Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series
Part 67 - Evelyn Freeman Remembers Her Swing Band
It was an historic Cleveland jazz band in the early 1940s. The Evelyn Freeman Swing Band was historic because several members of the group went on to national prominence in music.
The leader and manager of the band, Evelyn Freeman, was a high school student at the time and later told me she and her younger brother, Ernie, were exposed to music early by their father who had played in a variety of Cleveland bands in the teens and '20s.
"We had music at home," said Evelyn. "Both of our parents were college graduates and I learned to play the piano and they started my brother on the violin."
At first, they played classical music. "Every Sunday morning, before we went to church," she said, "we would sight-read overtures, sight-read music. And that was a good experience." Before long, they formed a chamber ensemble.
"My father played the flute," she recalled. "I played the piano and Ernie played the violin. We played at a lot of social functions and we started adding people. Pretty soon we had about 20 people playing in the Freeman Ensemble."
Most were other students at Cleveland's old Central High School where many teenagers at the time were rapidly becoming interested in jazz. One was her brother, Ernie. "He found an old saxophone in the closet that my father had played years before," said Evelyn. "It was an old E-flat Busher and he learned to play it himself. After we got through playing classical music, Ernie and the other fellows wanted to play jazz and jam."
Evelyn Freeman was also bitten by the jazz bug. "When I heard Duke Ellington, it just completely turned me around," she remembered. "And I said, 'That is what I want to do, be a band leader!' That was the beginning of it."
When the Ellington Orchestra was playing at Cleveland's Palace Theatre, she recalled, "I decided to cut school and go see the first show. I was so enthralled, I had to go backstage to see Duke Ellington. They had all these groupies around the stage door and they had this fellow at the elevator, who wouldn't let any of them up. I gave him my little card. He took it up and came back and said 'Duke wanted to see me.' I went up to talk to Duke. I didn't have anything to say. I just wanted to talk with him." With Ellington was his son, Mercer. "Mercer was about my age," said Evelyn, "and I said to him, 'Are you going into music?' He said, 'Oh no, I'm going to be an engineer.' Famous last words!?"
But, Evelyn was definitely going into music. And now it was jazz music. The Freeman (classical) Ensemble quickly became the Evelyn Freeman Swing Band.
She recruited a corps of young, aspiring high school players. With Evelyn leading from the piano -- just as Ellington did -- the regular members of her swing band included trumpeters Howard Roberts, Millard Jones and Clifford Holt; trombonists William "Shep" Shepherd and Bernard Simms; saxophonists Ernie Shepherd, Charles Mines, Robert Morton and Jim Gayle; guitarist Don Banks; bass player Van Shepherd; and drummer James "Chink" McKinney.
"We played for dances all around Cleveland," she remembered, "and, in two years, we were blowing everybody out, all the older professional bands."
Willie Smith, who was at East Tech High School at the time, said he remembered seeing Ernie Freeman writing arrangements for the band while he was on the bus going to school. "That's how he honed his arranging skills," remembered Evelyn. "One of the ways that we got the gigs was to tell the social club that we would write a special song for their function."
Before long, Evelyn Freeman's Swing Band got a regular gig at the Circle Ballroom at 105th and Euclid. "The fellows all got new coats," she said, "and we got new bandstands and everything for that gig."
They also did radio broadcasts on WHK from the Circle Ballroom. "I don't remember how we did that," she said. "But, since I was the manager and did all the business for the band, I guess I arranged that some kind of way. Shep (Shepherd) once told me, 'You're the most aggressive female I ever knew!' I guess I was because I also talked old man Oster into opening up his ballroom for Sunday nights."
The band attracted large crowds at Oster's Ballroom at 46th and Euclid. "And how those kids used to dance! It used to scare me sometimes," she said. "I thought they'd have a heart attack they danced so hard."
The band continued its practice of creating special songs for events. Evelyn, 60 years later, remembered a song they did at Oster's Ballroom:
But, shortly before the United States got into World War II, most of the members of the band were facing the prospect of being drafted into military service. A Navy recruiter heard the Evelyn Freeman Swing Band at the Circle Ballroom and asked the members to join the Navy as a group. Most of the band members did. They were sent to Bunker Hill, Indiana, where they soon became members of the first all-black Navy band called "The Gobs of Swing."
Evelyn stayed home. She enrolled at the Cleveland Institute of Music and continued to lead a jazz band that included trumpeter Benny Bailey and saxophonist Ben Jackson who later became known as "Bull Moose" Jackson.
After the war, members of the Evelyn Freeman Swing Band went on to bigger and better things in music. Trombonist Shepherd toured with Dizzy Gillespie's big band. Trumpeter Howard Roberts played with the Lionel Hampton and Lucky Millinder bands and later became a nationally-respected choral arranger. Ernie Freeman became a leading Hollywood record arranger for such people as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Simon and Garfunkel. Bernard Simms, Chink McKinney and Van Shepherd became leading musicians in Cleveland. Evelyn Freeman, the leader of that teenaged band in Cleveland, also went on to a long and colorful music career, performing with some of the biggest names in show business.
She laughed when she recalled that when her band was just starting, they would rehearse at the Freeman's home on East 83rd Street between Cedar and Central. Some of the neighbors complained. "They took us to court and got an injunction against us for playing music," she said. They did not realize that some of those kids playing on East 83rd Street would soon become extremely important figures in music.
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).