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

Part 134 - The Jazz Corner of Cleveland

Story filed May 3, 2011

For four and a half years in the late 1950s, Sam Firsten was the drum major of a seemingly endless parade of national jazz artists into Cleveland -- to a place he liked to call "The Jazz Corner of Cleveland."

In June of 1954, Firsten opened a nightclub he initially called the Cotton Club at East 4th and Huron and began presenting live music by local musicians. On opening night, it was Jimmy Saunders’ band which included saxophonists Joe Alexander and Paul Redfron, bassist Rodney Richardson, and drummer Lawrence Jackson, better known as "Jacktown." In a few months, Cleveland singer Jimmy Scott became the club’s nightly emcee.

But, by May of 1955, Firsten began booking touring national artists, including many of the biggest names in jazz, usually playing for a week at a time from Monday night to Sunday. The first was popular pianist Eddie Heywood who played every night at the Cotton Club from 9 p.m. to 3:30 a.m.

Searching through old newspaper archives we have attempted to reconstruct the amazing line-up of jazz talent that Firsten brought to his club. After Heywood in May of 1955, it was Teddy Charles with bass player Charlie Mingus.

Art Tatum ad

Then in June, all-time piano great Art Tatum, the Australian Jazz Quartet, Johnny Smith and Ruby Braff. In July of 1955, the Cotton Club presented Matt Mathews with Herbie Mann, Gene Ammons, and the Four Jewels. The August line-up included Randy Weston, Red Prysock, Bud Powell, Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers, and vibraphonist Joe Roland.

The fall of 1955 began with the very popular trombone combination of J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding, Thelonious Monk, Herbie Mann, and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis. Playing in October were pianist Ralph Sharon, Cal Tjader, Johnny Smith, the Australian Jazz Quartet, and a group called The Six.

With the Cotton Club competing with the Loop Lounge a couple of blocks away for top-flight national jazz talent, Firsten in November of 1955, booked the biggest attractions he could find: Miles Davis, Teddy Wilson, and the Modern Jazz Quartet. When the MJQ was at the club, Firsten asked the group to also play a special Sunday afternoon matinee aimed at teenagers. Only soft drinks served. John Lewis of the group said, "We were immensely pleased because the young generation is becoming vitally interested in contemporary jazz music." The Sunday teenage matinees by major jazz stars became a frequent feature at the club.

Rounding out the first year of nationally famous jazz artists, the Cotton Club in December of 1955 offered Art Farmer, Art Tatum, and drummer Art Blakey.

Art Blakey

The parade of jazz stars continued into 1956 with Billy Taylor, Erroll Garner, Joe Cooper and Coleman Hawkins playing in January, and Serge Chaloff and Lou Donaldson, Teddy Charles, Tony Scott and the Australian Jazz Quartet in February.

The March 1956 line-up included Cannonball Adderely, Bud Wattles (later the band director at Cleveland’s Hermit Club), and Hampton Hawes with Red Mitchell, followed in April by Wild Bill Davis, Bud Powell, and Calvin Jackson.

In May, it was young pianist Phineas Newborn, Jr., singer Carmen McRae, and Hampton Hawes, who substituted for Garner who was injured in a New York City taxi accident. Playing the last week of May 1956 was the Max Roach-Clifford Brown Quintet with Sonny Rollins.

at the Cotton Club

CLICK HERE to listen to Clifford Brown introduce the group at the Cotton Club in 1956.

The 25-year-old Brown was the hottest young trumpeter in jazz. Three weeks after playing for seven nights at the Cotton Club in Cleveland, Brown was killed in a traffic accident on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Pianist Richie Powell and his wife, who was driving, were also killed in the crash.

Following the Roach-Brown group, in June of ‘56, were Stan Getz, Chico Hamilton with former Cleveland guitarist Jim Hall, singer Anita O’Day, and the Modern Jazz Quartet. For two nights O’Day and the MJQ performed together. June brought Dizzy Gillespie’s small group, singers Jeri Southern and Ella Fitzgerald, Bud Shank and Chris Connor.

