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

Part 139 - Remembering Teddy Hill

Story filed August 7, 2012

Teddy Hill (shown on the right in an historic photo with Thelonious Monk, Howard McGhee and Roy Eldridge) was the longtime manager of Minton’s Playhouse, the New York City jazz club where most agree bebop was born.

A musician, Hill had played saxophone and recorded with Louis Armstrong’s big band in the early 1930s and formed his own band which included Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie and Kenny Clarke before he became the manager of Minton’s in 1940. It was Hill who instituted the club’s policy of late night jam sessions where Monk, Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Charlie Christian, and many others experimented with a new style of jazz that later was named bebop.

In the 1960s, Hill frequently visited his daughter Gwendolyn Baskett and her children at their home in Greater Cleveland. Michelle Redmond fondly remembered her grandfather "visited our home in Cleveland every August and stayed for five days. He would drive from New York down to the South to book acts for his nightclub and then come to Cleveland."

For a little girl, she said his visits were magic times. "He would drive around in his Cadillac convertible and take me to hamburger places and we’d have milkshakes. We did all the things my mother said I wasn’t supposed to do. He said yes to all of it. We went to a Manner’s Big Boy near Farnsleigh and Warrensville Center Road and he would buy me hamburgers and chocolate milkshakes." At the time, the family was living in Warrensville Heights near Harvard Avenue on a street called Shadywood Lane.

Years later, after Michelle Redmond had graduated from Notre Dame College in South Euclid and gained extensive professional experience in television production, she began working on a masters degree at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. She admitted she knew little about Teddy Hill’s importance to jazz history, but suggested to her teacher that she might do a research video documentary thesis about her "Grandfather Teddy." She recalled, "My professor said, ‘Does the dean know about you?’ He said, ‘He needs to know about you and who you are.’ As it turned out, the dean was Jose Bowen, a jazz musician as well as an academician. He’s a piano player with experience from Carnegie Hall to probably the Newport Jazz Festival." SMU Dean Jose Bowen had performed with Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Bobby McFerrin, Dave Brubeck and others. He also was an editor of the Smithsonian Anthology of Jazz. The dean obviously knew the significance of Michelle’s grandfather to jazz history. She suddenly realized, "This might be something bigger that I didn’t expect. I just didn’t know!" When she met with the dean, he said "You have to do this! Everybody knows Teddy Hill! Everybody knows Minton’s!" With her marching orders from the dean, the Cleveland native began producing a documentary video.

She went to New York to see what Minton’s Playhouse looks like today and to interview people who were part of it. She was disappointed when she first saw the vacant site of the old jazz club on the southeast corner of 118th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue in Harlem. "It’s kind of a dump," she said, "with holes in the ceiling. I thought, ‘Is this the place where bebop was created?!’" But she also found some old photographs showing tables with white table clothes, bud vases and fancy silverware. And she had no trouble imagining the future jazz legends experimenting with complex chords and rhythms – "to discourage the no-talent guys who showed up for the jam sessions" – as Gillespie once said.

She was also surprised to find a strange mural still on the wall over the bandstand. "To the left," she said, "is a woman on a bed in a red dress, face down like she’s sleeping, and to the right is a little quartet of musicians, including Charlie Christian and Hot Lips Page. Urban legend is that the woman on the bed is Billie Holiday sleeping off a drunk. This is what you would see when you looked at the performers on the stage."

She also interviewed T.S. Monk, the son of Thelonious Monk, the musician who had played piano in the house band at Minton’s. "He said his dad enjoyed working at Minton’s and Grandfather Teddy treated him well despite his quirkiness. Monk’s son said Thelonious admired Hill so much that "when he noticed Hill was wearing a pinky ring, he also bought a pinky ring so that he could sort of imitate my grandfather."

She also interviewed singer Mansur Scott, who said as a teenager, he used to hang around Minton’s. He said Teddy Hill helped him by giving him little jobs if he got off drugs and stayed off them.

Minton’s Playhouse continued as a center of cutting-edge jazz through the 1940s, but declined in the ‘50s and ‘60s and was closed in 1974. It was re-opened in 2006, but closed again in 2010. When she was in New York, Michelle found a man who plans to re-open Minton’s Playhouse. Richard Parsons, the chairman of Citi-Corp, is a man with a deep love of jazz and deep pockets. She said, "He wants to see the club open and reclaim its legacy as a place of jazz history. He took out a long-term lease and started to restore it completely."

After leaving New York, Michelle came home to Cleveland to videotape some of the places where she, as a young girl, went with the man she called "Grandfather Teddy" and to videotape additional interviews for her documentary. She also did interviews in Washington and at the University of Virginia.

While Michelle Redmond has a unique perspective of Teddy Hill, it may take some time before her documentary video is widely distributed. "Right now," she said, " it’s a thesis project for my masters degree and until I get all the (legal) clearances, which I am really going to work hard to do, that could take a while. We’re talking about photographs and music that I’d have to get the clearances to show it as a broadcast piece." She says PBS is interested in the concept, "but until all those clearances are in, I can’t show it anywhere beyond the academic world or in my living room."

Teddy Hill lived the last two years of his life in Cleveland and was buried at Cleveland’s Highland Park Cemetery. After he died in 1978, family members went to New York to collect his possessions. They discovered his apartment had been broken into. Among the missing items was Charlie Christian’s historic guitar amplifier which he had left with Hill for safe keeping.

Now Hill’s granddaughter is working to add new information to his important role in jazz history.

Copyright 2012 Joe Mosbrook

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