Jazzed in Cleveland

Part Twenty-Three
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series
Story filed May 5, 1997

Django Reinhardt, the legendary French jazz guitarist of the 1930s and 1940s, came to the United States only once. He played his first U.S. concert in Cleveland.

It was Monday night, November 4, 1946, at the Music Hall at East 6th and St. Clair. The headline in the Plain Dealer the next morning said, "French Guitar Artist Steals Duke's Concert."

Duke Ellington, who called Reinhardt "the most creative jazz musician to originate anywhere outside the United States," invited Reinhardt to come to the U.S. for a tour. Duke paid for his trip.

The trip proved to be something of a culture shock. While the two legendary musicians had great respect for each other's artistry, they had trouble understanding each other's languages and habits.

When Django arrived, his first words, in a combination of French and English, were, "Where's Dizzy playing tonight?" Django brought no luggage. He didn't even bring a guitar. According to Reinhardt's biographer, Charles Delaunay, Django believed American companies would compete with each other for the honor of presenting a guitar to him. He was wrong and had to buy a guitar when he got to the United States.

On the train trip from New York to Cleveland, Django shared a two-berth compartment with Ellington. The other members of the Ellington band were in a sleeping car. As they were getting ready for bed, Django was astounded to notice that the band members were wearing underpants with floral designs. In his limited English, he said, "You're crazy!" When he returned to the private compartment, he was about to joke with Ellington about it when he noticed Duke's underpants were even more gaudy than his musicians.' Later, Reinhardt asked some French friends to buy him some flowered pants.

In Cleveland, Django and Duke shared a suite at the Hotel Statler at East 12th and Euclid. Cleveland Press columnist Milt Widder reported that before they left for the concert, they had dinner in the suite. Django was again amazed when Ellington ate his dessert first. Widder quoted Duke saying, "I always eat my desert first."

Reinhardt had only one brief rehearsal with Ellington before their concert in Cleveland. It was little more than a 20-minute "warm up" on the stage of the Music Hall. Duke, at the piano, asked Django, "What key do you want?" "Any key," said Django. Duke tapped his foot and the two all-time jazz masters just started playing. There was no musical conflict.

There had been very little advance publicity for the historic concert in Cleveland. There was only a small ad in the local papers that simply announced, "Elroy Willis presents Duke Ellington and his Orchestra at the Music Hall." There was no mention in the ad that Django Reinhardt would also be appearing. Milt Widder wrote the next day, "How the advent of Django Reinhardt escaped the local promoters is a mystery." Ticket prices for the concert ranged from $3.60 to $1.25.

The Plain Dealer reported that 1,800 people attended the Monday night concert at the Music Hall. But they had to wait for the music to begin. A baggage car, carrying the Ellington Orchestra instruments, arrived late, and the concert was delayed for about 45 minutes, to about 9:15.

But Glenn Pullen, writing in The Plain Dealer, said, "The faithful followers of the popular composer-bandmaster did not seem to mind the long wait. They were offered extra compensation in the form of Django Reinhardt, the noted French guitarist." Pullen said Django's first American performance soundly substantiated his reputation. Wrote the reviewer: "In the hands of this virtuoso, who resembles the screen's Adolph Menjou, an electric guitar acquires richer, magical qualities. His digital dexterity was remarkable, in intricate chords that were executed with such technical brilliance that the band musicians kept shouting, `Go to it, master!'"

Reinhardt played improvisations of "Tiger Rag," "Blues in E Flat," and a tune which even Ellington admitted on stange he was unable to identify.

Milt Widder wrote in The Press, "Duke Ellington came to Cleveland without fanfare and he gave his fans here the greatest treat in the annals of local jazz when he introduced in this country, for the first time, the hottest guitar player in the world."

After the concert in Cleveland, Reinhardt traveled with the Ellington Orchestra to Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, and finally New York City where they played two nights (November 23 and 24) at Carnegie Hall.

CLICK HERE for the last installment of "Jazzed in Cleveland"

Copyright 1997 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).