Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series
Part 48 - Val's in the Alley
It was Art Tatum's home away from home. He loved the old upright piano there. He developed much of his piano genius there and he returned time after time, even after he became world famous as the unchallenged champion of the jazz piano.
It was called Val's in the Alley. It was operated by a man named Melo Valentine and was located at the rear of several stores on the north side of Cedar Avenue near East 86th Street in Cleveland. Veteran Cleveland saxophonist Andy Anderson said, "It was a small spot. I guess it held about 50 or 60 people, had small aisles, a little bar for beer, a piano, and Art."
Duke Ellington, in his autobiography Music is My Mistress, recalled going to Val's, "off an alley that was off another alley" to hear Tatum play. One time, while listening to Tatum, Ellington said he was too overwhelmed to express his feelings.
Born in Toledo October 13, 1909, Tatum came to Cleveland in 1928 at the age of 19 and soon began playing at the Prohibition Era after-hours joint.
Paul Whiteman, the misnamed "King of Jazz," first heard Tatum at Val's in the Alley in 1929 and was so impressed that he persuaded Tatum to go to New York. But, Tatum quickly became homesick and returned to Cleveland and Val's in the Alley.
One night in the early 1930s, Count Basie stopped at Val's, spotted the piano in the corner, and began playing it. A short time later, Tatum walked in and began playing. After hearing Tatum, Basie, in his autobiography, said he felt like a rank amateur.
Veteran Cleveland pianist Chick Chaiken recalled Cleveland jazz musicians flocked to the Cedar Avenue after-hours joint to hear Tatum and to buy him drinks as he played the old upright through the night.
Bassist Red Callender remembered that trumpeter Roy Eldridge first took him to hear Tatum at Val's. Callender later said, "I couldn't believe my ears. His hands were a blur. I couldn't believe what I was hearing and seeing."
Pianist Teddy Wilson, in Cleveland with the Benny Goodman Orchestra, went to Val's to challenge Tatum. Al Lerner, a Clevelander who later played piano with the Harry James Orchestra, was there that night and said Wilson played beautifully. "But," said Lerner, "when Art played, Teddy just got up and walked out. He could not handle it!" Lerner, who later became very friendly with Tatum, offered an insight to Tatum's personality. He said Tatum "had a thing about other pianists who had made it and was sometimes a little bitter. He would show his bitterness by just outclassing them completely."
Cleveland trumpeter Bob Peck, who later played with the Glenn Miller, Billy Butterfield, Woody Herman and Claude Thornhill Orchestras, remembered, "I once had the unmitigated gall to sit in with Tatum. When I look back on it, I say, `Oh, gosh, was I ever cheeky!'"
Bobby Few, who grew up a few blocks from Val's in the Alley and later became a leading pianist in Europe, remembered he was too young to go in but sat on the steps outside listening. "I was amazed," said Few.
Canadian pianist Oscar Peterson first met Tatum at Val's. "We had a beer or two and I said, `Hey, man, I'd like to hear you play!' Tatum said, `You play first.'" Peterson said he was young and eager, so he did. "When I finished, Tatum told me, `Hey, I like your style very much.'" Tatum asked him what he wanted to hear. Peterson said, "Something like `Tea For Two.' "I couldn't believe what I was hearing, said Peterson. "I'm about six foot four and I was leaning against the piano and my legs just went to water. By the time he got through three more numbers, I couldn't take it anymore. I went back to my hotel and I was in tears." Peterson said with reverence, "I had never heard anything like that in my life! I had trouble trying to play again."
Freddy Wilson, the longtime music librarian at the NBC radio station in Cleveland, remembered that when Tatum first came to Cleveland, he auditioned for a job with the station's studio band. "But, the people listening," said Wilson, "couldn't understand what he was doing and refused to hire him."
Because of Tatum, Val's in the Alley became Cleveland's most legendary jazz shrine. Years later, I walked down Cedar Avenue with saxophonist Andy Anderson who had grown up with Tatum in Toledo and played in jam sessions with him at Val's. The old house had been torn down, but the site still prompted strong memories for Anderson. At the corner of East 86th and Cedar, we passed a one-story brick building that housed the Seven Seals Variety and Culture Shop and turned up a driveway. "We called it 'Val's in the Alley,'" said Anderson, "because it was back off the street where the police wouldn't see it. Val's was open all night."
In the alley, Anderson remembered the details of the after-hours joint: "Val's door was right here," he said pointing. "There was a big fat fella called 'Fats' sitting over there. He was the look-out man. And if you wanted some whiskey (Val sold only beer inside), Fats would take the middle brick out of the front steps and sell you whiskey."
To the left of the bar, Andy pointed to the spot where Tatum's piano sat. "It was an upright, one of those old-timers," said Anderson, "but he liked the sound of it. He liked the tone."
According to Anderson, Tatum never missed a note on that piano -- even when someone else was playing it. "One time, he was sitting at the bar, playing cards and said, 'That man (who was playing the piano) should use his third finger.' After he made a little run on the piano, Art looked up from his cards and announced, 'He can't use his third finger.'"
John Mosely grew up in the apartment building virtually next door to Val's. Mosely remembered waking up in the morning hearing the piano music from the house in the alley called Vienna Court.
Mosely said it was the small home of a man named Melo Valentine. As a young boy in the neighborhood, Mosely went into Val's from time to time. He said he remembered a pot-bellied coal-fed stove. "The living room and dining room were one long room," said Mosely. "I remember the two bedrooms and the kitchen were all to one side. The bar in the large room was against the wall on the right side."
"Mr. Valentine," said Mosely, "had a fascination for English Bulldogs. He had one named 'Pal' and the dog would just waddle along and slobber all over everything. Mr. Val also had a huge solitaire diamond ring that he wore on his pinky finger."
In the early 1940s, Valentine closed Val's in the Alley and opened a legitimate club called The Dawn Social Club out front on Cedar Avenue. As far as Mosely ever knew, Val never had any family in the area.
Val's house and most of the other houses in Vienna Court alley were torn down in the mid-1950s. Tatum, who became perhaps the most admired pianist in the history of jazz, died in 1956.
Copyright 1999 Joe Mosbrook
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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 at some Cleveland area bookstores, libraries and the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society (216-426-9900).