Jazzed in Cleveland

Part Forty-Three
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series
Story filed February 19, 1999

Henry "Hotlips" Levine was leading the live band every morning on Johnny Andrews' Morning Bandwagon radio program in the 1950s on Cleveland's WTAM.

On the morning of May 15, 1954, Andrews told his audience, "We have a great thing coming up now. If you like dixieland music, boy, we've got it coming." He then introduced Henry "Hotlips" Levine and "his golden trumpet" playing "Muskrat Ramble."

Levine was the music director of the radio station and led the live orchestra for years on The Morning Bandwagon program. Frequently, interspersed in the program of live popular music, he would play some dixieland jazz.

While he was popular on radio in Cleveland, Levine is not familiar to many jazz fans today. He is seldom mentioned in jazz histories. But, he was a significant trumpeter who played with many of the best jazz artists and made significant contributions to the popularization of jazz.

A native of London, Levine was raised in New York City. At the age of 19, in 1926, replaced Nick La Rocca as the trumpeter in the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, the popular group that had made the first jazz record nine years earlier.

In 1927, at the age of 20, Levine returned to England to play with a popular big band led by Bert Ambrose. Another member of that band was a young trombonist named Ted Heath who would later lead the best-known British swing band.

In 1930, Levine returned to New York and made a name for himself playing with various bands and theatre orchestras.

In 1940, he became a staff musician at NBC in New York. Soon, he was directing a revolutionary weekly network radio program of jazz music, The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street. Trying to popularize traditional jazz, Levine used a few gimmicks. He called his band "The Barefooted Dixieland Philharmonic" and had announcer Gene Hamilton introduce the songs in a formal, but tongue-in-cheek, classical music style. The band posed for publicity photos wearing powdered wigs like a Baroque group. But, Levine did present good solid jazz with some of the best jazz performers. Among his guests were young vocalists Dinah Shore and Lena Horne, and soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet.

In addition to his weekly network radio show, Levine recorded with such jazz legends as Jelly Roll Morton and Bechet.

A few years after the very popular Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street program Levine came to Cleveland and became music director of the NBC-owned radio station here. Tom Haley, now retired from Channel 3, was an NBC page in New York when Levine was playing on the Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street and was a staff announcer at WTAM when Levine was here. Haley recalls that in addition to playing every morning on the Johnny Andrews Show, Levine also played a number of gigs around Cleveland.

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Copyright 1999 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 (216-426-9900).