a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series
Story filed November 15, 1996
These lyrics by Jon Hendricks, who grew up in Toledo, were written about jazz trumpeter Benny Bailey, who grew up on East 36th Street between Cedar and Central Avenues in Cleveland.
There are many who rank Benny Bailey among the best jazz trumpet players in the world. But because he moved to Europe in the early 1960s and has spent most of his professional life there, most Americans, even many ardent jazz fans, don't know him.
Bailey was born in Cleveland in 1925. His father played saxophone as a hobby. His mother played piano. Benny started playing the flute, but while he was growing up, he heard records of such trumpeters as Louis Armstrong and Roy Eldridge, and pianist Fats Waller. During a long seminar interview at the 1992 Tri-C JazzFest, Bailey told me, "When I was a kid, I used to try to copy some of Eldridge's solos like `Rockin' Chair' and `After You've Gone.' That one really knocked me out! `Little Jazz' was all fire, fast like magic!"
He also listened to older Cleveland trumpet players Tommy Enoch and Freddie Webster. Bailey told me that Enoch, who was originally from Pittsburgh, was playing in Cleveland at the time. He said, "I was fascinated by his type of playing. He had something of a Eldridge flavor, not a growl, but sort of a buzz on certain sounds." Enoch later played with Earl Hines' legendary 1942 orchestra.
Bailey said he was also influenced by a Cleveland trumpeter named Hubert Kidd who played with a family group called "The Kidd Brothers." Bailey called Kidd "a real virtuoso on the trumpet." Bailey told me, "Kidd was one of the most fantastic trumpet players I ever heard. One time when Dizzy Gillespie was in town, he was jamming in a hotel room. Tadd Dameron came in and I remember Hubert Kidd came up. He brought his horn and sort of traded choruses with Dizzy. At that time, Dizzy was something else, untouchable, playing impossible things, and Hubert Kidd actually sounded good. They had different styles, but held his own."
Years later, Kidd's grandson Hubert was a traffic policeman in downtown Cleveland.
Bailey was still a student at Cleveland's East Tech High School when he formed a band called The Counts of Rhythm. "I remember the first gig we had," said Bailey, "we got paid in hot dogs. We didn't want any money. We lived at home. We didn't need any money. We had fun. We would copy Louis Jordan, the arrangements, everything. He was very popular in those days and it was fairly simple to copy. We just copied the records and played dances." They played at such spots as Cedar Gardens and Club Rendezvous. Among the younger musicians who followed Bailey and his band was Bobby Few who later spent years in Paris playing piano with soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy.
Other members of the Counts of Rhythm included Vic MacMillan, who later played bass on one record with Charlie Parker, and saxophonist Willie Smith. Bailey said, "We were out in California with Scatman Carothers and Parker happened to hear Vic and said, `Come on, make a record with me tomorrow.' It was the only record he ever made and it's great."
Freddie Webster was eight years older than Bailey and had already made a name for himself playing with Jimmie Lunceford and Dizzy Gillespie. Bailey recalled Webster "was an influence on all the younger trumpet players in Cleveland."
Bailey remembered the first time he heard Dizzy Gillespie. It was during a jam session at the Majestic Hotel on East 55th Street in Cleveland. Bud Powell, Eddie Vinson and Tadd Dameron were all there. When Diz started playing the new form of jazz called bebop, Bailey remembered he thought, "What's happening here?" Bailey told me, "That was so different from anything I had ever heard, totally different. At first I thought he was missing notes. I thought to myself, `What the hell? What's happening here?' But the more I listened, the more fascinated I became with it. It was something I couldn't put my finger on, but it was totally different from anything I had ever heard."
Smith, who grew up with Bailey, remembered, "We worked at a club in Akron. Scatman Crothers came in town and he happened to be looking for some musicians. So he hired me and Benny. We played there over a year (1944) with him, playing shows and playing the club."
Crothers, a drummer who later became better known as a dancer, got an opportunity to go to Hollywood. He took Bailey and Smith with him. Smith said they stayed on the West Coast for several years.
In Los Angeles, Bailey recalled, "I got a chance to hear Miles and Bird, the real source of everything. There were sessions every night at a place called the Casablanca. Actually what the cats would do was try to find out where Bird was gonna be any particular night and everybody would try to be there. They had sessions at Billy Berg's every Sunday. You could just listen to music all the time all over the place."
Smith said, "Music was all that Benny thought about. He used to wake up in the morning, grab his trumpet from the table next to the bed and practice for an hour before getting up." Smith, who wanted to sleep, said, "It used to bug me." Years later Bailey admitted, "I still do that, before I eat breakfast. It gets me set for the day." All the early practice paid off. Bailey was hired by the Jay McShann band in 1947.
