Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
Jazzed in Cleveland Complete Index

Part 123 - A Tour of Former Jazz Shrines
Story filed Dec 22, 2008

I recently drove around Cleveland searching for the sites of some legendary former Cleveland jazz clubs. I was hoping to find some reminders that most of the biggest names in jazz history had performed at the locations.

Smiling Dog Saloon

The first stop was at West 25th and Woodbridge, just off Interstate 71, where Roger Bohn opened a club called The Smiling Dog Saloon in 1971. At the time, The Smiling Dog was almost Cleveland’s only jazz club. Bohn booked many of the biggest names, including Stan Getz, Sonny Stitt, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock, Weather Report, Bill Evans, Sun Ra and the Gil Evans Big Band. Clevelanders who played in the house band included Joe Lovano, Ernie Krivda, Bill deArango, Skip Hadden, Kenny Davis, Ron Busch, Ron Kozak, Bill Dobbins and Jamey Haddad. It was a very popular club for five years. But, on the day of the tour, the site across the street from the Metro Health Center was nothing more than a cleared lot with big piles of mud.

Cotton Club

From West 25th Street, I headed downtown to East 4th and Huron where a man named Sam Firsten in 1954 opened a jazz spot he called The Cotton Club. Within a year, he was presenting such artists as Herbie Mann, Gene Ammons, Bud Powell, Charlie Mingus, Art Blakey, Max Roach, Clifford Brown, Sonny Rollins, and J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding – usually for a week at a time. During the first year, Firsten changed the name of the club to The Modern Jazz Room and sold it to Jim Bard who teamed up with drummer Fats Heard to run it. Heard had toured and recorded with Erroll Garner. It was a small room, seating only about 50 or 60 people and continued to be very popular until the early 1960s. Today, the old club is gone and in the shadow of the Quicken Loans Arena, the site is now occupied by a modern parking building.

Loop Lounge

Just a block away, at 612 Prospect Avenue, was The Loop Lounge, opened in 1948 by a man named Teddy Blackmon. Playing for a week at a time at the Loop until 1958 were such jazz legends as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Lionel Hampton, Lester Young, Chet Baker, Terry Gibbs, James Moody, Ben Webster, and Billie Holiday. For more than ten years in the 1940s and 50s, The Loop was one of Cleveland’s most popular downtown jazz clubs. Today at the site is a small bar called Nick’s Sports Corner.

Theatrical Grill

A short distance away is Vincent Avenue, known as "Short Vincent," which for years was Cleveland’s entertainment center. At 711 Vincent was Cleveland’s longest-running jazz club, The Theatrical Grill, which presented live jazz from 1937 until 1990. Almost all the top national names played at The Theatrical, even after a disastrous fire which destroyed the club in September of 1960. Owner Mushy Wexler spent $1.2 to rebuild and reopened a year later with trumpeter Jonah Jones on the bandstand. After Wexler died in 1979, his son-in-law, Buddy Spitz, ran the club with his son, Jeff. But, by this time, Cleveland’s nightlife was migrating to the Flats and the Spitz family searched for other operators. Restaurant owner Jim Swingos ran it briefly but didn’t attract enough business to make it pay. Today, the old Theatrical Grill facade is still on Short Vincent, but now it is just an entranceway to a parking garage.

Bop Stop

From Short Vincent I drove to East 40th and St. Clair. This is where Cleveland vibraphonist Ron Busch opened a small jazz club called The Bop Stop in June of 1991. Busch converted a little corner bar into a popular jazz club that became the home for many of Cleveland’s leading jazz artists. Occasionally, touring national artists would stop in and jam with the local players. In 1996, Busch moved his club downtown to larger quarters at West 6th and Lakeside and in 2003, after teaming up with Anita Nonneman, built a beautiful new Bop Stop at 2920 Detroit Avenue. But it all began at East 40th and St. Clair. Today, the former jazz club is occupied by a business called Shay’s Pizza Shop.

