Jazzed in Cleveland

Part Forty-Six
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series
Story filed June 21, 1999

Joe Howard has been one of Cleveland's favorite pianists for almost half a century. His career has included hundreds of radio and television performances, several albums, concerts with the Cleveland Orchestra, and a doctoral dissertation on the jazz piano of all-time great Art Tatum.

Born in Cleveland in 1928, Howard began playing piano at the age of eight. "At that time," he recalled, "sheet music was the way that you learned a tune or you would buy a recording of it and listen to it. We would listen to the jazz recordings and try and figure out things that they were doing."

By the time Howard reached his teens, he had won first place in a Cleveland Press talent show and was performing with another local teenager who would become a world-famous jazz artist. "I was playing around town." he said, "with Jimmy Hall who has gone on to be one of the great guitarists. We would camp out in Matua, where my dad had a farm, and listen to Lenny Tristano records and try to figure out, 'What song is that based on?'"

When he was a student at John Adams High School, Howard was accepted as an advanced pupil at the Cleveland Institute of Music and was playing jazz gigs around Cleveland. "I played a gigs when I was in high school and college at places like the Fenway, Hall's Hotel, the Cleveland Hotel downtown. The pianos were terrible! There were cigarette burns on the ivory and they were painted a different color every time you'd show up to play a job. And they were always out of tune."

After serving in the Army, listening to jazz in New York City, and getting a bachelor of arts degree from Western Reserve University, Howard went to work at Cleveland's NBC-owned radio station, WTAM. He said, "I auditioned and was hired as a staff pianist. I did a 15-minute radio show called 'Piano Moods.' It followed Bob and Ray and was on just before Tom Manning, 'The Old Redhead,' who would do the news for 15 minutes."

In the mid-1950s, when most radio stations were doing little more than playing records, WTAM continued the practice of the 1930s and '40s of maintaining a live studio orchestra. The station hired a trumpeter who had played with the historic Original Dixieland Jazz Band and had led the band on a network jazz program called The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street. "They brought in a management team from New York," said Howard, "and they brought in Henry 'Hotlips' Levine from Lower Basin Street and (singer) Johnny Andrews. I played on that Morning Bandwagon show and with Levine whenever he did special shows in the evening."

Howard recalled, "I was playing at the time at the Theatrical until two in the morning, go home and sleep, get up at five to be down there (at the radio station) by six or six-thirty. You wonder how you could do it. I guess I was just young and stupid or something."

The Morning Bandwagon radio program with Johnny Andrews and Henry "Hotlips" Levine continued on WTAM until 1956 when NBC traded stations with Westinghouse and moved to Philadelphia. The new owner dropped the live studio orchestra.

But Howard played extensively in Cleveland and, in 1959, became music director at WEWS-TV, Channel 5. He led the live band on The One O'Clock Club, but did not play a lot of jazz there. "When you're playing at one o'clock in the afternoon," he said, "for a predominantly middle-aged and older female audience, who were there to hear Dorothy Fuldheim do book reviews and Bill Gordon clown around, I don't think they wanted to hear "Blue Monk."

But, from time to time, at Channel 5 Howard did get to perform with such visiting jazz musicians as Duke Ellington, Marian and Jimmy McPartland, Jack Teagarden, Dinah Washington and Jonah Jones.

While playing live every day on Channel 5, Howard was also playing piano gigs around Cleveland. He recalled playing in one club when a lady came up and asked him to play "Clair de Lune." When he began to play, "She had the loudest voice in the room and was very noisy, so I didn't play it. During the next intermission, I went up to her and said, 'Did you hear "Claire de Lune?' She said, '"I want you to know I've never heard it played more beautifully.'"

Among the places where Howard was playing was The Ce-Fair Lounge at Cedar and Fairmount in Cleveland Heights. He said, "Cleveland Orchestra members used to come in there after concerts. Louis Lane frequented the place a lot. One day, he called me and asked, 'Would you like to play with the Cleveland Orchestra?' And I said, 'Would I?!"

Howard made three appearances as a guest piano soloist with the Cleveland Orchestra and performed on an orchestra recording that won a Grammy Award.

After leaving Channel 5, Howard returned to school, got his masters degree from Kent State, became a music professor at Cuyahoga Community College and headed jazz studies at the Cleveland Music School Settlement. He also got his doctorate with a thesis on the piano techniques of Art Tatum.

For the past few years, Joe Howard has been splitting his time between Cleveland and Cape Coral, Florida, where he has been doing a lot of playing. He said, "I work three nights a week at the Ritz in the main dining room with a bass player and we play whatever we want to play." He has also been playing piano with a big band in Florida. "It's just great to play all the Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and Stan Kenton music."

Looking back on his career, Howard is delighted that, as an educator for almost 30 years, he helped make jazz music acceptable in formal education. He said, "Today you can go to universities and colleges and settlement houses and study with some the great jazz artists that are now retired and in education. We never had that. In fact, jazz was almost a dirty word. That was one of the motivating factors in my pursuit of a doctorate. I figured if you can get a doctorate and you're interest in jazz, you can get the anti-jazz people in the education profession stop and listen a little bit because 'Maybe he knows what he's talking about.'"

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

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).