Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series

Part 51 - Duke Ellington's Debut in Cleveland
Story filed March 6, 2000

Duke Ellington made his first appearance in Cleveland in July of 1931.

Ellington had attracted wide attention for four years while playing at the Cotton Club in New York, making a number of radio broadcasts from that Harlem nightclub, recording his first hit -- "Mood Indigo" -- in October of 1930, and playing the music for an Amos 'n Andy movie called Check and Double Check. Early in 1931, Ellington set out with his orchestra on their first national tour. They began the tour in Chicago in February and came to Cleveland in early July. It was Ellington's first appearance in Cleveland.

Beginning July 4th of 1931, Ellington and his orchestra played half-a-dozen shows a day for a week at the 3,100-seat RKO Palace Theatre at East 17th and Euclid. They played between showings of a movie called Ex-Bad Boy, and newsreel shots of the heavily-promoted July 3rd Max Schmeling-Young Stribling boxing match, the first event to be held in the brand new Cleveland Municipal Stadium. In the depths of the Depression, when 100,000 Clevelanders were unemployed, tickets for Ellington's performances at the Palace sold for 35 cents -- 25 cents for matinees.

The Ellington Orchestra, in its first appearance in Cleveland, consisted of trumpeters Artie Whetsol, Freddie Jenkins and Cootie Williams; trombonists Joe Nanton and Juan Tizol; saxophonists Harry Carney, Barney Bigard and Johnny Hodges; guitarist Freddie Guy; drummer Sonny Greer; and, of course, Duke Ellington on piano.

After that 1931 opening in Cleveland, a Plain Dealer reviewer wrote, "Duke Ellington Burns 'Em Up!" Ward Marsh said Ellington's tunes "rush at you with a kind of frenzied madness, spiced with tricky rhythms and garnished with strange, half-eerie tonal backgrounds. They ripple and swell through the house with their flashing, artful way of almost completely submerging the melody to give you effects and colors no other orchestra seems to have been able to do."

Archie Bell, writing in the Cleveland News two days after the opening, said, "Duke Ellington and his Cotton Club Orchestra are star-lined and they bring along a remarkable newcomer, Ivie Anderson." The reviewer said Ellington's new singer "has a great individual style of shouting her songs that carries them across the footlights with the skill of a song recitalist who aims to tell a complete story and establish a distinct mood by each selection." Bell said Ellington's new vocalist "takes her place with Ethel Waters and Adelaide Hall," two leading singers of the period.

Ivie Anderson did not record with the Ellington Orchestra until seven months later when she did "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing" with the band. In an interview years later, she said, "When I first joined his band, I was just an ordinary singer of popular songs. Duke suggested I find a 'character' and maintain it." She did.

Anderson, 25 years old when she first appeared in Cleveland with Ellington, usually dressed in white and appeared almost angelic on stage. But, off stage, she was reportedly quite another person. Longtime bandmate Rex Stewart was quoted as saying she usually bossed the poker games, frequently cussed out Duke, often played practical jokes and sometimes gave the guys advice about love and life. She became Ellington's most versatile and best-known singer. She stayed with the band for eleven years.

When the Cleveland News writer reviewed the orchestra, he said the trombonist ("Tricky Sam" Nanton) "tells a tearful story in something so like a human voice that it is almost uncanny as well as amusing." Reviewer Bell singled out Ellington's composition, "Black and Tan Fantasy," for special praise. He wrote, "I'll wager the guess that there's more originality and worthy experimentation in it than in half of the 'new' music that is offered in a season by the Cleveland Orchestra."

The newspaper reports of Ellington's first appearance in Cleveland talked about "the phenomenal business at the RKO Palace this week." A July 9th story in the Cleveland News said, "The crowds not only follow this dispensation of jazz and syncopation, they demand more and more of it." The Cleveland News reviewer said, "Duke has the best band of its kind to be heard anywhere."

In an interview during that first week in Cleveland, Ellington was quoted saying, "When I'm making my arrangements or composing something new, I try to think of something that will make my hearers feel like dancing. The desire to step around a little means that people are not bothered very much about the cares of the world, at least for the moment."

That week in 1931 at Cleveland's Palace Theatre was so successful for Duke Ellington and his Orchestra that they came back for a week almost every year during the 1930s and into the early 1940s. That run began a long love affair between Cleveland and Duke Ellington that continued until shortly before his death 43 years later in 1974. Duke Ellington made at least 45 appearances in Northeast Ohio, frequently for extended engagements. Over the years, no other musical artist appeared at Cleveland's Palace Theatre as many times as Duke Ellington did.

Copyright 2000 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).