Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
Jazzed in Cleveland Complete Index
Part 128 - The Towne Casino Bombings
Story filed November 6, 2009
Years ago in this series, Lionel Hampton pointed out that jazz was among the first aspects of American life to experience racial integration. Of course, Hamp was right, but it was not always without problems.
Hampton and his band were among the many top national jazz acts that performed at a 1950s Cleveland club called the Towne Casino in the University Circle area. Longtime Cleveland jazz fan Nehemiah Story (called "Chief" by his friends) remembered, "The Towne Casino was a club right on Euclid, between 105th and 107th, not far from Lindsayís Skybar. It had two parts, a bar in front and a ballroom in the back where you could dance. One time, in the back room they had Lionel Hampton playing, and in the front, they had Eddie Chamblee playing saxophone and walking the bar." Chamblee became something of a local legend by playing wild solos on his saxophone while prancing around on top of the bar. "Thatís where some of the saxophone players around town got it," said Story, "Eddie Chamblee. He walked the bar."
The Towne Casino, which opened in 1951, also presented the Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Stan Kenton Orchestras, and such other jazz artists as Coleman Hawkins, J.J. Johnson, Sarah Vaughan and George Shearing. It was a popular club where blacks and whites mixed freely because of their appreciation for the music.
On Monday night, March 9, 1953, Louis Armstrong and his All-Stars attracted a large racially-mixed crowd at the Towne Casino.
After the Armstrong show, and after the club closed that night, someone set off a bomb at the front door. An employee was knocked down by the blast which shattered windows at nearby businesses. The employee, Fowler Williams, told police he saw a man running away just before the blast. The owners, Edward Helstein and Jack Rogoff, said they didnít know what prompted the bombing.
But then in July, shortly after Louis Jordan played at the club, there was a third bombing, even more violent than the first two. It ripped a hole in the ceiling, tore up floors and walls, shattered scores of windows, and damaged some medical and dental offices upstairs. Club Manager John Drew said the bombing was the work of what he called "hot-heads who object to Negro and white patrons mixing at the club." Shortly after the third bombing, the owners announced the club, which had presented many of the biggest names in jazz, would close permanently on August 1.
Out front they placed a sign that said, "DON'T BOMB US. WE QUIT."
On the last night, there was a farewell party with one of the biggest turnouts the club ever had. As the party stretched past closing time, Cleveland police, who had never arrested anyone in connection with the bombings, came and ironically broke up the farewell party.
After the Towne Casino closed, The Cleveland Call & Post said in an editorial, "The bombings were based purely and simply on the determination to halt any movement to make the night spots of Upper Euclid Avenue places of wholesome interracial entertainment."
A few years later, there were bomb threats and another bombing incident at another University Circle area jazz club, the Jazz Temple, just a few blocks away at Euclid and Mayfield. That club, which also attracted racially-mixed audiences to hear such artists as John Coltrane and Art Blakey, also closed.
But, despite these few isolated, but very serious, local bumps in the road to social equality, Hampton was certainly correct when he pointed out that jazz was one of the first things in American life that brought the races together.
Copyright 2009 Joe Mosbrook
CLICK HERE for the complete listing of "Jazzed in Cleveland"
You can hear radio versions of Cleveland Jazz History on WCPN Monday nights at 10:00 pm (Please note new time).