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

Part 115 - Teddy Hillís Final Years
Story filed September 7, 2007

Very few people were aware of the fact that a very important, but under-recognized, figure in jazz history lived his final years in Cleveland and died here. His name was Teddy Hill. Hill was important because he recorded with Louis Armstrong, led the band in which Dizzy Gillespie first recorded, and managed the Harlem nightclub which is generally credited with being the birthplace of bebop.

Born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1909, Hill started in music playing trumpet, but soon switched to saxophone. By the time he was 18 (in 1927), he was playing with a band called "Frank Bunch and his Fuzzy Wuzzies." He went to New York City in 1928 and played with the band of pianist Luis Russell. The following year, he founded himself recording with Louis Armstrong.

Armstrong, on the basis of his extremely popular Hot Five and Hot Seven records was becoming a national celebrity. In 1929, he began making a series of big band records. Among the recordings was "Mahogany Hall Stomp" with a band that included Russell, trombonist J. C. Higginbotham, banjo player Eddie Condon, bass player Pops Foster, drummer Paul Barbarin, guitarist Lonnie Johnson (who later spent five years playing in Cleveland), and tenor saxophonist Teddy Hill.

In 1932, Hill formed his own band which played regularly at Harlemís Savoy Ballroom. In 1936, he took his band on a tour of Florida. Members of that band included such future jazz stars as Roy Eldridge (who spent a couple of years playing in Cleveland), Chu Berry, Dickie Wells, Bill Coleman, Frank Newton and drummer Kenny Clarke. While playing with Hillís band, Clarke revolutionized jazz drumming by playing the basic rhythm on the cymbal and snare drum instead of the bass drum.

Eldridge left the band when Hill was planning a tour of Europe. To replace Eldridge, Hill hired a 20-year-old trumpeter from Philadelphia, who idolized Eldridge. That young trumpeter was Dizzy Gillespie. In the book Hear Me Talkiní To Ya, Hill remembered, "When I took my band to Europe, some of the guys threatened not to go if the frantic one (Gillespie) went too." But, said, Hill, "It developed that youthful Dizzy, with all his eccentricities and practical jokes, was the most stable man of the group." In 1937, When Gillespie made his first record, "King Porter Stomp," with Hillís band, he played in a classic swing style.

Hill disbanded his orchestra in 1940 and became the manager of a jazz club in Harlem called Mintonís Playhouse. It was little more than a band box on 118th Street next to the Cecil Hotel. Owned by a former union official named Henry Minton, the club had a bar in the front and a cabaret with a bandstand in the back. As the manager, Hill quickly hired his former drummer, Clarke, to lead a new band at the club. A member of Clarkeís band was pianist Thelonious Monk. Before long, other musicians began showing up at Mintonís to sit in.

One of the first was Gillespie. When word got out, Mintonís became crowded with name musicians, waiting their turns to play in the jam sessions. They included Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Lester Young, Benny Goodman and Charlie Christian. Christian lugged his guitar and amplifier to the Harlem club and frequently left his amplifier in Hillís apartment.

But, before long, the jam sessions at Mintonís were getting out of hand. Trombonist Trummy Young remembered that sometimes 20 or 30 guys would show up. Gillespie said, "There were always some cats who couldnít blow at all, but would take six or seven choruses to prove it." One was a tenor player they called "Demon" who tried to dominate the jam sessions. Dizzy called him "The first freedom player Ė free of harmony, free of rhythm, free of everything." One night when Demon was playing chorus after chorus, Hill went up on the stage and angrily yelled, "Demon, get off my bandstand!"

Eventually, in an effort to discourage what they called "the no-talent guys," players like Gillespie, Monk, Christian and later Charlie Parker began playing with complex chord substitutions. That proved to be the beginning of the form of jazz that would later be called "bebop." Clarke recalled, "We called it Ďmodern.í The label Ďbop' started later, during the war." After World War II, the new form of jazz blossomed downtown on New Yorkís 52nd Street.

Hill continued to manage Mintonís for almost 30 years, until 1969. He stayed in New York until 1976 when be became ill and decided to move to Greater Cleveland to live with his daughter, Gwendolyn Hill Basket, in Warrensville Heights. Hill lived quietly in the Cleveland area, but doctors soon discovered he had colon cancer. Within two years, on May 19, 1978, Hill died in Cleveland. The burial service was conducted at Clevelandís Highland Park Cemetery on Chagrin Boulevard.

Shortly after Hillís death, members of his family from Cleveland went to New York to collect possession from his apartment. When they arrived, they discovered the apartment had been broken into. Among the missing items was Charlie Christianís old and historic guitar amplifier.

Copyright 2007 Joe Mosbrook


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