Erroll Garner returned in August, followed by J.J. Johnson and the jazz vocal group the Hi-Los.

The September performers were the Australian Jazz Quartet, Zoot Sims, Horace Silver and Lester Young. In October of ‘56, it was singer Billie Holiday, George Shearing, Gerry Mulligan and Bob Brookmeyer, and Teddy Charles.

Max Roach, who had been very upset by the death of Clifford Brown, returned in November, followed by the full Duke Ellington Orchestra.

In addition to the nightly jazz at his club, Firsten also sponsored a November 25 "Jazz For Moderns" concert at the Masonic Auditorium with Erroll Garner, Gerry Mulligan, Bob Brookmeyer, Chico Hamilton, Kai Winding and the Count Basie Orchestra with singer Joe Williams.

In December of 1956 at the Cotton Club, Firsten booked Erroll Garner, Sarah Vaughan, Buddy DeFranco, a group called Jazz Femmes, and the full Dizzy Gillespie big band which played on New Year’s Eve and did a live national radio broadcast from the club on the Mutual Broadcasting System.

In January of 1957, Firsten changed the name of his jazz nightclub from the Cotton Club to the Modern Jazz Room. The Plain Dealer said Firsten was hoping to capitalize on the growing popularity of modern jazz. During the first month under the new name, he booked Horace Silver, the Jimmy Guiffre Trio, and nationally-acclaimed Cleveland bop guitarist Bill DeArango. Firsten was spending a lot of money for jazz artists and warned during a Jaycee luncheon speech that the asking prices of jazz artists were rising rapidly. He said they had tripled in recent months.

In February of ‘57, he brought in the Kai Winding Septet (with four trombones), Stan Getz, J.J. Johnson and singer Lurlean Hunter. He also sponsored another big concert. At the Music Hall February 14, "The International Festival of Music" included the Ted Heath big band from England, June Christy, Al Hibbler and the Eddie Heywood Trio.

In March and April of 1957, performers at the Modern Jazz Room were Shorty Rogers, George Shearing, the Australian Jazz Quartet, Dave Brubeck, Helen Merrill, Jerri Adams, Buddy DeFranco, and Chico Hamilton. Firsten reportedly paid Brubeck $4,000 to play for six nights.

The May and June ‘57 line-up included Carmen McRae, Maynard Ferguson’s big band, Charlie Rouse and Julius Watkins, the Modern Jazz Quartet, singer Ruth Price, Terry Gibbs Erroll Garner and Kai Winding.

After guitarist Johnny Smith and pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi played the first two weeks of July, Dizzy Gillespie returned with his 17-piece big band. At the same time Gillespie was playing for a week at the Modern Jazz Room, Al Hibbler was singing at the Loop Lounge, the Count Basie Orchestra was swinging at the Bandbox on West 25th, and Dave Brubeck was performing with the Cleveland Orchestra at Public Hall.

Rounding out the summer of 1957 at the Modern Jazz Room were Chris Connor, Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, Helen Merrill, Jimmy Smith and young pianist Phineas Newborn, Jr. When Newborn opened August 19, The Plain Dealer said, "Nearly a dozen members of the Cleveland Orchestra became cheerleaders for the 25-year-old jazz piano virtuoso."

During September and October of ‘57, Firsten’s club presented George Shearing, Cannonball Adderely, Anita O’Day, Bud Powell, Horace Silver, the Maynard Ferguson big band, Bill Doggett, the Australian Jazz Quartet, and the Oscar Peterson Trio with Herb Ellis and Ray Brown.

On November 7, 1957, Sam Firsten presented another all-star concert at the Music Hall with the Ted Heath Orchestra, the Hi-Los, Rosemary Clooney and Carmen McRae.

