Jazzed in Cleveland

Part Thirty-Four
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series
Story filed January 15, 1998

Howard Roberts is today a well known and highly respected musical composer, conductor and educator. He is a professor of music at the Borough of Manhattan Community College in New York and has served on the faculties at North Carolina Central University and Morgan State University. His choral arrangements of spirituals are published and widely used throughout the country by high school, colleges and choral organizations. He writes and composes for The Boys Choir of Harlem.

But, few people remember that Roberts, the well known choral director and composer, is a product of Cleveland’s jazz scene of the early 1940s.

When he was still a student at Cleveland’s old Central High School, Roberts played trumpet and joined an orchestra led by a young pianist named Evelyn Freeman. Another member of what was then called "The Evelyn Freeman Ensemble" was a young trombonist named Bernard Simms.

Simms recalled, "We started out as a symphony orchestra and we rehearsed at her home on 81st Street between Cedar and Golden. And we got the musicians from the Central High School Orchestra and Band. We did a lot of classical and things of that sort and we did concerts."

The star performer of the Evelyn Freeman Ensemble was Evelyn’s brother, Ernie Freeman. During the summer, he learned to play the alto saxophone and got interested in jazz. Before long, the Evelyn Freeman Ensemble became a swing band. Simms says the transition took place during a concert at the Phyllis Wheatley Center. Simms said, "We did a two-way concert there, ‘From Symphony to Swing.’ We did the symphonic portion first for that audience. After that, during intermission, we switched to swing instruments."

From that point on, the Evelyn Freeman Ensemble became a jazz band -- and a good one. The teenagers got jobs playing for dances at various places in Cleveland including the popular Oster’s Ballroom at East 46th and Euclid and even did radio broadcasts from the ballroom, with Tom Manning serving as the announcer.

Simms recalled some of the members of the Evelyn Freeman Swing Band. "We had people like Howard Roberts, Charles Mines, myself and Ernie (Freeman), Garfield Travis, later a Cleveland policeman, and Van Sheppard on bass."

Simms’ cousin, William "Shep" Sheppard, who also played in the band, recalled that Roberts was the first alumnus of that high school students’ band in Cleveland who made it on the national scene. During World War II, Roberts was playing trumpet in the Lionel Hampton Orchestra. Sheppard remembered, "Howard was with Hamp while he was in the service. We saw him in Indianapolis, Howard Roberts on trumpet."

Roberts also played trumpet in the popular Lucky Millinder Orchestra and served as musical director for Cab Calloway.

He later got into singing and acting. Roberts became the first black tenor in the Robert Shaw Chorale and created the role of Robbins in the famed international company of Porgy and Bess. He was the musical director of the Tony Award-winning musical Raisin and the all-black Broadway production of Guys and Dolls. On television, he served as a musical director for singer Harry Belfonte. He was twice nominated for Emmy Awards -- for a show called To Be Young, Gifted and Black, and for a gospel-spiritual show called In Performance at the White House.

If all this were not enough to keep the Cleveland native busy, he has also created choral arrangements for folk singers Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. And in 1987, at Carnegie Hall in New York, he conducted a chamber orchestra and choir, performing his four movement symphonic suite, The Spiritual Heritage, a musical representation of the evolution of the black experience.

Howard Roberts’ musical odyssey -- through the big swing bands, popular singers, the theatre, records, choral work, and even a symphonic suite -- began when, as a teenager, he was playing with a young jazz band formed by students of Cleveland’s old Central High School.

What happened to the other members of the Evelyn Freeman Ensemble? Evelyn, the mother of Claire Freeman, who now heads the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority, moved to the West Coast and formed a young people’s vocal group which performed at the White House. Her brother, Ernie Freeman, later arranged for Woody Herman, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Simon and Garfunkle. Bernard Simms, who retired in 1982, taught music for years at Central High School and East Tech. Shep Sheppard toured the world, including a performance at Carnegie Hall, with the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra. Drummer James "Chink" McKinley later played with Dorothy Donegan and Meade Lux Lewis.

It all began when they got together with Howard Roberts at Evelyn Freeman’s home on East 81st Street in Cleveland.

CLICK HERE for the last installment of "Jazzed in Cleveland"

Copyright 1998 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).