Jazzed in Cleveland

Part Thirty-Three
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series
Story filed December 11, 1997

If you have been in Cleveland for more than a few years, you probably remember Wally Kinnan, the Weatherman. Wally was part of Channel 3's popular television news team in the late 1960s and early Ď70s with anchorman Virgil Dominic and sportscaster Jim Graner.

A few of us who worked with Wally in those days knew that he had played trumpet in some of the big bands. Fewer knew he had also been a prisoner of war during World War II. Almost nobody in Cleveland knew that Wally Kinnan The Weatherman had also been a leader of one of the most unusual bands in jazz history.

In August of 1943, Lt. Henry Wallace Kinnan, a 23 year old American airman, who had played trumpet with the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra before becoming an aviation cadet, was shot down by German planes while on a bombing mission over Schweinfurt, Germany. Kinnan was captured by the Germans and taken to a prisoner of war camp, Stalag Luft II, at Sagan, German, about 90 miles southeast of Berlin. At that prisoner of war camp, Kinnan and Pilot Officer Leonard Whiteley of the Royal Air Force formed a big band.

Writing in the Ex-POW Bulletin, Wally recalled, "We were forced to make the most of a very few musical instruments of dubious heritage, which had been acquired from the Germans, the Red Cross and the YMCA." He said the classic among the instruments was a Polish trombone which Wally described as "a plumberís nightmare." He said it could hit only six of the classic trombone slide positions; "The seventh required the player to reach over his shoulder and pull a chain which, in turn, operated a rotary valve in a veritable maze of tubing to produce the desired result." Wall said the awkward trombone was "quickly retired from active duty when some of the more inventive lads determined that the extensive tubing of the old horn could be put to more popular use in a homemade still."

By the end of 1943, Wally said new prisoners, coming into the camp almost daily, produced a surprising wealth of professional musical talent. Among them were pianist John Bunch who later played with Woody Herman and Benny Goodman, Tiger Ward, John Brady, Hi Bevins, Nick Nagorka and trumpeter Vince Shank who later played with Russ Morgan and others.

Kinnan, who may have been almost a real-life Hoganís Hero, persuaded the German captors to find some decent musical instruments so they could put on some organized musical programs. With the other former professional musicians, Wally formed a prisoner of war camp big band called "The Sagen Serenaders,"

"Some arriving prisoners almost went into shock," recalled Kinnan, "when they heard the band play tunes they had been listening to only a few days earlier, before they had been shot down."

The Sagen Serenaders included four trumpets, two trombones, five saxophones, and four rhythm instruments. By the summer of 1944, all of the chairs were filled by former professional musicians. Wally said, "We were beginning to talk seriously about taking the band on tour in the U.S. when and if we could manage to survive the war."

By the winter of 1945, the Russians were approaching Stalag Luft III where the prisoner of war band was playing. The Germans marched 12,000 prisoners, including the band members, out of the camp. Wally said they believed they would be marched into a field and executed. Instead they were led on a forced march through a blizzard to Spremberg almost 200 miles away.

Many of the American prisoners of war died during the forced march. Pianist Bunch, who later toured with Benny Goodman, said Kinnan saved his life by sharing a potato with him.

They were taken to another camp at Moosburg, 30 miles from Munich. With World War II finally coming to an end, Gen. George Patton and the American Third Army arrived April 29, 1945 and freed the prisoners.

The next day, Adolph Hitler committed suicide. A week later, the Germans surrendered. A few days after that, Kinnan and the other American flyers, who had formed perhaps the most unusual jazz band in history, were back in the United States.

They never did take the Sagen Serenaders on tour or even hold a reunion. But Wally did play trumpet with several big bands after the war, before he became a television weatherman. After he came to WKYC-TV, he played occasionally with bands in Cleveland. At a Channel 3 Christmas party, after Wally had been fired from the station, Dan Zolaís big band was playing and in the trumpet section, blowing solos, was former Channel 3 Weatherman Wally Kinnan.

Kinnan later moved to Florida and formed his own 16-piece band in St. Petersburg. It was probably a pretty good band, but certainly not as memorable as the Sagen Seranaders.

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).