Jazzed in Cleveland

Part Twenty-Six
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series
Story filed July 11, 1997

The pianist led the house band at the Loop Lounge in Cleveland in the mid 1950s. Saxophonist Charlie Parker was scheduled to play for a week at the downtown nightclub and Saunders was nervous about playing with him. "I went down to the Record Rendezvous and spent all week listening to all the records I could of Parker."

It was Jimmy Saunders’ most embarrassing night on the bandstand.

After playing for two nights, Saunders said he was feeling very comfortable playing with Bird. On the third night, the house was packed and "there were better musicians than I in the audience when, all of a sudden, he starts playing a ballad. I didn't recognize the ballad. Rodney Richardson had played with Eddie Heywood for three years and I usually could depend upon him to recognize a song and call the chords out. Fats Heard was brushing on the drums.

"I said, `Rodney, what is he playing?' Rodney said, `I don't know.' I was sitting there with my hands folded while Parker was playing. Finally, Rodney said, `This is "Stella By Starlight,"' and he said, `Jimmy, it's in F sharp.' I didn't know it even if it was in C. All I could do was sit there.

"When Parker finished playing his solo, he turned and looked at me, and just stood there for 32 bars. He stood there in silence. I sat in silence. Nobody was doing anything but the bass and the drums. After the 32 bars, Parker turned around and played again.

"He never said anything to me about it. I never said anything to him about it. But, for months, the other musicians used to say, `Stella By Starlight' and I thought I was going to lose my mind. To this day, I still don't know how to play `Stella By Starlight.'"

But, despite that big embarrassment, Saunders played well enough to back such other artists as Pearl Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Eckstine, Leo Parker, Lester Young, and Arthur Prysock. Saunders also made one record, "Jimmy's Blues," a self-produced and self-distributed 78, which sold 250,000 copies. He said, "The sales got to be so big, that a disc jockey in Akron quit his job to help promote the record, my wife quit her job to help distribute it, and we invested in a quarter-page ad in Variety. The orders started coming in from all over the country, from Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, New York, all over."

Because of the popularity of his record, Saunders traveled around the country with his band. One time, while driving from Cincinnati to Cleveland, he was tuning his car radio. "I turned on three stations and all three, one after the other, played `Jimmy's Blues.' That was one of my greatest thrills."

But, ironically, Jimmy Saunders never saved a copy of his hit record. "I was the owner and the bandleader. I had a basement full of them, but now, I don't have a single copy."

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).