Jazzed in Cleveland

Part Twenty-Five
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series
Story filed June 26, 1997

Cleveland’s old Central High School produced more jazz artists than any other school in Cleveland -- perhaps more than any school in the United States. Among them were bandleader Noble Sissle, trumpeter Freddie Webster, arranger and composer Tadd Dameron, saxophonist Andy Anderson, Harold Arnold, rhythm and blues artist Bull Moose Jackson, arranger Ernie Freeman, trombonist Shep Shepherd, drummer Chink McKinney, saxophonist and arranger Willie Smith and drummer Fats Heard.

Central High School opened in 1846 at Erie (now East 9th) and Euclid. It was not only the first high school in Cleveland, it was also the first free, public high school west of the Alleghenies. Ironically, when music was first taught at Central, some considered it an illegal use of school funds. In the early years most of the students were from Cleveland's oldest families. Early Central graduates included street light inventor Charles Brush, U.S. Senator Mark Hanna, writer Langston Hughes, and businessman and civic activist Samuel Mather. John D. Rockefeller quit a few weeks before he was due to graduate.

By 1868 Central High School had grown to 214 students. When enrollment topped 300, they decided to build a new high school, a Victorian Gothic structure that was completed in 1878 at 2201 Willson Avenue (now East 55th Street) at Central Avenue. Central High School's ornate clock tower faced the avenue that was arched with trees and boasted some of Cleveland's most imposing homes.

When Noble Sissle enrolled in Central in 1906, there were only six black students. By 1930, because of the migration of blacks from the South to find jobs in Cleveland and changing housing patterns, Central had become a predominatly black school. The majority of the city's black high school students were at Central.

Veteran Cleveland saxophonist Andy Anderson was at Central during this period and recalled, "I started taking up music under Dr. Reddig, the music director. We had dances on Thursday nights." The school's reputation for music was already well-established.

By the late 1930s James Lee was the music director at Central High School. Willie Smith remembered Lee "liked excellence in music and he gave everybody a chance. We had a big band at Central with guys like Woody Holt who played saxophone and Carl Fields, the trumpet player. We had shows going on all the time."

William "Shep" Shepherd, who later played trombone with Dizzy Gillespie's big band, remembered Mr. Lee was crazy about big band jazz and took his students to the Palace Theatre to hear Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman. "Mr. Lee got us special passes to go and see Goodman (1939). I stood right there and looked over at them when they had Lionel Hampton and all of them."

James "Chink" McKinney, a drummer, said Central gave the young jazz musicians "a lot of support even though they taught other types of music. They knew that's what we liked, so they gave us plenty of support, especially Mr. Lee. He used to write arrangements himself. He used to be in an orchestra. He told us about how he used to travel around with seven or eight pieces and how they'd work for five dollars a night." The Central High School marching band became legendary. Smith remembered, "We'd be out in the street marching and guys would be jamming in the street band."

Trumpeter Ted Jones was a member of both the band and the school football team. The music teacher wanted to keep him in the marching band for football games, but Jones said, "Football season came and the horn had to go because I loved football. So the teacher, Mr. Lee, would shake his fist at me and say, `A big fat F for you, Jones.'"

They say trumpeter Freddie Webster, the artist Miles Davis later tried to emulate, blew jazz riffs while marching with the school band at football games.

Central High School graduate Fats Heard was the man responsible for one of the most durable standards in jazz. While playing with the Erroll Garner Trio in the mid 1950s, Heard suggested that the pianist record a little tune he had been playing. It was called "Misty."

Harold Arnold was a 13 year old tenth grader at Central High School when he switched from the piano to the saxophone. He remembered taking his girlfriend to dances. They never danced; he just stood in front of the bandstand cheering the bands. After playing for four years for carnivals and on Mississippi river boats, Arnold decided in 1937 to go to New York with trumpeter Harry Edison of Columbus who had been playing in Cleveland. They joined the Mills Blue Rhythm Band directed by Lucky Millinder. Arnold also played with such jazz artists as Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller and Wilbur deParis and made a number of records.

Andy Anderson, who graduated from Central in 1932, played with a variety of Cleveland bands and went to California in the early 1940s and gigged with Ben Webster and a 21 year old saxophonist named Paul Gonsalves who later spent two decades with Duke Ellington.

Saxophonist and arranger Willie Smith later wrote and arranged for Lionel Hampton. "That was beautiful," remembered Smith, "travelling with Hamp! He had a blowing-type band, a band where you had a lot of fun. We'd go in a club or a theatre and just tear it up! Everybody was out in the aisles!" Smith wrote and arranged for the Hampton band. He wrote "Cool Train" that was recorded by the Hampton Orchestra.

Shep Shepherd later played trombone for the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra. Travelling with the band at the time was singer Ella Fitzgerald. Shepherd called her "a beautiful person. When we got to a nice hotel, she'd give a nice party for the members of the band." Shepherd said the band members called Ella "Sis."

Drummer James "Chink" McKinney played with such artists as Dorothy Donegan, Meade Lux Lewis and Rose Murphy. He recorded with the Chickadee Trio and composed such songs as "Creole Nocturne," "Dirty Shirt Blues," and "I'm In a Blue Mood."

Benjamin Clarence "Bull Moose" Jackson, who played violin as a child and sang in the Avery AME Church choir, became a very popular as rhythm and blues performer. His 1947 record of "I Love You, Yes I Do" was the first rhythm and blues record to sell a million copies.

Old Central High School, which had produced so many outstanding jazz artists, was closed when a new Central High School was constructed in 1940 on East 40th between Central and Cedar. The old building was used as a junior high school and eventually torn down in 1952. But the memories of music at old Central High School – and the jazz musicians who had started there – continued for generations.

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).