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

Part 140 - The Legendary Joe Alexander

Story filed October 19, 2012

A jazz musician came to Cleveland in the mid-1950s and over the course of the next 15 years became a local legend. Tenor saxophonist Joe Alexander, whose given name was Huntington Kendrick Alexander, was a native of Birmingham, Alabama, who had graduated from the Detroit Conservatory of Music, moved here from Pittsburgh when his wife, a nurse, got a job in Cleveland.

Alexander had toured earlier with Clevelander Gay Crosse’s band, the Good Humor Six, sharing the sax section with a young John Coltrane. Many still say Alexander was a strong early influence for Coltrane. Alexander also later inspired and influenced a generation of Cleveland saxophonists including Ernie Krivda and Joe Lovano.

In Cleveland in September of 1954, Alexander was playing with former Count Basie trumpeter Eddie Preston and drummer Lawrence "Jacktown" Jackson at the Cotton Club at East 4th and Huron downtown. Near the end of 1954, Alexander played with the group of pianist Jimmy Saunders at the Congo Lounge on Woodland Avenue. In early 1956, he began branching out from Cleveland.

In March of 1956, he recorded the Fountainebleau album with Cleveland native Tadd Dameron. He also spent about six months playing with Charlie Mingus’ group in New York and toured briefly with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra. Hampton later remembered, "Joe Alexander could really play." But, in late 1956, Alexander returned to Cleveland and spent most of the rest of his life playing at a variety of small nightclubs here.

For most of 1957 he was at a little bar at East 78th and Cedar called the Corner Tavern, usually performing with pianist Saunders and bassist Ernie Sheppard, who later played with Duke Ellington. While playing his tenor sax, Alexander frequently sat on a bar stool, not for effect, he said, but "because my feet hurt." In 1958, he moved to the Casa Nova Supper Club at East 108th and Cedar. And in early 1959, he replaced Duke Jenkins at the Rose Room of the Majestic Hotel at East 55th and Central when Jenkins decided to move to Miami.

Alexander quickly developed a strong reputation, particularly among Cleveland jazz musicians. In mid-1959, when he was playing at a bar called Rip’s Shangri La at East 79th and Wade Park, owner Rip Bivins, a pretty fair saxophonist in his own right, took out newspaper ads announcing a "$500 reward to anybody out-blowing sax man Joe Alexander."

Many local and touring musicians tried to win that $500, but none ever did. Krivda said, "Joe knew all the Sonny Stitt cutting session tricks. It was a little marketing ploy and it was fun." The story of that reward persisted for years in a variety of forms and helped build the considerable legend of Alexander.

Beginning in 1960, he was playing at the Modern Jazz Room, the renamed Cotton Club at East 4th and Huron downtown. He played with drummer and club manager Fats Heard and pianist Hugh Thompson. He also played at the Café Tia Juana on East 105th Street in Glenville, and Sunday afternoons at the Park-Lane Ballroom at East 32nd and Cedar.

In June of 1960, Alexander recorded his only album as a leader. It was called Blue Jubilee and was produced by Cannonball Adderley who put together a group which included trumpeter John Hunt from the Ray Charles band and a top-flight rhythm section consisting of pianist Bobby Timmons, bassist Sam Jones, and drummer Tootie Heath. While Alexander played very well on the recording, Krivda said it did not capture the intensity or momentum that the saxophonist displayed while playing long live solos in Cleveland.

CLICK HERE to listen to Joe Alexander.

Shortly after the recording, Alexander’s daughter, Deborah, was born and he decided to stay in Cleveland. With the exception of a tour with the Woody Herman Orchestra in 1968, he spent the rest of his short life in Cleveland, playing mostly at the Club 100 at East 100th and Euclid Avenue.

Krivda was a student at Holy Name High School and had heard about the tenor saxophonist who was playing at the Club 100. He went to listen to Alexander but was always thrown out because he was under the legal drinking age. Krivda said he stood outside, watched through the window and listened to the man he said decades later was "one of the most commanding players I ever heard."

Alexander had replaced Roland Kirk at the Club 100 and began a four-year run there, frequently playing in a trio setting with jazz organist Eddie Baccus or 400-pound pianist Butch Strong.

When Krivda was old enough to get in, he began sitting in with his hero and said, "I learned a lot from the humiliation. You simply had to have your thing together when you played with Joe or he would embarrass you." According to Krivda, "Alexander controlled the direction of the band with the strength and clarity of his improvisations. His timing was so strong and his phrasing so powerful that his music simply lifted the bandstand."

Between 1961 and 1968, Alexander also played at the Ritz Lounge at 86th and Hough, Nate Spencer’s Playhouse at 106th and Superior, the Lucky Bar at 98th and Cedar, the Safari Lounge at 106th and Superior, and a few other spots in Cleveland, always resisting the impulse to go on the road. He also played for concerts sponsored by Jazz Unlimited, the Forest City Jazz Society, and the Progressive Jazz Guild.

He had developed such a large Cleveland jazz reputation that in 1964, the owners of the Club 100 began billing him as "Alexander the Great." Another young Cleveland jazz saxophonist who listened to Alexander and was strongly influenced by him was Joe Lovano, slightly younger than Krivda and later one of the most respected musicians in jazz. In 2004, Lovano composed and recorded a tribute to the one-time Cleveland tenor saxophonist. The song is called "Alexander the Great."

The reign of Alexander in Cleveland continued into 1966, but was interrupted by Cleveland’s Hough riots that summer. The urban violence caused many jazz fans to avoid African-American sections of the city where much of the best jazz had been played.

In 1968, when there was another race riot, Alexander left Cleveland briefly. He toured Europe with the Woody Herman Orchestra and played with the Herman band at the 1968 Newport Jazz Festival. Drummer John Von Olen, another member of that Herman Herd, remembered Alexander would swing so hard at times that, at the end of his solo, when the full band came in, the intensity seemed to diminish.

Then in 1969, Alexander was diagnosed with a serious heart problem and underwent open heart surgery. The April 12 Call and Post reported Alexander was very seriously ill and had been hospitalized for many months. A benefit, to help cover his medical costs, was organized at the Left Hand Jazz Room on Woodhill Road. Cleveland musicians, who donated their talents, included former Count Basie saxophonist Weasel Parker (leading a 15-piece band), pianist Bobby Few (just back from France), and the East Jazz Trio. A week later, there was another benefit at the Mayflower Gold Lounge on East 116th Street. The Call and Post said, "Joe Alexander probably will never again blow that tenor sax."

Alexander died at the age of 41 in October of 1970. A jazz funeral service was conducted at the Werner Methodist Church at East 110th and Superior. Rev. Albert Hart said, "The Cleveland jazz scene will miss him, and the national jazz scene, for the most part, will not know what they missed."

The Club 100 was destroyed by fire in 1966 but there are still many Clevelanders, including Ernie Krivda and Joe Lovano, who owe much to Joe Alexander and remember him as Cleveland’s jazz legend of the 1960s.

Copyright 2012 Joe Mosbrook

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