Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series
Part 69 - Bill de Arango
The young Cleveland jazz guitarist played with blazing speed as he soloed on "52nd Street Theme" with Dizzy Gillespieís big band in 1946. Bill de Arango was in fast company in the Gillespie band which included Don Byas, Milt Jackson, Al Haig, Ray Brown and J.C. Heard. De Arango quickly became one of the most respected jazz musicians in the country in the late 1940s, but decided to give it up and come home to Cleveland.
Born in Cleveland in September of 1921, de Arango grew up in Cleveland Heights. He began playing guitar and listening to the jazz of the late 1930s. In November of 1938, the 17-year-old de Arango was at the Trianon Ballroom at 9802 Euclid Avenue where the Duke Ellington Orchestra was playing for a dance. De Arango recalled it was unbelievable, with 2,500 people dancing and about 80 guys standing around the bandstand, trying to get close to their heroes. De Arango said most of them, including him, wanted to be musicians.
De Arango also went to the Palace Theatre to hear the big bands. When the Benny Goodman Orchestra was playing, de Arango went to hear the band with several of his friends. After the performance, they crowded around the man who was being hailed as "The King of Swing." When Goodman began chatting with the teenagers, de Arangoís friends pointed to Bill, who had been playing guitar and idolizing Goodmanís guitarist, Charlie Christian, and told Goodman, "He can do it, too! He can do it!" When Goodman later returned to Cleveland, de Arango was there again and Goodman remembered him. De Arango told me, Goodman was talking to some guys, looked at the young Cleveland guitarist and said, "Hey, donít wander way."
The following year, de Arango went to Ohio State University and began working harder on his guitar playing. When he came home, he began hanging around local clubs in Cleveland Ė clubs like The Hot Spot on West 3rd Street near Superior.
In 1942, when the United States entered World War Two, de Arango was drafted into the army and played in an Army band at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
Following his discharge in 1944, he returned to Cleveland and resumed playing at local clubs. His excellent technique and blazing speed on the strings attracted the attention of touring musicians who came to Cleveland. He said guys from the Goodman and Artie Shaw orchestras suggested that he go to New York City.
When he went to New York, de Arango headed for 52nd Street where the best jazz artists of the 1940s played at a series of energy-packed clubs. De Arango said they didnít make much money, "but it was a good setting." He later recalled he went and listened for awhile. "After listening to some of those great artists, I decided I better go home," said de Arango. But drummer Morey Feld, also from Cleveland, introduced him at a few places and he got to sit in. He quickly created a stir on the now-legendary 52nd Street with his ability to play at fantastic tempos.
One night, Ben Webster, who had played saxophone with the Duke Ellington Orchestra for four years, asked de Arango where he was working. When de Arango said he didnít have a job, Webster said, "Come on down tomorrow night. We start at nine." De Arango spent a year and a half playing with Webster at such New York clubs as the Onyx, the Spotlight and the Three Duces and later recalled it was great playing with the saxophone master.
In May of 1945, the 23-year-old Clevelander recorded with Red Norvo, Johnny Guarnieri, Slam Stewart and Feld. It was almost the same group that had recorded just a few months earlier as the Benny Goodman Sextet. Later that year, de Arango recorded with Ike Quebec, Sarah Vaughan, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.
By 1946, de Arango had become one of the top guitarists in jazz. He won Esquire magazineís "New Star" award. Thinking back to that time, he said, "I played at the moment. I just played to my thinking."
But the Cleveland guitarist was becoming dissatisfied. He left New York and the national jazz scene and returned to Cleveland. "I really donít know why," said de Arango years later. "What they played was great and they put a lot into me musically. It was a great thing then."
He opened a music shop and studio at Cedar Center in University Heights, studied and taught -Ė in relative obscurity.
In 1954, he recorded a different kind of guitar album, Alone Together, featuring standards in a subdued style. In the 1960s, playing from time to time in Cleveland, de Arango improvised in a style that bordered on complete freedom. In the early 1970s, he was playing with a Cleveland group that combined elements of both jazz and rock. Later he recorded with fellow Clevelander Joe Lovano. Asked about his many different styles, de Arango said, "I didnít think of it as styles; I just wanted to play music."
As he approached his 80th birthday and living in a nursing home in East Cleveland, de Arango told me he did not like much of the jazz he was hearing, but he admitted the younger jazz artists were "playing their way."
Bill de Arango played his way for more than six decades and taught countless excellent jazz guitarists, teaching them some of the lessons he learned first-hand playing with such all-time jazz giants as Dizzy Gillespie, Ben Webster, Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington. No one ever questioned that the music de Arango played was jazz.
Copyright 2002 Joe Mosbrook
CLICK HERE for the last installment of "Jazzed in Cleveland"
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).