Back at his "Jazz Corner," the November and December artists were Bud Wattles, the Kai Winding Septet, Helen Merrill singing with the Pat Pace Trio, Hank Marr’s Jazz Three-O, the Jimmy Giuffre Trio with Jim Hall, and the Bud Wattles Sextet with four trombones. The club promoted a New Year’s Eve special: $3.95 per person, including "all you can drink."

But, by the end of 1957, with artists’ prices growing rapidly, Firsten was obviously cutting back on expensive acts. The groups during the winter of 1958 were the Dan Armstrong Trio, the Sky Hi Trio, Jimmy Smith and the Australian Jazz Quartet.

Then, at the end of March, a Modern Jazz Club ad announced, "The big names are back!" The April line-up was Miles Davis and Cannonball Adderely, Dizzy Gillespie, the Count Basie Orchestra with Joe Williams, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and the Jack Teagarden All-Stars, who broadcast live from the club on WERE-FM.

They were followed in May and June of 1958 by J.J. Johnson, Dakota Staton, Carmen McRae, the Jimmy Guiffre Trio with Jim Hall, Gene Krupa, Kai Winding, Terry Gibbs and Lurlean Hunter. Somebody broke into Winding’s vehicle parked at the Colonial House motel at 33rd and Euclid and stole the musician’s formal band uniforms. The culprits were never caught but the outfits were later found at the rear of 3400 Chester.

The summer of ‘58 brought the Oscar Peterson Trio, Chris Connor, the Australian Jazz Quartet, Ahmad Jamal, Dave Brubeck with Paul Desmond and Joe Morello, Billie Holiday, Chico Hamilton, Earl Bostic and the Buddy Rich big band. Rich missed the August 25th opening because of airline delays, but led his band the other six nights.

In September, it was Anita O’Day, George Shearing, Chet Baker, and Sarah Vaughan, who four weeks earlier had married former Cleveland Browns running back Clyde Atkins. In October of ‘58, the jazz players were Gene Krupa, Sonny Stitt, Bobby Jones and the Dukes of Dixieland, a group that did two radio broadcasts while at the club. One on October 27, according to The Plain Dealer, was in four-channel stereo on WERE and WDOK.

Firsten was pulling out all the stops to attract customers and scheduled Count Basie with Joe Williams for the first week of November, followed by Melba Liston, Evans Bradshaw, Lionel Hampton’s 17-piece band, Abbey Lincoln, Milt Buckner, Morgana King and Bobby Jones. Hampton was reportedly paid $5,500 for the week.

But Firsten was quickly realizing he could not sell enough drinks in the relatively small room to continue booking increasingly expensive artists. The major jazz artists could make more money for playing one night at places like the Musicarnival. During the early weeks of 1959, he booked a number of cheaper acts including a then-relatively unknown singer named Ernestine Anderson. In July of 1959, Glenn Pullen of The Plain Dealer wrote, "Costly jazz bands have virtually priced themselves out of the range of moderate-sized nightclubs. Sam Firsten’s Modern Jazz Room can no longer meet their soaring salary demands."

In September of 1959, Firsten sold the Modern Jazz Room to Dr. James Bard, a Fenn College professor, and native Cleveland drummer Fats Heard who had toured with Erroll Garner. Bard told me, "I put up the money and Fats ran the place." The grand opening November 2, 1959 was attended by more than 250 people including Jonah Jones, football players Jim Brown and Willie Davis and future Mayor Carl Stokes. Bard and Heard never planned to book high-priced jazz stars, but, even with local bands, said Bard, "We were losing money every month." Finally, in 1961, they sold the club to George Koropoulis who converted it into a Greek restaurant, the Grecian Gardens, which featured belly dancers.

But, there is no doubt that for more than four years East 4th and Huron was the "Jazz Corner of Cleveland," a corner that saw an amazing parade of all-time jazz greats. Today at the site is a parking building for the Quicken Loans Arena. Sam Firsten died in 1992 at the age of 92.

Copyright 2011 Joe Mosbrook


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