Jazzed in Cleveland

Part Forty
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series
Story filed September 14, 1998

Johnny Powell led one of the most popular bands in Cleveland in the late 1940s. It was also one of the most unusual.

Like many others in Cleveland during the '30s, Powell grew up completely fascinated by the big bands. He recalled, "As a child, I used to take a stick or a branch and stand in front of the radio and direct. At that time, it was Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra, Paul Whiteman, all those big bands."

By the time he got to Cleveland's Central High School, Powell found other students who also had trouble resisting the attraction of the big bands. "Every Friday," he said, "you couldn't find many of us in class after noon because everybody was at the Palace (Theatre). We'd sit through two or three shows."

But, unlike his friends, Powell was not a musician. He never learned to play an instrument. "I wasn't playing anything," said Powell. "I just liked to lead the band in front of the radio, like Cab Calloway and Jimmie Lunceford."

Powell also admired older Cleveland musicians including pianist Tadd Dameron, who today is best known for his composition "If You Could See Me Now." Powell recalled, "Tadd was writing that song at the Cedar Gardens (East 97th and Cedar) basement. I used to go around in the back and sneak down there and look through the window. We used to watch him practicing that tune, "If You Could See Me Now."

Johnny's father, who had run a nightclub in New York City during bootleg days, was, in 1946, working as a waiter at the Cleveland Athletic Club on Euclid Avenue. John Powell, Sr. had a big plan for his son who dreamed of becoming a bandleader. When Johnny, then in his early 20s, was in New York, his father began putting together his plan.

"While I was gone," said Johnny, "my father sat down with a couple of members of the club and told them what he would like to do as a surprise. He got eight members of the Cleveland Athletic Club to buy shares."

The elder Powell sent his son a telegram, telling him to hurry home to Cleveland for a surprise. When Johnny returned, his father made him wait overnight to learn what his surprise was.

"We went the next day to Benny Miller's studio (East 105th and Superior), said Powell. "I didn't know what to expect. We went into one of the studios and here are 18 guys sitting behind music stands. My father said, 'This is yours!' I could have fainted! I said, 'Oh, this is mine?! He said, 'Now, you can wave that stick!'"

The elder Powell had gotten many of the best musicians in Cleveland by offering to pay them for rehearsals. His son, in his early 20s and unable to play a musical instrument, had finally become the leader of a big band. "All I did," said Johnny, "was wave a stick and dance to the rhythm. And I would change into different outfits three or four times during an engagement. I would dance and lead the band."

Members of the band included trombonist William "Shep" Sheppard who had toured with Dizzy Gillespie's big band, Sheppard's cousin Bernard Sims who later became a Cleveland music teacher, saxophonist Harold Arnold who had played with the Lucky Millinder Orchestra, saxophonist and arranger Willie Smith who later arranged for Lionel Hampton, George Early who later played with Duke Ellington, William Foster, Ernie Banks, Bobby Smith, Earl Douthitt and others.

Willie Smith remembered, "There were a number of good fellows in that band. We had a tremendous reed section with Ernie Freeman directing it. Fats Heard also played drums." Freeman later became a major Hollywood arranger. Heard later toured with Erroll Garner.

Powell said, "Our first engagement was in Kent, Ohio and we traveled as far as Illinois, playing one-nighters. Trumpeter Douthitt remembered trips to Columbus, Cincinnati and Wheeling.

According to Douthitt, "Johnny fronted the band. We'd tell him how to knock off a tune."

Powell compensated for his own lack of musical ability by putting on an entertaining show in front of the musicians. "When we played 'Flyin' Home,'" recalled Powell, I would pick up the drum and beat the beat, and lead the band out of the place to the street, make a circle, and go back in."

When Powell's band was playing in Chicago, he ran into a trumpeter from Cleveland named Freddie Webster. Also a graduate of Central High School, Webster was older and had played with Earl Hines in the late 1930s, with Dizzy Gillespie and others in New York, with Charlie Parker in the Jay McShann band, and with the high-flying Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra. Webster was, at the time, one of the most respected trumpet soloists in jazz. He was a major early influence of Miles Davis and the man Gillespie said "had the best tone of anyone who ever played the trumpet."

In 1946, Webster decided to join the band of fellow Clevelander Johnny Powell who said, "Freddie was really a character. He had the most beautiful tone that I ever heard in my life. When he would sound off on his trumpet, it sounded like music from manna. He was really good."

With the now-legendary Webster in his trumpet section, Powell made one 78 rpm recording, "Cedar Avenue Blues" and "Perdido." The band also played many gigs in Cleveland at a nightclub his entrepreneur father opened at East 55th and Euclid. He converted the old Ten-Ten Theatre, a newsreel movie house, next to the Pennsylvania Railroad station, into a nightclub called The Palladium. The Powell Orchestra backed a number of national acts at The Palladium including Billy Eckstine.

One of the band's biggest fans was Donald King who later became a world-famous boxing promoter. Powell remembered, "Anywhere we played in Cleveland, you could depend on King and his entourage to come in and visit." King, in the 1930s, had worked with Powell's father as a waiter at Canterbury Country Club.

Powell continued to lead his unusual band until 1952. Then, like his father, he became a waiter at the Cleveland Athletic Club.

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).