Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
Jazzed in Cleveland Complete Index

Part 5 - Charlie Barnet’s Lust for Life
Story filed June 14, 1996

One of the most popular and most-jazz oriented of the big bands, the Charlie Barnet Orchestra, had just completed a week's engagement at Cleveland’s Palace Theatre in the summer of 1940. With a day off before playing in Buffalo, Barnet decided to take his band on a Lake Erie excursion boat from Cleveland to Buffalo.

During the cruise the band members were toasting drummer Cliff Leeman and his wife on their wedding anniversary. When they finished their drinks, they threw their glasses overboard. Someone threw a bottle. Somebody else threw an ice bucket. Then the entire band joined in. They started throwing wicker deck chairs into Lake Erie. Arranger and trumpeter Billy May later recalled, "We were all throwing the chairs overboard like crazy! Soon all you could see in the wake of the boat were wicker chairs floating in the moonlight."

A member of the ship's crew came running up screaming, "Whose band is this?!" With a sheepish grin, Barnet looked him straight in the eye and said, "This is Jimmy Dorsey's band."

It was typical of the band led by a man whose lust for life and adventure may have been bigger than his considerable appetite for playing tasty jazz music. Born to a wealthy family, Barnet never worried about the necessities of life. Instead he focused on the pleasures of life – mostly music, women and whiskey, and not necessarily in that order.

Just before coming to Cleveland, his band was in Youngstown. After checking into a hotel, Barnet took a taxi to a house of prostitution called "Helen's" and was surprised and amused to see the band bus parked out front bearing a large sign: THE CHARLIE BARNET ORCHESTRA In his autobiography Those Swinging Years, Barnet said, "The whole band had taken over the place."

Barnet once described his band members as "unacceptable in any other line of work, or, for that matter, in any other band."

When the band played the Palace Theatre in Cleveland, the members quickly learned a local custom. Whenever anybody on stage mentioned the name of a Cleveland brewery during the show, free cases of beer mysteriously appeared backstage.

Musically, Barnet openly idolized Duke Ellington. He quietly hired more black musicians than any other white bandleader. They included Benny Carter, Rex Stewart, Charlie Shavers, Howard McGee, Trummy Young, Roy Eldridge, Clark Terry and singer Lena Horne. Barnet was best known for his hit records of "Cherokee" (arranged by Billy May) and "Skyliner" (composed by Barnet on an old pump organ).

One time when a songwriter offered Barnet a new tune, he rejected it and suggested the songwriter take it to Glenn Miller. The song was "In The Mood" which became the most popular record of the swing era. Barnet said years later he still didn't like "In The Mood." Barnet also lost Billy May to Miller.

After joining the very popular Miller band, May said he missed Barnet's band and all the things that happened off the bandstand, things that just never happened with Miller's highly-disciplined orchestra.

Copyright 1996 Joe Mosbrook

CLICK HERE for the complete listing of "Jazzed in Cleveland"

You can hear radio versions of Cleveland Jazz History on WCPN/90.3 Monday nights at 9:30.