Leo’s Casino

Out on Euclid Avenue, on the south side of the street between East 71st and East 77th, was the spot where Leo Frank operated a large room called Leo’s Casino from 1963 to 1972. The club in the Quad Hall Hotel building hosted many of the biggest entertainment acts of the period, including comedians, rhythm and blues bands, Motown singers and such jazz artists as Oscar Peterson, Count Basie, Joe Williams, Thelonious Monk and Carmen McRae. Frank paid the performers $3 or 4 thousand for four nights. But, by the end of the 1960s, many were commanding $15 thousand for one night and Leo’s Casino closed in 1972. All that remains today is an empty lot with an historic marker erected by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999. Two weeks after the marker ceremony, Frank died at the age of 71.

Val’s in the Alley

The next stop is along the north side of Cedar Avenue at East 86th Street. Up an alley, in what was called Vienna Court, a man named Milo Valentine operated an illegal after-hours club in his home. It was called Val’s in the Alley. This is where, beginning in 1929, people like Duke Ellington, Paul Whiteman, Count Basie, Oscar Peterson, Teddy Wilson and Mary Lou Williams came to hear a piano genius named Art Tatum. Val hired Tatum for 50 dollars a night and a couple of beers and he returned year after year, even after he became world famous. Val’s in the Alley continued until the early 1940s. Val’s house and most of the other nearby houses were torn down in the mid-1950s. Today, all that remains is the alley leading from Cedar Avenue past a one-story, red-brick building with a sign over the door that says, "...AW Civic Center." The little building appeared to be locked up tight.

Cedar Gardens

A little farther out on Cedar Avenue, at East 97th Street, was a popular nightclub called Cedar Gardens. Beginning in the late 1920s, it had been a Chinese restaurant called The Butterfly Inn. When a man from Pittsburgh named Ulysses Deering became the manager, he decided in 1934 to open a nightclub in the basement and called it Cedar Gardens. It quickly became Cleveland’s version of New York’s famous Cotton Club, with a house band, a floor show, and dancers and singers. Among the musicians who played in the house band were Buster Harding (who later wrote "9:20 Special"), Francis Williams (who later played with Duke Ellington), Earle Warren (who later played with Count Basie), Freddie Webster (who went on to play with Jimmie Lunceford), as well as Tadd Dameron and Benny Bailey. Like several other clubs in black neighborhoods, Cedar Gardens attracted many white customers and the nightclub continued to present live jazz until the late 1960s. Today, at 9706 Cedar Avenue, there is a fenced-in parking lot just across the street from several Cleveland Clinic buildings.

Café Tia Juana

From Cedar Avenue, I drove to the Glenville neighborhood of Cleveland. At the corner of East 105th and Massie Avenue, the Hoge family operated The Café Tia Juana from 1947 to the early 1970s. Pianist Jimmy Saunders, who led the house band, remembered it was a beautiful club.

CLICK HERE to listen to Saunders’ memories of The Café Tia Juana.
Today, the site is a fenced-in church parking lot.

Lindsay’s Sky Bar

The last stop on our tour was the site of Lindsay’s Sky Bar on Euclid Avenue near East 105th Street, near University Circle. Opened in 1934 by Phil and Rickie Bash, the Sky Bar was one of Cleveland’s first clubs to present national jazz artists on regular basis. As early as 1937, a young struggling singer named Frankie Laine sang at Lindsay’s. After World War II, performers included Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, Earl Hines, Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge, Gene Krupa and Oscar Peterrson. Lindsay’s closed in 1952. Today, there is no trace of the old jazz club, just another fenced-in parking lot.

I could have gone to other locations, but I’m afraid I would have found pretty much the same thing -- little, if any, indication of the many years of outstanding jazz and the many musicians who played in these Cleveland clubs. For old-timers, those historic jazz clubs exist only in their memories.

Copyright 2008 Joe Mosbrook

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