Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series
Part 114 - Morrie Cancasi Remembers the 1930s
In the mid-1930s, dance music was almost everywhere in Cleveland. All the top national bands were playing for a week at a time at the Palace Theatre, and there were many local bands playing for dancing. One of the musicians playing with those Cleveland bands was Morrie Cancasi who remembered, "We must have had seven or eight dance halls all at one time. Every hotel had a dance band in those days. They played at dinner time and sometimes in the evening. That was a big thing in those days."
At the age of 96, Cancasi recalled the days when he was in his early 20s, "I played almost every place in Cleveland, all the hotels, the Cleveland Hotel, and the Statler."
He was studying music at the Cleveland Institute of Music when he joined Cleveland’s popular Freddie Carlone Orchestra in 1935. "The regular violinist had to play out of town some place so they called the union to get somebody to take his place," he remembered. "So they gave them my name because I could do two things. I played the violin, and on fast music, I played the guitar on rhythm. So I was valuable on one salary because I doubled on both."
Cancasi said Carlone had one of the top orchestras in Cleveland. He said it was smooth and had some good soloists. He called Carlone "a likeable chap who was easy to work for." Other musicians in the Carlone 12-piece band at the time included saxophonist Nick Lovano, the brother of Tony "Big T" Lovano, and the uncle of current jazz giant Joe Lovano; trumpeter Lennie "Buzz" Lenassi; pianist Fred Kaiser; saxophonist Arthur Circillo; and a saxophonist who for years later led popular bands in Cleveland, Johnny Singer.
Singer, according to Cancasi "was an excellent musician, very good, nice personality, and always busy, real busy. Some nights he had two engagements and he’d have another orchestra to play and he’d go there just for a few numbers and go back to the first place."
While Morrie was playing with the Carlone band, a young singer from Cannonsburg, Pennsylvania frequently showed up at the dances. "He was a barber," said Cancasi. "He had a little barbershop in Pennsylvania and actually he sang well. Every Saturday night, he would come in and sit next to the band and just listen the whole evening. Once in a while he might dance. So one day he comes up to me and says, ‘Morrie, do you think I could join the band?’ I said, ‘Well, you’ll have to ask the man up front.’ So we did, and Carlone said, ‘Yeah, if he’s no good, we’ll stop him.’ After the third number, nobody was dancing. Everybody was applauding and screaming. I never heard anything like that. That’s how good he was."
The young singing barber was quickly hired by Carlone. His name was Perry Como. Como continued singing with the Cleveland band for three years. "I sat with him every night," said Cancasi. " We were way up front, and the girls that went by, they’d throw envelopes in our laps. It would be their names and their phone numbers."
Cancasi and Como performed with Carlone’s orchestra all over Greater Cleveland, at places like Danceland, the Crystal Slipper and the Aragon Ballroom. Morrie said he was paid between $35 and $40 a week, but said, "That was big money then."
The son of immigrants from Sicily, Cancasi grew up on East 37th Street between Scovil and Central. He couldn’t speak a word of English when he started first grade, but graduated from Cleveland’s old Central High School in 1927 at the age of 16.
While playing with the dance bands, he also played with the Cleveland Orchestra. He explained, "In those days the Cleveland Orchestra had very few players from the United States. They were all from Europe, and in the spring they’d go back to their homes." Cancasi played with the Cleveland Orchestra during the summer of 1936 at the Great Lakes Exposition, a world’s fair type event, along the Cleveland lakefront. He also played with various orchestras at Cleveland radio stations.
During World War II, when music work was scarce, Cancasi took a job at the Thompson Products Company, the forerunner of TRW, and later in the music departments at Higbee’s and Sears. He retired as a professional musician in 1971, but continued playing as a hobby for years with the Suburban Symphony Orchestra, which honored him in 1986. He proudly remembers he was the oldest active violin player in Ohio when he was 87 years old.
For Maurice Cancasi It was a long and colorful career, stretching from Cleveland’s 1930s dance bands, with Freddie Carlone and Perry Como, to many radio broadcasts, and playing with the Cleveland Orchestra and the Suburban Symphony.
Copyright 2007 Joe Mosbrook
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