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

Part 126 - The Townsmen Tradition

Story filed July 16, 2009

Cleveland, with a long and rich big band tradition, has an unusually large number of active big jazz bands. But few can match the long and illustrious history of the Townsmen Orchestra, a band which has been performing almost continuously in Cleveland for more than half a century.

Larry Powell, who played saxophone with the Townsmen for years, said the band is carrying on the big band tradition, playing in the style of the Count Basie Orchestra. "It’s a swing band," he said emphatically, "a jazz band!"

Another member of the saxophone section, Fred Jenkins, who played for years in his brother’s Duke Jenkins Trio, said all the best jazz musicians in Cleveland "at one time or another have been in the Townsmen band." Jenkins said the band frequently plays at nursing homes.

Trumpeter Carl Lovano, the brother of legendary Cleveland saxophonist Tony "Big T" Lovano and the uncle of three-time Jazz Artist of the Year Joe Lovano, said the Townsmen play about ten gigs a year and rehearse every Tuesday night. "It gives us a chance to keep our lips up," he said. "Everybody in the band is a great musician."

The Townsmen Orchestra was formed in 1957, when Dwight Eisenhower was the president. One of the founders, James Bivens, remembered a group of Cleveland musicians decided to start a new big band and began rehearsing in his basement.

CLICK HERE TO HEAR JAMES BIVENS

From the beginning, the musical backbone of the band has been its veteran musicians who grew up listening to the big band jazz of the 1930s and ‘40s. Powell remembered, "The band that really started me was Jimmie Lunceford’s. My father took me to see him when I was eight years old. The next thing I knew," he said with a laugh, "I got hit!"

Folia Mayes, who joined the Townsmen in the early 1970s, remembered, "When I came in, there were legends (in the band). In the saxophone section there were Andy Anderson, Al Gibson and Weasel Parker." Anderson had played with Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Gibson was a member of the Cab Calloway Orchestra. And Parker moved to Cleveland after touring with the Count Basie Orchestra. Another member of the Townsmen was William "Shep" Shepherd who had toured with the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra. Mayes admitted he was somewhat intimidated when he joined. "The first time that I came here and pulled out the first chart," he said, "I was lost after the first four bars. So what I had to do was, I brought a tape recorder down and I taped about ten songs and then took the music home and learned how to read from that."

Today, the leader of the band is trumpeter Byron Smith, who is very aware of continuing the long Townsmen tradition. Smith said, "We try to get youngsters interested in this kind of music. I started trying to get younger fellows in the band because all the older guys are dying out. I’m about the next oldest one. I’m almost 80 myself."

For many years, the Townsmen was an all-African American band, but Smith said that changed. "That’s how it started out," said Smith, "but I broke that up and I got a lot of young fellows, in here now." Many of them are white. Smith said, "I think there’re more of them now than there have ever been."

The band plays arrangements from the Townsmen’s large library which includes more than 400 charts. Smith said some of the arrangements go back to the days when Al Gibson was leading the band and used some of the arrangements he had played with Cab Calloway. Many of the more recent arrangements were written by Clevelander Willie Smith who has arranged for Lionel Hampton, various Motown artists, and Joe Lovano.

The music director of the Townsmen is veteran Cleveland bass player Jesse Dandy who said, "The best part about it is the enthusiasm of the people in the band. They want to rehearse, they come to rehearsal wanting to hear that big band sound, wanting to produce it, and now, we’re starting to come together. The sections are coming together. The music is coming together. The guys want to keep playing even after a diligent rehearsal. And it just seems like the enthusiasm for this band is growing."

With singers Curtis Avant and Anita Rose Banks, the Townsmen Orchestra plays at a variety of venues, including many senior citizen homes, and is continuing the long and illustrious tradition that began in 1957.

Copyright 2009 Joe Mosbrook


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