Jazzed in Cleveland

Part Forty-One
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series
Story filed November 6, 1998

It was February of 1930. The pioneering Fletcher Henderson Orchestra was playing for a dance at a Cleveland dance hall. It was called Oster's Ballroom and it was located on East 105th Street near Carnegie. Playing with Henderson's band that night were such future jazz immortals as Rex Stewart, Benny Carter and Coleman Hawkins.

Oster's Ballroom, where the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra was playing, was one of many memorable jazz spots in Cleveland that hosted most of the great names of jazz.

Trumpeter Earl Douthitt grew up in Cleveland and remembers the bands at Oster's Ballroom and many other jazz spots in Cleveland during the 1930s, '40s and '50s.

"I remember Oster's Ballroom when it was on 105th across from the YMCA," recalled Douthitt. "That was Oster's Ballroom. That was for white only. Then, the guy who's got Vel's Party Center, he bought the ballroom and Oster moved down to 55th Street."

After Oster's Ballroom moved in the late 1930s, it featured, among many others, a swing band made up of talented local teenagers. The band was led by pianist Evelyn Freeman. It was so good that its performances were broadcast on radio on old WTAM. Douthitt, at the time, was playing with another teenage band led by Jimmy Williams. Douthitt and his fellow band members envied the Evelyn Freeman band.

"They were in competition with our band," said Douthitt. "We were trying to find a place to play and they were playing at Oster's Ballroom."

Evelyn Freeman later led a young people's singing group in Los Angeles. Her brother, Ernie Freeman, the star of the Evelyn Freeman group, later arranged for Woody Herman, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Simon and Garfunkle. Jimmy Williams later played with Fletcher Henderson and Jimmie Lunceford.

Besides playing with jazz bands in the late 1930s, teenager Douthitt also sold newspapers at the corner of East 97th and Cedar, just outside two popular jazz nightclubs, Cedar Gardens and the Elite Club. He said, "All the big time gamblers and everybody used to come by the Elite Club or Cedar Gardens at one time or another. That's where they hung out."

The two clubs were in the heart of Cleveland's swinging black community, but attracted mostly white audiences with their line-ups of mostly black jazz players. "They were owned by blacks," said Douthitt, "but there was a white clientele."

Cedar Gardens, for years, featured a seven-piece band led by Marion Sears, the brother of Al Sears who was a mainstay of the Duke Ellington Orchestra in the '40s. Among the members of Sears' band were Earl Warren, who left Cedar Gardens to join the Count Basie Orchestra, Buster Harding who later arranged for Basie and many others, and a young trumpeter named Freddie Webster. Later, Webster led the band at Cedar Gardens and his pianist was fellow Clevelander Tadd Dameron. Cedar Gardens was a very popular night spot in Cleveland from the 1930s into the '50s.

Douthitt said, "If it hadn't been for the white trade, The Elite Club and Cedar Gardens would have closed up. The white people came around in their cars and cabs. They started getting beat up, cars stolen. That killed the business. And the Elite Club closed down; Cedar Gardens closed down."

Another longtime popular jazz club, a mile or so away, at East 55th and Woodland, attracted both black and white audiences from 1942 to 1962. Run by a man named "Jap" Gleason, it was called Gleason's. Douthitt said, "It was a jamming joint, a good spot with no problems, an orderly crowd that came to listen to the music."

Jap Gleason brought in such nationally famous jazz artists as Nat "King" Cole, Jack Teagarden, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. There were many others over the years including a guitarist who played at Gleason's so long he almost became a member of the family, Tiny Grimes. Douthitt said Grimes "rocked the joint."

Douthitt also remembered a jazz club at East 69th and Cedar that featured a colorful, energetic, and exciting saxophonist. "That's where they had Len Holt. He would be out in the street, going up to 55th Street with his tenor saxophone, coming on back up, still playing."

In addition to the regular jazz nightclubs, there were also a number of after-hours joints in the neighborhood that featured jazz. The most legendary was Val's in the Alley, literally in an alley near East 86th and Cedar. That's where legendary pianist Art Tatum played for years, often just for beers. All the musicians went to Val's in the Alley to hear Art Tatum -- Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Oscar Peterson, Mary Lou Williams and many others. Tatum also played at times at another after-hours joint on Thackery Avenue near East 55th. Douthitt says it was a gathering spot for musicians. "Jimmy Owens' joint down on Thackery. All the big time entertainers came by after their gigs where ever they were."

The after-hours spot was run by a popular and colorful character named Jimmy Owens who was called "The Black Mayor of Cleveland."

But, after all sorts of other after-hours diversions invaded the neighborhood, Jimmy Owens' place, and the other after-hours joints that had attracted top jazz artists, began disappearing. Douthitt said Cleveland Police Chief Michael Blackwell had a role in their demise. "The mayor came in," said Douthitt, "and he told Blackwell and the detectives to start 'kicking down them doors.' They had a red light district down there on Thackery and Hawthorne with all those prostitutes and pimps and everything. The police kicked the doors down."

Those after-hours jazz joints are gone today. So are Oster's Ballroom, Cedar Gardens, the Elite Club and Gleason's. But, there are still many memories of the jazz played at those Cleveland spots in the 1930s, '40s and '50s -- memories shared by veteran Cleveland trumpeter Earl Douthitt.

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).