Jazzed in Cleveland

Part Twenty-Eight
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series
Story filed August 29, 1997

It was January of 1924. A party at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Performing was a young band that called itself "The Wolverines." The featured cornet soloist was a 20-year-old named Bix Beiderbecke.

A month after playing at that fraternity party at Miami University, Bix Beiderbecke and the Wolverines made their first records just a few miles away in Richmond, Indiana. Beiderbecke went on to become one of the most important figures in the history of jazz and the personification of what author F. Scott Fitzgerald called "The Jazz Age." Shortly after Beiderbecke played at Miami University, a group of Miami students decided to form their own band. They played at Cunningham’s Restaurant in Oxford and called themselves "The Campus Owls."

The student band continued to play for 37 years. They became an institution at Miami University and traveled around the world.

Many of the former members played an alumni reunion concert in 1992. Leading the Campus Owls alumni band was Hank Geer, the dean of Cleveland jazz musicians, whose uncle was a member of the Campus Owls in the 1920s and who had been the student leader of the band in the early 1940s. After graduating from Collinwood High School, Geer went on the road with the band of Clevelander Ray Anthony and then enrolled at Miami as a pre-med student.

Geer can vividly remember leaving the Ray Anthony Orchestra. "I left the band in Niles, Michigan, grabbed a Greyhound bus and took it down to Hamilton, Ohio, and then a bus from Hamilton up into Oxford, and carrying my horns and a suitcase and checkin’ in as a freshman."

When Geer arrived in 1941, the Miami University Campus Owls had already developed a wide reputation. Besides playing at restaurants in Oxford and for parties and dances, they toured the eastern United States, went to Europe in 1928 and 1930, to Japan in 1936, to Scotland and England in 1937, and even to pre-war Germany in 1938.

When Clevelander Hank Geer became the director of the Campus Owls, the student band members were literally earning their meals, playing six days a week at a campus restaurant called The Huddle. Geer said, "It used to be packed. We didn’t play on Saturday night but we did a two-hour session on Sunday afternoon. And, man, people drove up from Cincy, down from Dayton, came from Columbus, from all over. They used to have to put two traffic cops to direct the traffic in Oxford. There’s so many people that wanted to come in and hear the band. And the Huddle wasn’t a big restaurant."

In addition to playing at the Huddle, The Campus Owls, which recruited musicians by advertisting each year in Down Beat magazine, toured during school vacations. Geer said they played at the Indiana Roof in Indianapolis, Coney Island in Cincinnati, the Topper Ballroom in Cincinnati and many other places.

The Campus Owls also played for Miami University dances. They frequently shared the bandstand with some of the most famous jazz bands in the country. "They might bring in the Gene Krupa band. We played opposite them. I many times, some of the guys would come in and they’d say, ‘Well these college kids are gonna play some thing,’ and they’re goin’ outside side to have a smoke. When they heard our band, they all turned around and came back in to stand down front and listen."

Gene Krupa said he never heard a college band play so well. Les Brown said the Miami Campus Owls were better than the college band he had led at Duke University. Ray McKinley, who sat in with the Owls on drums, said it was best college jump band he ever heard.

The Campus Owls faded away after the 1961 school year, but many of the former members, many of them successful businessmen, doctors and lawyers, decided to hold a reunion. Some had not played for years, but under the leadership of Clevelander Geer, they played a concert for Miami’s freshman orientation week in 1992.

"It was beautiful to see all the guys again," said Geer. "But when we sat down to go to work, I knew I had my work cut out for me to try to put this together and make it at least presentable."

It was more than presentable. After that reunion concert, the leaders of Miami University suddenly realized what a rich musical tradition they had with the Campus Owls. The alumni band is now playing each year for Miami’s alumni reunion weekend and freshman orientation week.

In addition, the Campus Owls alumni have created a fund to help promote jazz at Miami. They helped sponsor the Southwestern Ohio High School Jazz Festival at the University in March. Carrying on the long and rich tradition of the Campus Owls, dozens of young musicians took part in the the festival.

To help raise funds for future jazz projects, and to recall many of the highlights of the 37 years of music by the Campus Owls, the alumni group is producing a videotape featuring the memories of many of the musicians who were part of the Campus Owls’ tradition. I am delighted and honored that they asked me to host and narrate the videotape. I am sure it will be a valuable addition to the historical record of an important part of jazz history in Ohio. It should be available sometime this summer.

It is a story that was inspired in 1924 when the legendary Bix Beiderbecke played at Miami University.

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).