Bard, "and I wasnít interested in that anyway. I didnít enter into this with the idea of making a lot of money. I entered into it with the idea of having a quiet little jazz joint where some talented local people like George Peters or Bill Gidney would play and the jazz lovers in Cleveland would hear about it and come down."

But, without the big national names to attract them, the jazz lovers did not flock to the Modern Jazz Room. "We were losing money every month," admitted Bard. After about a year and a half, Bard and Heard decided their jazz club in downtown Cleveland was not working.

"I didnít want to continue the thing;" said Bard. "I just wanted to get out. I was taking a financial bath." He said they sold the club to some people who opened a Greek restaurant featuring belly dancers.

Half a century later, the retired psychologist and college teacher admitted his dream of owning his own jazz club did not work out. "Iím usually a sensible person," he said, "but when it comes to things like this, your dreams, good sense just goes out the window."

But there are still many jazz fans in Cleveland who remember the brief and spectacular run of the now legendary Modern Jazz Room.

Copyright 2006 Joe Mosbrook

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