Later that year, he toured Europe with Dizzy Gillespie's big band. Bailey told me it was fellow Clevelander William "Shep" Shepherd who got him into Gillespie's band. Joe Wilder had left the band and Bailey heard they needed a new trumpet player for the European tour. "I wanted to go to Europe," said Bailey. "Dizzy didn't know me from Adam, but Shep told him, `I know this guy from Cleveland who can play.' They had a rehearsal in the basement of a theatre, so I just went in and started playing bebop licks. Dizzy said, `Who's this guy?' Shep said, `Oh, he's from Cleveland.' Dizzy said, `Okay, want a job?' So I had the gig."
"Benny always had a distinctive style," said Smith. "He can play so high with so much strength and has such dynamic chops!" He developed an instantly recognizable mannerism of dropping two octaves in the space of one note. Bailey said years later he often caught himself subconsciously playing some of the "glitches" and "twists" he had heard Freddie Webster playing in Cleveland in the 1940s.
Bailey and Smith joined the Lionel Hampton Orchestra in 1949. Bailey led the brass section and Smith did a lot of the writing. Bailey stayed with the Hampton Orchestra for four years despite frequent arguments with Hampton's wife Gladys, who, according to Smith, "really ran the band." After going to Europe with Hampton, Bailey decided to stay there. He found jobs with radio bands and from 1957 to 1959 played with Harry Arnold's band on Swedish radio. He also made a film in Germany with Oscar Pettiford before returning to the United States in '59.
In 1959 Bailey joined the band of Quincy Jones who composed an instrumental salute to the Clevelander. He called it "Meet Benny Bailey." Hendricks later wrote the lyrics to match Bailey's improvised trumpet solo. "Meet Benny Bailey" became a favorite of the band and, in time, became a big band standard and a jazz classic.
Jones has said of Benny: "His sound is very personal and he completely avoids clichés. Above all, he is thrillingly himself. He is totally uninhibited and will get all kinds of sounds out of his horn to get his message across. He combines fantastic breath control, remarkable range and a flawless technique, and really composes as he plays – like Milt Jackson – so that his solos are not just anthologies of licks."
Smith knew Bailey well for years. "He was always a real easy-going guy," said Smith. But what about Hendricks' lyrics hinting that Bailey, in his younger days, was something of a ladies' man?
How about that, Willie Smith? "Well, he did like the ladies," admitted Smith. "He fell in love easily and often."
Bailey also fell in love with Europe. He moved there permanently in 1961, married a Swedish girl and raised a son and a daughter. Why did he move to Europe? "We talked about it a lot," remembered Smith. "He wanted me to come with him. He said Americans don't appreciate jazz musicians as much as Europeans do." Bailey told me, "I also wanted to get away from all the drugs and stuff being used (in America). All my friends were getting high. If I had stayed here, I'd have to become a hermit to stop because as soon as I saw somebody that I knew, I'd be drawn into the circle again. So I just tried to separate myself from it completely."
He soon became one of the most respected jazz musicians in Europe, doing all sorts of studio work in Sweden, Germany and Switzerland. From 1961 to 1963, he was part of the Berlin Radio Orchestra. From 1963, when he moved to Munich, to 1968, he played with the Max Greger Orchestra. In 1969 he moved to Switzerland and took a job as the lead trumpeter in the Radio Swiss Romande Orchestra based in Geneva. He has also been a featured performer with the outstanding Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland Big Band and made countless records for European record companies. According to Smith, Bailey's trumpet work is on more than 200 records, "but they're almost impossible to find in the United States. I gave him two songs as a present," recalled Smith, "and to my surprise, he recorded them both!"
At times in Europe Bailey performed with other Cleveland expatriates, trombonist Jiggs Whigham, Rick Kiefer and Bob Lanese.
From time to time Bailey quietly returned to Cleveland to visit his sister Doris at her home on Melzer Avenue and to see his old childhood buddy Willie Smith.
In April of 1992 Bailey returned to Cleveland to play a reunion concert with Smith at the Tri-C JazzFest. Smith assembled an all-star 18-piece big band to perform with Bailey. Plain Dealer reviewer Nick Charles wrote, "All who attended can now attest to this local legend's unlimited worth. Welcome home Benny Bailey!"
Bailey admitted he had been away for a long time. He said, "When you leave, you have images in your mind and when you come back and everything is different, it's shocking. We drove by the old corner drug store and it's not there any more!"
If Bailey had remained in the United States, many believe the trumpeter from Cleveland might have become one of the biggest names in jazz. There is little doubt he was one of Cleveland's most important contributions to jazz.
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Copyright 1996 Joe Mosbrook
You can hear radio versions of Cleveland Jazz History on WCPN/90.3 Monday nights at 9:30 and Friday afternoons at 12:30. Mosbrook's 1993 Cleveland Jazz History book, based on research for earlier broadcasts, is available from some Cleveland area bookstores, libraries, and the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society (216-397-9900).