Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series
Part 60 - Carman Newsome
He was a teenage black cowboy in Kansas, the leader of a Cleveland jazz band, and a well-known movie actor.
The unusual story of Carman Newsome began in 1912 near Dodge City, Kansas, where he was born. Newsome was the grandson of a freed slave named George Washington Walker, who bought a ranch in Kansas the year Carmen was born. By the time he was 9, the young Newsome was working on his grandfather's ranch and even breaking horses. He became known as the first teenaged black cowboy in Kansas.
In the late 1920s, when Carman was in his teens, his family moved to Ohio and lived for three years in Bellefontaine. Then, they came to Cleveland where Carmen enrolled in old Central High School at East 55th and Central. Because of the heavy migration of blacks from the South, the old Victorian Gothic structure, with an ornate clock tower, had become a predominately black school. In fact, it was the Negro school in Cleveland and it had already developed a strong reputation for its many music programs.
When Newsome entered Central, he was an 11th grader and the former teenaged cowboy found himself surrounded by music. He was fascinated by it. Another former Central student, William "Shep" Shepherd, remembered there were musical performances almost all the time.
Exposed to this music and entertainment atmosphere at Central High School, Newsome went out and bought an old tenor saxophone and taught himself to play. Practicing up to ten hours a day, he also taught himself to read music. Before long, he was playing saxophone and clarinet with various school jazz bands. Sometimes they played at nightclubs. Eventually, Newsome formed his own band which included other Central High School students. Among them were trumpeter Freddie Webster, the man Dizzy Gillespie later said had "the best tone of anybody who ever played the trumpet." Webster later played with the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra and other bands before dying at the age of 30. Other members of Newsome's high school band included trumpeter Harry "Pee Wee" Jackson who later played with Earl "Fatha" Hines and Lunceford. Another member of Newsome's band was trombonist George Early who went on to play with the touring band of an earlier Central High School graduate, Noble Sissle.
After he graduated from Central in 1932, Newsome continued leading his own band in Cleveland. It was usually an 11-piece group. Newsome's band played for five years at a variety of Cleveland jazz spots including the old Heat Wave at the Majestic Hotel, the Furnace Club, Cedar Gardens, the Cabin Club, the Hyland Club and the Suburban Club in Garfield Heights. At various times, Newsome's band included such early Cleveland jazz legends as William "Shep" Shepherd, who later played with Dizzy Gillespie's big band; Harold Arnold, who later played with the Lucky Millinder Orchestra; Andy Anderson and Bernard Sims.
In 1937, Newsome took his band to the famous Cotton Club in New York City's Harlem, where a decade earlier, Duke Ellington first gained fame. At the Cotton Club, Newsome met a man named Oscar Micheaux who was producing movies with all-black casts designed to be shown in Negro theatres around the country. Micheaux had begun producing black films in the 1920s and had made a film called Body and Soul with actor-athlete-activist Paul Robeson. The 52 year old producer offered the young Cleveland musician a job. Newsome broke up his band and began working for the movie producer in New York. At first, he handled the sales and distribution of Micheaux' movies to about 250 Negro motion picture theatres around the country.
Before long, the producer decided to use the former teenaged cowboy and jazz musician from Cleveland as an actor in his movies. He saw the handsome young Newsome as what he liked to call "The Dark Clark Gable."
Newsome starred in five movies for the producer in the late 1930s and early '40s - all advertised as having "all colored casts" - God's Stepchildren in 1937, Swing in 1938, Birthright and Lying Lips in 1939, and The Notorious Elinor Lee in 1940. Lying Lips also featured Robert Earl Jones, the father of James Earl Jones. Another actor in the films with the Clevelander was the mother of Sammy Davis, Jr.
After starring in five movies, and with World War II brewing, Newsome returned to Cleveland. He went to work for the Addressograph-Multigraph Corporation in Euclid and continued working there until 1970 when he retired because of health problems.
But, Newsome continued with music. He gave free music lessons to youngsters at the Bell Center on East 81st Street, hoping to engender in them some of the same musical interest he had developed when he was a student at old Central High School 40 years earlier. According to a Plain Dealer article in March of 1971, Newsome and his fellow teachers at the center worked with youngsters between the ages of 8 and 18, teaching them to play horns, reed instruments, guitars, drums and piano. Newsome was quoted as saying, "At first, we show them the most simple way to play current hits. This makes them hungry to learn to read sheet music and to improve their instrumental technique." Newsome was proud that some of his students at the Bell Center, who had dropped out of school, were encouraged by their new interest in music to return to school.
During those teaching sessions at the center, Newsome also told the kids stories about his life as a jazz band leader and movie star in the 1930s.
Carmen Newsome died July 17, 1974, at the age of 62, at the Veterans Administration Hospital on East Boulevard in Cleveland.
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).