Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
Jazzed in Cleveland Complete Index
Part 137 - The Jazz Temple
Story filed December 21, 2011
In 1958, an ambitious and energetic 19-year-old African-American from Detroit, who dreamed of becoming a movie producer, arrived in Cleveland and began operating a few small businesses in the University Circle area. By late 1962, Winston Willis leased a two-story brick building at Euclid and Mayfield, just down the road from Murray Hill, where he opened a non-alcoholic coffeehouse-jazz club that he called the Jazz Temple.
Willis booked Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers to open the Jazz Temple November 6, 1962. They played every night for a week. An ad in the Call and Post said, "Art Blakey preaching at the Jazz Temple." For the next year, until late 1963, Willis presented many of the top names in jazz at the club near what was then Western Reserve University:
Winston Willis & Dizzy Gillespie
But, while college students and musicians flocked to the Jazz Temple to see and hear the jazz legends, some people during a racially tense period were apparently not happy that the club’s clientele was racially mixed, including some interracial couples.
Trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, one of Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, told me about one unusual night when there was a bomb threat at the Jazz Temple.
Even the Cleveland police, who arrived at the Jazz Temple to investigate the bomb threat, stopped to watch the guy walking on glass while some of the best young jazz performers in the world played "Three Blind Mice."
There was no bomb that night, but two weeks later, August 13, 1963, someone placed two sticks of dynamite in a kitchen vent. The blast heavily damaged the Jazz Temple and the Cleveland police report called it "a professional job, an educational type warning." The Call and Post called the bombing, "the latest in a pattern of bombings at Negro amusement businesses in white areas. Within a few weeks, Willis closed the Jazz Temple. Ten years earlier, in 1953, a series of bombing incidents forced the closing of another popular University Circle area jazz club, the Towne Casino, which also attracted racially mixed crowds. Some people still believe the bombing incidents played key roles in the demise of the University Circle area as a center for live jazz.
After closing the Jazz Temple, Winston Willis operated a string of almost two dozen other businesses in the 105th and Euclid area, including a jazz club called the Esquire Lounge, where local musicians Ace Carter, Bill Gidney, Eddie Baccus, Albert Ayler and Roland Kirk frequently played.
A long and flattering biography on Wikipedia called Willis "one of the most successful business owner/operators in the country," with more than 400 employees. The Call and Post frequently reported he ran charity dinners at his restaurants and promoted many community events and organizations. But, a review of Plain Dealer articles from the early 1970s painted a different picture of Willis. Without mentioning that his businesses were blocking the expansion of the Cleveland Clinic, the Plain Dealer called him "a cheat spot operator" and "Cleveland’s porn king." The morning newspaper focused on his adult movie theatre, a porn shop, and illegal drinking and gambling spots.
In 1975, Willis was found guilty of failing to pay city income taxes that he had withheld from employees. In 1977, he ran for City Council but got only 308 votes. In 1979, police raided his Winston’s Place and found drugs, drug paraphernalia and gambling equipment. By 1980, he was found guilty of numerous tax violations and the city said he owed thousands of dollars on water and sewer bills. Through it all, the Call and Post said repeatedly Willis was being harassed by the city and Willis filed several unsuccessful multi-million dollar suits against the city. In 1983, he was sentenced to jail for writing a bad check. While he was in jail, his properties along Euclid Avenue were seized for the construction of the new W.O. Walker Building and demolished. He claimed his property was taken illegally and even appealed to the Supreme Court, which refused to hear his case. Willis continued to maintain he had never been compensated for the properties taken from him.
As late as 1988, Willis was evicted from his home, which was seized in restitution for more than 350-thousand dollars he had borrowed from a bank in the early 1980s but had never repaid. He lost almost everything except large stacks of legal papers documenting his long and bitter battles with the city, the courts, the Cleveland Clinic, and the bank.
The man who had played a role in Cleveland’s jazz of the 1960s, became one of Cleveland’s most colorful and controversial figures of the 1970s and ‘80s.
Copyright 2011 Joe Mosbrook
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