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

Part 124 - Django Reinhardt’s Missing Guitar

Story filed Feb 23, 2009

Cleveland jazz guitarist Fred Sharp in 1967 went to Europe where he met the son of his longtime guitar hero, Django Reinhardt. After recording in Paris with 23-year-old Babik Reinhardt, the young Frenchman gave Sharp a going-away present – the guitar Django Reinhardt had used when he made his American debut in Cleveland in 1946. Because the guitar was a rarity and a valuable collector’s prize, Sharp took it to a packaging company in Paris and had it professionally packed and shipped to his home in Cleveland.

But, when he got home, there was no sign of the historic guitar. Sharp waited for about a month, but the guitar still had not arrived from Paris. The Cleveland jazz guitarist was heart-broken. He had been a big fan of Reinhardt since he was a teenager in the late 1930s, when his guitar teacher, Jerry Stone, who had a studio in the old Hippodrome Theatre Building on Euclid Avenue, told him about the European jazz artist.

CLICK HERE to listen to Sharp’s memory of his first exposure to Reinhardt.

Sharp began collecting the records of the French gypsy, who would later be considered one of the two or three most important guitarists in jazz history. The young Clevelander wrote to a French record company and ordered a bunch of Reinhardt records which he received in the mail.

While Sharp was playing his own guitar opposite Art Tatum at Chin’s Restaurant in Cleveland's University Circle area, touring with the Adrian Rollini Trio and recording with Red Norvo’s big band, he continued building his collection of Reinhardt records. Eventually, Sharp amassed the world’s largest collection of Reinhardt records.

In November of 1946, Sharp’s guitar hero came to the United States for the first time. Duke Ellington invited Reinhardt to make a U.S. tour with the Ellington Orchestra. Their first performance was in Cleveland, at the Music Hall at East 6th and St. Clair. It was Monday night, November 4, 1946. Reinhardt and Ellington shared a suite at the Hotel Statler at East 12th and Euclid. There was no advance announcement in Cleveland that the legendary Django Reinhardt would be appearing with the Ellington Orchestra. But, more than 1800 people paid between $1.25 and $3.60 to attend the concert. Ellington and Reinhardt had only a brief rehearsal and the concert-goers had to wait for about 45 minutes for the music to begin. A baggage car carrying the band’s instruments had been delayed.

Glenn Pullen, writing in The Plain Dealer, said, "The faithful followers of the popular composer-bandmaster did not seem to mind the long wait. They were offered extra compensation in the form of Django Reinhardt, the noted French guitarist." The headline in the Plain Dealer the next morning said, "French guitar artist steals Duke’s concert." Pullen wrote, "In the hands of this virtuoso the electric guitar acquires richer, magical qualities. His dexterity was remarkable, in intricate chords that were executed with such technical brilliance that the band musicians kept shouting, ‘Go to it, Master!’" During that concert and later performances in Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Kansas City, Pittsburgh and New York City’s Carnegie Hall, Reinhardt played a guitar which had been given to him in the United States, an Epiphone Zephyr #3442.

It was that guitar, that Reinhardt had played during his American debut in Cleveland, that Reinhardt’s son gave to Cleveland guitarist Fred Sharp in Paris. It was that guitar that Sharp took to a packaging company to send to his home in Cleveland. And, it was that guitar that, after Sharp got home, was missing.

After waiting in vain for about a month for his prized present, Sharp finally went to the U.S. Customs office at Cleveland Hopkins Airport. He asked the customs agent about the missing guitar. "Oh, that package," said the agent, pointing to a corner of the office. "It has been sitting here for about a month." The agent said nobody could make out the address that had been written by the French company and it was just sitting in the customs office waiting for somebody to claim it.

Sharp finally got his prized possession – the guitar Django Reinhardt had played in his American debut in Cleveland. He also got a big surprise. The customs agent told him the long-missing guitar had actually been on the same flight that Sharp and his wife Iris were on when they returned from Paris to Cleveland.

Sharp, who had been a leading jazz guitarist in Cleveland for decades, retired to Florida in 1990 and played with a variety of retired major jazz artists. He died in Sarasota in December of 2005 at the age of 82 and was buried at Cleveland's Lakeview Cemetery. I’m not sure what happened to the Reinhardt guitar after Fred’s death, but I believe Sharp’s son, Todd, a leading professional guitarist and motion picture musician, is taking good care of it.

Copyright 2009 Joe Mosbrook

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