Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
Jazzed in Cleveland Complete Index
Part 122 - The Role of Radio
When I was a kid, I used to lie in bed at night and listen to the radio. By flipping the dial, I could hear stations from around the country and was fascinated by the many live broadcasts of bands playing at restaurants, hotels and ballrooms. Looking back today, it’s clear that those many live radio broadcasts played a major role in the growth of jazz.
In the early years of radio, the stations were struggling with the question of what to do with their new technology -- not unlike the questions facing the computer Internet today. The broadcasters wanted to entertain their listeners, but had little money to pay for programming. Aware of the growing popularity of dance and jazz bands, the stations quickly realized that the bands were willing to play on radio – without pay – in exchange for publicity for the bands and the places where they were playing.
Cleveland’s first radio station, WHK, began broadcasting in 1922. Three years later, Joe Smith and his Orchestra were doing broadcasts from the Martha Lee Club on the second floor at East 17th an Euclid. A year later, the Emerson Gill Orchestra did live broadcasts from a restaurant called the Bamboo Gardens at East 88th and Euclid. Most of the Cleveland stations were doing live band broadcasts from such other remote (non-studio) locations as the Winton Hotel, the Hotel Cleveland, the Statler, the Hollenden, and the State Theatre.
In 1934, after the repeal of Prohibition, a former bootlegger named Herman Pirchner opened a restaurant he called the Alpine Village at 1620 Euclid Avenue. NBC did coast-to-coast radio broadcasts from the restaurant by such entertainers as Artie Shaw, Cab Calloway and Pearl Bailey. During the broadcasts Pirchner’s German accent became familiar across the country.
In the 1930s, there were also many live broadcasts from the Trianon Ballroom at 9802 Euclid Avenue. On January 29 and 30 and February 5 and 6, 1937, Andy Kirk and his Clouds of Joy, with pianist Mary Lou Williams, did live broadcasts from the Trianon. The band’s theme song was its hit record, "Until the Real Thing Comes Along." The announcer was well-known sportscaster Graham McNamee. In those days, sportscasters, including McNamee and Ted Husing, served as announcers on the band remotes, probably because they were good ad-libbers and were available during the week when they didn’t have sports assignments.
In addition to the late-night unsponsored live broadcasts, some of the most famous bands had commercial prime-time radio shows and aired their broadcasts from the cities where they were performing. On May 16, 1939, the Benny Goodman Orchestra was playing for a week at Cleveland’s Palace Theatre at 17th and Euclid and originated its weekly Camel Caravan program from the stage of the Palace. During that broadcast, the band played "Don’t Be That Way" and the Goodman Quartet (Goodman, Teddy Wilson, Gene Krupa and Lionel Hampton) played "The Sheik of Araby." The announcer was songwriter Johnny Mercer. The Goodman band was also one of many major bands that broadcast live from the Cedar Point Ballroom in Sandusky.
The extremely popular Glenn Miller Orchestra broadcast its three-nights-a-week national network radio programs from Cleveland during week-long engagements at the Palace Theatre February 21-27, 1941 and January 9-15, 1942. The Miller band also broadcast from the Youngstown Palace Theatre August 4-6, 1942.
On November 6, 1941, Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra, with Frank Sinatra, Ziggy Elman, Buddy Rich, Connie Haines, Jo Stafford and the Pied Pipers, did a national radio broadcast from Cleveland’s Public Auditorium at East 6th and Lakeside. The broadcast was carried in Cleveland on WHK. The announcer was long-time baseball play-by-play broadcaster Al Helfer.
Duke Ellington and his Orchestra broadcast live from the Akron Palace Theatre June 23, 1945. It was part of Ellington’s regular Saturday afternoon series called Date With Duke.
But it wasn’t just the big national names broadcasting from Northeast Ohio. Local bands were also doing many regular local radio broadcasts. Pianist Evelyn Freeman and her mostly teenaged swing band broadcast on WHK from the Circle Ballroom at East 105th and Euclid in September of 1941. The band included a number of young musicians who later performed with many of the biggest names in jazz. Gene Beecher and his Orchestra broadcast from the Continental Grove at 45 South Main Street in Akron. Beecher had come to Cleveland in 1927 with his boyhood friend Artie Shaw. After playing for years in Cleveland and the Midwest, Beecher later operated a music store and school in South Euclid.
Among the many other local bands doing live radio broadcast here was Henry George and his Orchestra which played at the Cabin Club at East 107th (now Stokes Boulevard) and Euclid Avenue.
The Aragon Ballroom on West 25th Street near Clark Avenue was the site of many local radio broadcasts, beginning as early as 1930. After World War II, they often featured Paul Burton’s orchestra.
In addition to restaurants and ballrooms, there were many live radio broadcasts of bands from Cleveland hotels. Pianist George Duffy and his orchestra played what he called "golden music" from the Hotel Statler at 12th and Euclid. The Hotel Cleveland on Public Square was also the site of many band broadcasts. Johnny Singer, who had played for Perry Como with Cleveland’s Freddy Carlone Orchestra, played for years at the Hotel Cleveland. Singer was Cleveland’s most popular society bandleader for many years. From the Bronze Room of the Hotel Cleveland, WHK broadcast the music of the Murray Arnold Orchestra.
Not all the broadcasts from the Hotel Cleveland were strictly local. There were also network radio shows that beamed Cleveland bands across the country. Among them, the Mutual Broadcasting System carried the music of Everett Hoagland and his Orchestra.
While most of the broadcasts featured dance bands, there were also many purely jazz broadcasts. Saturday nights, May 3 and 10, 1958, trombonist Jack Teagarden and his dixieland sextet broadcast live on WERE-FM from the Modern Jazz Room at East 4th and Prospect. Teagarden, who was playing for a week at the Cleveland club, acted as his own announcer during the broadcasts.
By the 1960s, the big band era had all but ended, but a few live band broadcasts continued. Throughout the summer of 1960, there were weekly live big band and jazz network broadcasts from the Cedar Point Ballroom in Sandusky. The bands included Buddy Morrow and his Night Train Orchestra, the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra led by Lee Castle, the Glenn Miller Orchestra led by Ray McKinley, Ralph Marterie, Louis Armstrong and his All-Stars, the Count Basie Orchestra, and the band of Cleveland saxophonist Al Serafini. Serafini also made live national radio broadcasts from the Sahara Hotel on Euclid Avenue in Cleveland and the Steel Pier in Atlantic City.
In the mid 1970s, when there was very little jazz being played or broadcast in Cleveland, Sun Ra and his colorful Arkestra played a six-night engagement at the Smiling Dog Saloon at West 25th and Woodbridge. The band’s February 1, 1972 performance at the Smiling Dog was broadcast live by WMMS.
But, over the years, as the radio stations realized it was cheaper and easier to play records, the live band pick-ups all but ended. While WCPN broadcast selected Cleveland jazz concerts and a few festivals from other cities, it was no longer possible to lie in bed almost any night and listen to live broadcasts of bands from around the country. While they lasted, there is little doubt the band broadcasts played a very significant role in popularizing jazz and big bands.
CLICK HERE for a "Radio Montage" audio excerpt.
Copyright 2008 Joe Mosbrook
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You can hear radio versions of Cleveland Jazz History on WCPN/90.3 Monday nights at 9:30.