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

Part 70 - John Coltrane’s Cleveland Connections
Story filed October 28, 2002

John Coltrane Saxophonist John Coltrane, the most influential jazz artist of the 1960s, if not the entire second half of the 20th century, had a number of often forgotten but important connections with Cleveland and Clevelanders.

As early as 1951, Coltrane was playing with the rhythm-and-blues band of Clevelander Bull Moose Jackson. It was the Jackson band that included Clevelander Tadd Dameron, Bill Doggett (who spent many years playing in Cleveland), Frank Wess, Philly Jo Jones and Benny Golson.

Less than two weeks later, in June of 1951, Coltrane joined the band of Clevelander Gay Crosse that was playing at the Showboat nightclub in Philadelphia. Saxophonist James Moody said he also remembered hearing Coltrane play with Crosse’s band at the Majestic Hotel’s Rose Room in Cleveland. Some historians say Cleveland saxophonist Joe Alexander, who was a member of Crosse’s Good Humor Six, was a major influence for the young Coltrane.

Coltrane recorded with Crosse’s band in 1952. One of the numbers they recorded was "Bittersweet" which composer Hale Smith had originally written for Cleveland trumpeter Howard Roberts who had been a member of the Evelyn Freeman Ensemble, a teenage band made up of old Central High School students in Cleveland. Roberts later toured with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra and eventually became an internationally-respected choral arranger and educator.

When Coltrane recorded with Earl Bostic in April of 1952, another member of Bostic’s group was Cleveland saxophonist Pinky Williams.

When he recorded with the Johnny Hodges Orchestra in 1954, a member of Hodges’ band was ubiquitous Cleveland trumpeter Emmett Berry who spent years playing with various bands including Fletcher Henderson and Count Basie. Later in 1954, Coltrane appeared with a popular entertainer named "Big Maybelle" in Cleveland

In November of 1956, Coltrane recorded the Mating Call album for Prestige Records with Dameron. The album included such Dameron compositions as "Gnid," "Soultrane," "On a Misty Night," "Romas" and "Super Jet."

In the 1960s, Coltrane played five times in Cleveland. He performed at Leo’s Casino at East 48th and Central from August 27 to September 2, 1962. The following year, he appeared twice at the Jazz Temple on Mayfield Road near Euclid – in June and September. During one of those appearances, Coltrane’s regular drummer, Elvin Jones, arrived late and Cleveland drummer Lawrence "Jacktown" Jackson substituted for him. According to Jackson, Coltrane, when he was in Cleveland, stayed with Jimmy Robinson and a legendary local trumpeter, Ismail Ali, who was known as "Hickey."

Coltrane’s last engagement in Cleveland was in February of 1965. He and his group played at Leo’s Casino which had moved to larger quarters at 7500 Euclid Avenue.

When Coltrane died in July of 1967, Rev. John Gensel, who had been a minister in Mansfield before becoming the pastor to the jazz community in New York City, conducted the service. Among the jazz artists who played at Coltrane’s funeral was Cleveland free jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler.

Copyright 2002 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).