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

Part 135 - The Café Tia Juana

Story filed July 25, 2011

Longtime Cleveland jazz fans remember the Café Tia Juana for the many major jazz names who played there in the late 1940s and early ‘50s. But careful research of old newspaper archives discloses the big names were only a brief part of the colorful Tia Juana story.

The club opened August 28, 1947 on East 105th Street in the heart of Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood. It was hailed as "beautiful and ultra-modern" with a south-of-the-border atmosphere, a revolving stage and multi-colored curved leather booths. Jimmy Saunders, who played piano at the Tia Juana, remembered, "The design was like a four-leaf clover. Each part of the clover represented a bar and they had four bartenders, one bartender in each part of the cloverleaf."

Café Tia Juana

During the first week, performing six nights a week on that revolving stage, was singer Savannah Churchhill. The second name artist was pianist Eddie Heywood.

All during 1948 there was an almost endless parade of major jazz names: Erroll Garner (week of January 8), Nellie Lutcher (week of January 16), and the Nat "King" Cole Trio (week of January 23). Before Cole opened, Saunders remembered the pianist/singer’s manager came in to check out the piano and said, "Nat ‘King’ Cole can’t play on this piano!" The club owner gave Saunders $1,500 and told him to go buy a new piano.

Others in 1948 were: Charlie Parker (week of February 21), and Sarah Vaughan (week of May 12). When Vaughan was at the Tia Juana, there was a flash flood that dumped water throughout the building. It had to be cleaned up before she could go on stage.

Also at the Tia Juana in 1948 were Tiny Grimes (week of April 18), Billie Holiday (week of July 10), Savannah Churchill and Slam Stewart (week of August 8), Ella Fitzgerald and the Ray Brown Trio (week of August 22), Pearl Bailey and Eddie Heywood (week of September 5), Roy Eldridge (week of October 3), and Billy Eckstine (weeks of October 16, 23 and 30).

While Eckstine was at the Tia Juana, the club with Mexican decor advertised its new "famous Chinese chef." A few months later, the club announced it had "a new East Indian chef."

Rounding out 1948 were: The Nat "King" Cole Trio (week of November 7), Ethel Waters and Fletcher Henderson (week of November 26), and Maxine Sullivan (week of December 25). The club was attracting large crowds and The Call & Post called the Tia Juana "A mixing pot for people of all stations and races."

At the beginning of 1949, the parade of national names continued, but only briefly with: Dinah Washington (weeks of January 7 and 14). With a new "no cover or minimum" policy, the club booked only local entertainers until April. Then there were a few other national names: the Nat "King" Cole Trio (week of April 8), Pearl Bailey with Cleveland's Benny Miller Quartet (week of April 15), Nellie Lutcher (week of May 18), and Tiny Bradshaw (week of August 6). By late 1949, The Call & Post said, "We’ve failed to support the Tia Juana."

At the beginning of 1950, the newspaper reported the club was "running tragically in the red" and was up for sale. Despite the financial problems, the Tia Juana continued to present live entertainment six nights a week, but with only a couple of national names in 1950: Tiny Grimes (week of April 1) and J. C. Higginbotham (week of August 1).

Just three years after the club opened, there were few if any national jazz names performing at the Glenville nightclub. While nightly live entertainment, usually until 3:30 a.m., continued into the late 1960s, the club was beginning to get headlines for things other than presenting major jazz artists.

In March of 1955, an undercover Liquor Control Board investigator testified he had placed illegal gambling bets with Tia Juana employees. The Plan Dealer called club owner Arthur "Little Brother" Drake "an ex-con and policy racketeer." The club’s liquor license was suspended for a while. It was suspended again in 1957 for failing to have food available.

After a man was shot and killed at the Tia Juana in September of 1958, outspoken Cleveland City Councilman Leo Jackson mounted a two-year effort to shut down the club. The councilman called the Café Tia Juana "a public nuisance" and "a hangout for undesirable persons." Representing the owner at a hearing was a young lawyer named Louis Stokes, who later became a longtime Cleveland congressman. In 1961, the Internal Revenue Service hit the club for non-payment of taxes.

Through all the problems and occasional closings for a few months, the Café Tia Juana continued as a Glenville nightlife landmark. Performers on the revolving stage in the 1960s included such regionally-popular attractions as Jimmy Scott, Arthur Prysock, Bill Doggett, Milt Buckner and the Duke Jenkins Trio.

There was even more trouble in 1965 when Cuyahoga County Sheriff James McGettrick cited the club for liquor violations and called it "a notorious hoodlum hangout." But the club again continued to operate. By 1968 it was not presenting national, or even local, jazz performers. Instead, the featured artists were go-go girls and exotic dancers.

While the Café Tia Juana is still fondly remembered by longtime Cleveland jazz fans for the major jazz artists who performed there, the big names were at the Tia Juana for less than three years in the late 1940s. The nightclub made more headlines during its 20-year run for its financial problems and its owners’ many brushes with the law. Today, the colorful club is gone. At the site at East 105th and Massie is a church.

Copyright 2011 Joe Mosbrook

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