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

Part 62 - Remembering Hank Geer
Story filed March 30, 2001

Hank Geer Caricature Ralph Grugel's Eagle Jazz Band played quietly and reverently as dozens of Hank Geer's many friends, many of them musicians, came to say goodbye at his funeral service. Geer, the dean of Cleveland jazz musicians, died October 12, 2000 at the age of 78.

Over the years, we did a number of interviews with the man whose life-long love affair with music began in the 1930s when he was growing up in the Collinwood section of Cleveland. He told me, "I was able to get a saxophone. I didn't take any lessons." He bought some books, studied and practiced and basically taught himself to play. Soon, the teenager was playing with a variety of bands around Cleveland. During the summer, he played with dance bands at summer amusement parks at Vermillion, Ruggles Beach, Euclid Beach and Mentor-on-the-Lake.

Geer was only 15 years old and still a student at Collinwood High School when he got a chance to play with the Charlie Spivak Orchestra. Hank remembered, "The Music Corporation of America wanted to build a band under Charlie and they sent him to Cleveland where he became the house band at the Trianon Ballroom." One night, when Geer was jamming, Spivak walked in, said one of his saxophonists had suffered a ruptured appendix, and listened to Geer play. "Get that kid!" said Spivak.

Geer played with the Spivak band in Cleveland. But, when Spivak went to New York, Geer went back to school. The summer he graduated from high school, he traveled with the orchestra of Clevelander Ray Anthony. He left the Anthony band just in time to enroll at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

At Miami, Geer joined one of the best college big bands of the period, the Miami University Campus Owls. While a pre-med student, he became the leader of the Campus Owls. His interests were split between medicine and music. Eventually he decided to go with music. He said, "This is my first love. I'll give it a shot. I'll go back to school if I don't make it."

The saxophonist from Cleveland went out on the road with several big bands. But, after getting sick, he went back to school - to teach music and study. He went to Tucson, Arizona and played in the Tucson Symphony Orchestra. Later, he went to Los Angeles, studied at Los Angeles City College and began writing orchestrations for movies. He went to Miami and enrolled in another college and studied the adaptation of music to choreography. While in Miami, he also played with show bands in theatres.

When there was an illness in his family, Geer returned to Cleveland and became involved in real estate, building and development. He opened a motel on Lakeshore Boulevard, started his own jazz nightclub - the Euclid Shore Club - but never gave up his love of playing music.

In the 1950s, Geer toured with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. Later, after Dorsey died, he went on the road with the Dorsey band led by Warren Covington. But, he quickly tired of playing one-nighters. "It was living and playing out of a suitcase all the time," said Geer. "I asked myself, 'Is this what I want to be doing ten years from now?'"

Returning again to Cleveland, he became more involved in his business ventures. But he continued playing with his own group which included pianist Hugh Thompson and bassist Chink Stephenson. "When Bill died," remembered Geer, Bill Gidney took his place. Bill, Chink and I were together for 13 years."

Geer and his group began playing at Sammy's in the Flats in 1980 and became a local institution, playing there continuously until 2000.

In 1991, Geer was seriously injured in a freak accident outside Sammy's. A car crashed into a wooden deck where Geer was standing and threw him 40 yards down a steep hill onto the railroad tracks below. He suffered multiple fractures including a badly mangled left hand. But, a year later, after surgery and much physical therapy, he was back playing again.

As the dixieland band played at his funeral service, I could not help but think of the time I spent with Hank - doing interviews at his home for my radio series, narrating a videotape for his beloved Campus Owls big band, listening to him play at Sammy's, and just a few weeks before he died, talking with him several times about some old photos he sent me for the yet-to-be-completed second edition of the Cleveland Jazz History book.

Hank Geer is fondly remembered by many people.

Copyright 2001 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).