Jazzed in Cleveland

Part Thirty-Eight
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series
Story filed June 22, 1998

In 1927 an ambitious 17-year-old from New Haven, Connecticut, arrived in Cleveland to launch his professional music career. Young Artie Shaw came to Cleveland to join Joe Cantor's band which was playing at the Far East Restaurant on Euclid Avenue.

In his biography, The Trouble With Cinderella, the clarinetist recalled, "One of the things I learned while I was in Cleveland was to arrange." One of his first arrangements was "Wabash Blues" and it did not come easily. Instead of writing the overall score on one sheet, Shaw said, "I spread all the parts out on the floor and got down on my hands and knees with a pencil, jotted down a few notes on one part, and crawled around until I located the part I wanted to go with it." When Cantor's band first pla yed the arrangement, Shaw said, "It was a mess until the other musicians suggested changes in their parts."

By 1928 Shaw, who had changed his name from Abraham Isaac Arshawsky to Art Shaw ("Art" sounded older than "Artie"), had become a pretty good arranger and was offered a job in Cleveland's top band, the Austin Wylie Orchestra. The band was playing eight hours a day morning, noon and night at the Golden Pheasant Chinese Restaurant on Prospect Avenue next door to the Winton Hotel (now Carter Manor). Shaw soon became the musical director of Wylie's band.

Pianist Al Lerner, who was growing up in Cleveland at the time, recalled, Shaw "was kind of a strange guy in Cleveland." He said Shaw had a bright red car and liked to go to fires. "When fire engines were racing to a fire," said Lerner, Shaw just got in line with the engines" and got to the fires as fast as they did.

In his autobiography, Shaw wrote he fell in love with a Cleveland girl named Betty. He never disclosed her last name. It was the first love for the young man who would later marry a succession of glamorous women including movie stars Lana Turner and Ava Gardner, Betty Kern (the daughter of composer Jerome Kern), Kathleen Winsor and Evelyn Keyes.

One of Shaw's closest friends in Cleveland was pianist Claude Thornhill. They met during a summer gig at Willy's Lakeshore Gardens and soon roomed together at the Winton Hotel. Shaw wrote, "We used to take long rides along the lakeshore, gabbing our heads off about everything." Another member of the Wylie Orchestra was Tony Pastor.

In 1929 Shaw entered an essay contest sponsored by the Cleveland News to promote the National Air Races which were just beginning at Cleveland Airport (now Cleveland Hopkins International Airport). Shaw wrote a 150-word essay, "How The National Air Races Would Benefit Cleveland," and composed a song called "Song of the Skies." Shaw won the contest and was awarded a plane trip to Hollywood. More than 500,000 people attended the 10-day air races, including Charles Lindbergh who had made his famous solo fl ight to Paris two years earlier.

On his trip to Hollywood Shaw ran into two friends from New Haven who were playing with Irving Aaronson's orchestra. They suggested that Shaw join Aaronson's orchestra. When the band came to Cleveland, Shaw said, "Aaronson himself came into the Golden Pheasant, listened to me play, and offered me a job." Because of his girlfriend in Cleveland, Shaw didn't want to leave. But he later said, "She sensed my restless ambition and insisted I go to California with Aaronson's band."

"The night I left," wrote Shaw, "I found it hard to accustom myself to the idea that I was leaving the place where I had lived for the past three years, put down a few tentative roots, worked steadily, made friends, and found myself a girl." Shaw left Cleveland in his red Auburn roadster and toured with Aaronson's orchestra for two years. He returned to Cleveland in February 1931 with Aaronson's orchestra to play a week at the Palace Theatre on the same bill with comedian Milton Berle.

A short time later Shaw went to New York and became a top studio clarinetist. He played on many significant jazz records including Bunny Berigan's classic "I Can't Get Started." He also rejoined his old Cleveland buddy, Claude Thornhill, who was arranging Maxine Sullivan's recording of "Loch Lomond." Thornhill later formed his own big band which featured the arrangements of Gil Evans.

Shaw formed his own band in 1937. His 1938 record of "Begin The Beguine" won him fame, money and beautiful women. By 1939, when he was one of the most popular band leaders in the country, his band manager was his old boss from Cleveland, Austin Wylie.

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).