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

Part 143 - Cleveland’s Earliest Jazz

Story filed November 5, 2013

Jazz was being being played in Cleveland as early as 1917 when most people knew almost nothing about the new form of music. The local interest in jazz was apparently triggered by recordings by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, a group that was causing a sensation in New York City. The band first recorded for Victor in February of 1917.

Original Dixieland Jazz Band

The music of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band was raucous and wild – hotter and livelier than anything recorded before. In the era before radio broadcasts and sound motion pictures, the band’s records quickly sold more than a million records that were played on wind-up Victrolas. The recordings set off a national craze, not just for the music, but also for the style of unrestrained dancing the music encouraged.

Combing through old Cleveland newspaper archives, we learned that in the spring of 1917, when the United States was entering the World War, Cleveland dancing schools were advertising, "Learn the jazz!" They included Day’s Dancing Academy on Miles Park Avenue, the Glick Dancing School on East 105th, and Conklin’s Dancing Studio at East 84th and Euclid. In newspaper ads, most said they had LIVE JAZZ BANDS for dance classes.

In addition, jazz bands were advertised for dances at Gordon Square (with the "Gordon Square Jazz Band"), Bedford Glen, and Oster’s Ballroom on East 105th south of Euclid, which ran an ad almost screaming, "Jazz! Jazz! Jazz! Dancing Wednesdays and Saturdays."

Oster's Ad

By November of 1917, students at Adelbert College (later part of Case Western Reserve University) had formed a 20-piece jazz band led by a student named Virgil Hill.

By 1918, Cleveland restaurants and hotels also joined the jazz craze. The Colonial Garden, a cabaret in the Colonial Arcade advertised, "a REAL jazz band," implying there were some that weren’t very good. The New China Restaurant on Prospect Avenue booked a group that included piano, cello and banjo playing what was called "the latest thing in jazz." The Olmsted Hotel at East 9th and Superior formed its own Olmsted Jazz Orchestra. After the World War had ended in November of 1918, even the formal and staid old Hollenden Hotel at East 6th and Superior advertised, "Dancing in the ballroom with music by one of the best jazz bands obtainable."

Europe Hell Fighters Band

In April of 1919, Lieutenant James Reese Europe’s famous "Hell Fighters Band," an Army group that had become very popular playing a form of jazz in France during the war, came to Cleveland and played four concerts at Gray’s Armory on Boliver Road. The drum major and a soloist with the "Hell Fighters Band" was 30 year old Nobel Sissle, the son of the minister of Cleveland’s Cory Methodist Church and a graduate of Cleveland’s old Central High School. The concerts attracted large crowds. Three week’s later, when the band went to Boston, a crazed drummer, angered by Europe’s strict military discipline, attacked the bandleader with a knife and killed him. Newspaper headlines blared: "The Jazz King is Dead." Clevelander Sissle became the new leader of the famous band.

Hippodrome Theater

As the jazz craze grew, Cleveland theatres in 1919 were busy booking jazz entertainment. The big Hippodrome on Euclid Avenue featured a dancer named "Frisco" who claimed he had created the jazz dance, a group called "The Famous New York Jazz Band," and singer Blossom Seeley with a jazz band. Other theatres, including the Miles on East 9th near Prospect; the Priscilla at East 9th and Chester; and the Empire on Huron also included jazz acts in their vaudeville line-ups. The Grand Central Theatre at East 36th and Central had a band that featured 21 year old saxophonist named Sidney Bechet who was living on Central Avenue. While he was in Cleveland, Bechet married a girl named Norma Hale who lived across the street. Bechet later became one of the most respected musicians in jazz history.

While jazz was attracting a lot of attention, there was also much criticism of the popular new music. One writer in The Plain Dealer called the jazz of 1919 "Ordered and calculated noise that bears the same relation to human beings that fleas do to dogs." The writer said, "There is always something rather vigorous about bad taste." Another article a month later warned, "Jazz is on its last legs." Yet another article in November of 1919 called jazz "a fad that is beginning to die way." The unnamed writer said the new music "Is too raw and elementary. If jazz is to survive," he wrote, "it must be greatly modified, given melody and softened down."

In February of 1920, a Plain Dealer writer described the music of one jazz band playing at the Hippodrome Theatre as sounding like "a horse with the heaves." Another PD columnist, Harlowe R. Hoyt, in March of 1920, described jazz as "A flurry of sound, discordant squawkings, a cackle and a groan, three yelps and a snarl, drums, cowbells, tin pans and triangle mingled in an intermittent jangling." The Plain Dealer even ran a story saying the patients at the Cleveland State Hospital for the Insane at Broadway and Turney enjoyed weekly dances with a jazz band, apparently implying jazz was music for the mentally ill.

Criticism of the new music wasn’t just a local phenomenon. The Miami University faculty outlawed jazz on campus. The Washington, D.C. public schools banned what officials called "Extreme and vulgar jazz dancing." Members of the Cleveland Orchestra were ordered not to play jazz. And late in 1920, Cleveland city inspectors went to public dance halls and tried to stop what they called "vulgar, noisy jazz music and suggestive freak dances."

Despite the widespread and loud criticism of the then-new music, it was rapidly becoming popular. Jazz bands were even hired by politicians who were trying to win the approval of voters. In fact, the two major candidates for president in 1920, Democrat Warren Harding and Republican Harry Davis, both had jazz bands playing at their campaign rallies in Ohio. At Cleveland’s East High School, typing teachers played jazz records in an effort to teach students to type rhythmically and fast.

Live jazz seemed to be almost everywhere in Cleveland in 1920. Six big downtown theatres were presenting jazz acts. The Shubert-Colonial Theatre at 9th and Superior presented singer Sophie Tucker and her Jazz Band, and clarinetist Ted Lewis, from Circleville, Ohio. The Empire Burlesque Theatre on Huron Road offered what was called an "All Jazz Revue" featuring the Alabama Jazz Band and Bob Toliver, a "one-man jazz band." The Miles Theatre on East 9th presented the Naval Jazz Octet. The Priscilla Theatre at East 9th and Chester had the Hudson Sisters Jazz Revue. The Grand Theatre at 9th and Prospect featured the Three Sons of Jazz. And the big Hippodrome, run by B. F. Keith, presented such groups as: The Six Jazz Cops, Henry Santry and his nine-piece Jazz Band, the Atlantic Fleet Jazz Band, singer Blossom Seeley and her Jazz Band, the Crescent City Jazz Band, Eva Shirles and her Jazz Band, and Vincent Lopez and his jazz band.

Plain Dealer columnist Hoyt, who had earlier described the new music as "flurry of sound and discordant squawkings," heard the slightly more sophisticated jazz of the Lopez band at the Hippodrome and had second thoughts. He wrote, "There is an art to jazz" and admitted, "A man has to be a past master of his instrument and his technique before he can branch out" (into jazz). Hoyt wrote, "The requirements of the real jazz performer are greater by far than those of the straight player and the music is decidedly more effective when played soft than loud."

After interviewing Lopez, Hoyt wrote, "The bandleader dismissed the warnings about jazz being a fad that would suddenly disappear. He said flatly, ‘Jazz is here to stay. Like every new thing, it has been mishandled and misused. But, it will become an effective part of the musical condition of the country. It is typically American and reflects the American spirit of the day.’"

Bandleader Lopez, at the Hippodrome Theatre in Cleveland in 1920, recognized that jazz was beginning to be transformed from a wild and rambunctious fad into a legitimate art form. Soon the new music would see the emergence of such artists as Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, and hundreds of others who, during the 1920s, would help shape the future of the new music called jazz.

Copyright 2013 Joe Mosbrook

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