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

Part 57 - An Annual Dixieland Festival
Story filed September 1, 2000

Traditional jazz or, as many call it, "dixieland jazz," has always been moderately popular in Greater Cleveland.

In the 1950s, Henry "Hot Lips" Levine, who had played with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and led the band on The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street network radio show in the 1940s, was playing every morning on WTAM's Morning Bandwagon radio show.

In the 1960s, Ralph Grugel, now the leader of his Eagle Jazz Band, provided the first live entertainment in the Cleveland Flats when his band played at Fagan's. Before long, several clubs in the area that has since become Cleveland's entertainment center began presenting dixieland bands.

Through the 1970s and '80s, there were a few dixieland bands playing regularly in Northeast Ohio. Then, in 1986, when there was a renewed interest in the roots of jazz, a group of traditional jazz fans, led by Jean and Paul Huling, formed a club called EARLYJAS (The Earlville Association of Ragtime Lovers Yearning for Jazz Advancement and Socialization). They held monthly "meetings" (concerts and parties) Sunday afternoons at The Rusty Nail restaurant in Twin Lakes just north of Kent. About 200 fans showed up each month.

In May of 1990, EARLYJAS teamed up with the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society and the American Cancer Society to stage "A Tribute to Turk Murphy" two-day festival at the Tangier Restaurant in Akron. Capacity crowds turned out for the three sessions and the event raised about $2,000 for the Cancer Society. The festival featured three bands from Northeast Ohio -- Grugel's Eagle Jazz Band, the Earlville Jazz Band and the New Orleans Stompers -- plus The Cakewalkin' Jass Band from Toledo, the Blue Chip Jazz Band from Cincinnati, the Classic Jazz Stompers from Dayton, and the West End Jazz Band from Chicago.

The 1990 benefit festival was so successful that EARLYJAS decided to stage an annual three-day dixieland jazz festival. The first was held in September of 1992 at the Holiday Inn in Kent. Nobody really knew what to expect. Would there be enough interest in the earliest forms of jazz to make the festival worthwhile? The answer was a resounding yes. There was standing room only for the Friday night, Saturday afternoon, Saturday night, and Sunday morning sessions. Many fans traveled for miles and stayed in the hotel for the full weekend to hear the five dixieland bands play almost wall-to-wall traditional jazz. In addition to the local Eagle and Earlville Jazz Bands, the promoters brought in the Original Salty Dogs from Chicago, the St. Louis Rivermen, and Ray Heitger's Cakewalkin' Jass Band from Toledo. I was asked to emcee the Saturday night session.

The following year, 1993, the Fall Jazz Festival was moved to the larger Holiday Inn in Strongsville, at the intersection of I-71 and Route 82. Each year, there have been more outstanding traditional jazz bands from around the country coming to the Cleveland area for the annual three-day event and crowds of dixieland lovers numbering from 1,200 to 1,500. Mississippi Rag, a national publication devoted to traditional jazz, called the Cleveland area event "one of the best festivals in the Midwest."

Bob Engle, who has spearheaded the Fall Jazz Festival from the beginning, says the number of fans has increased by about 20 percent each year since that first cautious weekend in 1992. He says many people from around the country now plan to spend a full weekend in September in Strongsville to listen to dixieland jazz.

Bandleader Grugel, the patriarch of Cleveland dixielanders, says the local festival has attracted most of the leading traditional jazz bands in the world. "It's a good thing for Cleveland," says Grugel. "It's like the old days when Cleveland was on the map as a major stop for the big bands."

But, with a characteristic smile, Grugel adds, "If you ask for a Neil Simon song, they'll throw you out!"

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).