Jazzed in Cleveland

Part Twenty-Seven
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series
Story filed August 14, 1997

It was late November of 1961. The site: Kornman’s Restaurant, a legendary entertainment spot on Cleveland’s famous and infamous street of pleasure, Short Vincent. Opening on November 20th for a two and a half week engagement was one of the most revered traditional jazz bands in history, Muggsy Spanier and his Dixieland Band.

A native of Chicago, Spanier was a teenager, playing in Windy City bands when Louis Armstrong and King Oliver brought their form of New Orleans jazz north in the early 1920s. At one time, he dreamed of becoming the first left-handed third baseman in major league baseball history. But, music was his game. He was soon playing his cornet with such young Chicago jazz players -- and future legends -- as Benny Goodman, Eddie Condon and Frank Teschmacher. In his early 20s, in the late 1920s, Spanier joined the orchestra of Circleville, Ohio native Ted Lewis, one of Benny Goodman’s strongest early influences.

Spanier played cornet with Lewis’ band for seven years before joining the orchestra of Ben Pollack, who had played in Cleveland in the mid-1930s and called himself "The Dean of Sophisticated Swing" while performing at the Mayfair Casino, a nightclub at the Ohio Theatre on Euclid Avenue.

After playing with Pollack for two and a half years, Spanier, in 1938, suffered a near fatal illness and was admitted to the Touro Infirmary in New Orleans for three months. It was there that Muggsy composed one of his best known pieces, "Relaxin’ at the Touro."

After recovering, the short, slight, but spirited Spanier formed his own band in 1939. He called it "Muggsy Spanier’s Ragtime Band" and with it, he produced the best examples of his musical efforts. While playing at the Sherman Hotel in Chicago and Nick’s in New York, Spanier and his band recorded 16 sides for Bluebird -- which have become known to jazz fans around the world as "The Great Sixteen.." Included was Spanier’s recording of "Relaxin’ at the Touro." A copy of that record is still displayed in the lobby of the famous New Orleans hospital. "The Great Sixteen" are among the best examples on record of the Chicago-style of dixieland jazz.

But, that peak of creativity for Muggsy Spanier did not last long. It was the peak of the big band era and dixielanders were getting lost in the shuffle of swing and sweet bands. Spanier disbanded his "Ragtime Band," formed his own 15-piece band for awhile, rejoined Ted Lewis, and played briefly with the Bob Crosby Orchestra.

In the late 1940s, Spanier spent most of his time playing cornet with dixieland bands in New York City. In the 1950s, he moved to the West Coast which, at the time, was becoming a haven for traditional jazz -- with such bands as Turk Murphy and the Firehouse Five Plus Two. Spanier formed other bands and, in the early 1960s, based mainly on the popularity of his "Great Sixteen" recordings of more than a decade earlier, began touring around the country playing his classic form of traditional jazz. This is when Spanier checked into Kornman’s on Vincent Avenue for a two and a half week engagement.

Kornman’s was the cornerstone of that colorful, one-block-long downtown entertainment street known to most Clevelander’s as "Short Vincent." After the old Hollenden Hotel was built in 1885, the street behind the hotel quickly filled with restaurants and taverns. By the late 1920s, the saloons and nightclubs on Short Vincent became a gathering place for gamblers, sports figures, racketeers, lawyers and newspapermen. The street, according to The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, offered good food, underworld gossip, and the odds on almost anything. Other important establishments on Short Vincent included The Theatrical, The Taystee Barbecue, and The Grogshop. The south side of the street, behind the National City Bank, featured girlie shows at The French Quarters and Freddie’s Cafe.. Nearby, on East 9th Street, was the Roxy burlesque theatre. In 1953, Richard Tuma, a bartender at Mickey’s Show Bar, climbed a flagpole on Short Vincent to help publicize a charity fair. He stayed up there for a month, but hurried down when a tornado made a shambles of Vincent Avenue.

By 1961, when Muggsy Spanier checked into Kornman’s, Short Vincent had already seen its glory days. But, there were still several flourishing nightclubs there.

Two years later, in early August of 1963, Spanier returned to Short Vincent to play for three days at the Theatrical Grill on the north side of the street. The Theatrical, opened by Mushy Wexler in 1937, was one of Cleveland’s longest running jazz clubs. While performing at the Theatrical, Spanier also played at half-time of a Cleveland Browns pre-season football game. The Browns that year included such players as Jim Brown, Ernie Green, Lou Groza, Gene Hickerson, Frank Ryan and Dick Schafrath.

A month later, in September of 1963, Spanier and his band returned to Cleveland to play at a private party.

Three years later, Spanier died February 12th, 1967, at the age of 60, in Sausalito, California.

Spanier influenced many other players with his tone and natural feeling for the music he played. He may have been almost unique among white horn players. And, he was part of the unique history of Cleveland’s Short Vincent.

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).