Jazzed in Cleveland

Part Twenty-Four
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series
Story filed June 2, 1997

"The Freeman Ensemble" was the only notation on the old photograph we found at the Western Reserve Historical Society. It is part of the society’s collection of photos by Allen E. Cole, a man who almost singlehandedly created a photographic history of Cleveland’s black community in the 1930s and ‘40s.

There was no indication on the photo of the historical importance of that young band.

Through a series of interviews, we have learned the picture was taken in 1939 at the Phyllis Wheatley auditorium and it shows a group called The Evelyn Freeman Ensemble, a jazz band made up of Cleveland teenagers that played at many of the leading dance halls in Cleveland in the late 1930s and early ‘40s. More important historically is the fact that several of the teenaged musicians later went on to become important figures in music and other fields.

At the piano is Evelyn Freeman, the leader of the group. Playing trombone (back row, far right) is William Sheppard who later played with Dizzy Gillespie. Sheppard told me he joined The Evelyn Freeman Ensemble while he was still a student at old Rawlings Junior High School. Playing saxophone (the tallest saxophone player) is Garfield Travis, later a Cleveland policeman. Another saxophonist (next to the drummer) is Evelyn Freeman’s younger brother, Ernie, who later became a well known arranger. Playing drums is James "Chink" McKinney who became one of Cleveland’s best jazz drummers.

McKinney told me that Evelyn Freeman originally organized the group as a classical orchestra. Sheppard said, "We played a program called ‘From Symphony to Swing’ at Phyllis Wheatley and it went so good that Evelyn formed a swing band."

McKinney, who had grown up with Ernie Freeman, said, "They had a jazz band but they didn’t have a drummer and Ernie kept saying, ‘Chink, why don’t you come down and join us, just sit in and listen.’ After listening, McKinney said to himself, "Yeah, this is what I want to belong to!"

The swing band played at a variety of ballrooms in Cleveland. Sheppard said the teenagers didn’t tell anybody they were local high school students. "They told everybody were from Buffalo," said Sheppard. "One night a fellow from East Tech heard the band and said, ‘I know them, they go to Central High School.’"

McKinney said they played at Oster’s Ballroom and the Circle Ballroom and some nightclubs. Some of its performances, particularly at the Circle Ballroom at East 105th and Euclid, were broadcast on radio on Cleveland’s old WTAM.

When World War II began, many of the members of the Evelyn Freeman Swing Band enlisted in the Navy and played together in a Navy band called The Gobs of Swing.

After the war, Ernie Freeman returned to Cleveland and studied at the Cleveland Institute of Music, went to New York and arranged for Woody Herman, and moved to California where he became a top Hollywood arranger for such vocalists as Sinatra, Dean Martin and Tony Bennett. He won Grammy Awards for Sinatra’s "Strangers in the Night" and Simon and Garfunkle’s "Bridge Over Troubled Water."

Sheppard, seven years after that photo was taken, was playing trombone and touring the world with the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra. He even soloed with the Gillespie big band at Carnegie Hall.

McKinney later played drums with such jazz stars as Meade Lux Lewis and Dorothy Donegan.

Evelyn Freeman moved to California, became a recording artist and married Tommy Roberts. Together, they formed a young people’s performing group called The Young Saints. In 1970, the group was invited to perform for President Richard Nixon. Evelyn’s daughter, Claire Freeman, became the director of the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority in 1990.

Others in the photo include Charles Mines (playing clarinet) and Arthur Travis (playing saxophone at the far right). In the back row (from left to right) are trumpeter Millard Jones, clarinetist Elizabeth Kimbro, trombonist Bernard Simms who later became the band director at East Tech High School, trumpeter Howard Roberts who later became a well known choral arranger in New York, bassist Van Shepherd, trumpeter William Long, trumpeter Alice Israel and trombonist William Sheppard.

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).