Jazzed in Cleveland

Part Forty-Seven
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series
Story filed August 6, 1999

Duke Ellington and his Orchestra played an unusual concert in Cleveland Monday, July 15, 1963, a performance that is all but forgotten today.

Ellington had just performed a Sunday "jazz matinee" at the Musicarnival, the tent theatre on Warrensville Center Road where the musical comedy "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" was being performed at night. Ellington and his band stayed over in Cleveland for the unusual concert.

Cleveland's WEWS-TV, Channel 5, was producing a series of television programs featuring some of the top popular and jazz artists of the period. For this program, the station lined up trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and a group of local jazz musicians including pianist Bill Gidney, singer Dinah Washington, and Duke Ellington and his orchestra.

The television station tape recorded the program in various segments on the stage of Karamu House at East 89th and Quincy. Opened in 1915 as a neighborhood settlement house, Karamu, over the years, had developed a series of arts programs including nationally recognized dramatic presentations. Langston Hughes, the Cleveland poet and playwright, had been one of the first teachers at Karamu and many of his plays had been debuted there. Interestingly, years earlier, Hughes and Ellington had collaborated on a musical project. But, on this day, four years before Hughes' death, Ellington was recording a local Cleveland television program.

The music director of Channel 5 was Joe Howard, the pianist who had become a popular favorite in Cleveland by playing almost everywhere from saloons to Severance Hall. Howard was to play a medley of Ellington songs in a piano duet with Duke.

"They had two Steinway nine-foot grand pianos on stage," remembered Howard. "There was no audience and we were to play just a medley of a bunch of his compositions."

Dizzy Gillespie and his group recorded the first portion of the videotaped television program. Fearing that the director might insist on a number of re-takes, Dizzy made it clear he wanted to play his part only once. He told the director, "I always do it right the first time!" The television director complied with Gillespie's request and got his camera shots right the first time. Then, it was time for Ellington to take the stage and videotape with Howard.

"When it came time to record," said Howard, "I had not met Ellington nor spoken with him. So I had no idea what we were going to do." Howard remembers the entire production was pretty informal. Members of the Ellington band were wandering in and out of the Karamu theatre and nobody, including Ellington, seemed to be overly concerned about how the show would go. The members of the Ellington Orchestra at the time included such all-time greats as trumpeters Cat Anderson and Cootie Williams; trombonist Lawrence Brown; saxophonist Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves and Harry Carney; clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton; and drummer Sam Woodyard.

"It was time to do Duke's segment and it involved me," recalled Howard, and I said, 'What are we going to do and how are we going to do this?' He said, 'You just start and play.' So I did. And he played with me. He had the good sense to fill in where it needed filling in and to stay out. So I just went ahead and played."

With absolutely no rehearsal and no planning beyond Ellington's instruction to "Just start and play," the pianist, who had graduated from Cleveland's John Adams High School and Western Reserve University and was making his living playing on Dorothy Fuldheim's One O'Clock Club television program found himself playing twin pianos with perhaps the most important figure in 20th Century music.

Howard said, "When we were playing 'Squeeze Me,' the band suddenly came in. They also joined in as we played 'A-Train,' and 'J-Jam Blues.' It was just marvelous how the whole thing worked out."

While he was playing a piano duet with Duke Ellington and his orchestra, Howard recognized a familiar face in the band. "Playing bass on his band," he remembered, "was Ernie Sheppard who was from Cleveland. I used Shep a lot before he joined Ellington. We used to do the morning Paige Palmer Show (on Channel 5). He and I played exercise music for her. And he worked with me at a couple of Cleveland clubs. It was nice to see him."

The videotaped television program was broadcast on Channel 5 sometime later. Howard, after leaving Channel 5, became a professor of music at Cuyahoga Community College in 1969. For almost three decades, he taught music and jazz and told his students about Ellington.

"I think he had a great band and he was a fine piano player," said Howard, "and I think his greatest contribution was the American song. He wrote some gorgeous things. And the key changes that took place in the middle of many pieces was extremely innovative."

But, more than three decades later, Howard still did not have a recording, a videotape, or even a photograph of his twin-piano performance in Cleveland with Duke Ellington. He lamented, "I'm so sorry that I didn't have someone down there with a camera to take a picture of the two of us at the pianos."

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).