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

Part 72 - The Jeter-Pillars Orchestra
Story filed December 30, 2002

Here is a quick quiz: Harry "Sweets" Edison, Walter Page, Sid Catlett, Jo Jones, Kenny Clarke, Jimmy Forrest, Charlie Christian and Jimmy Blanton were all members of one band. Which band was it?

The answer: The Jeter-Pillars Orchestra -- which was formed in Cleveland in 1934.

Saxophonists James Jeter and Hayes Pillars, boyhood friends who had been playing in the Alphonso Trent band, formed their own territory band. They first played at a Cleveland club called the Hollywood Café.

One of the first members of the band was an 18 year old trumpet player from Columbus, Harry Edison (long before anyone called him "Sweets"), who had been playing in Cleveland with a band led by Chester Clark at a place called Mamie Louise’s Chicken Shack. With the new Jeter-Pillars Orchestra, Edison played at various Cleveland clubs including the Magnolia Hotel Creole Bar.

Edison later said, "Jeter and Pillars were very good musicians and they stressed quality in their band." But Edison said there wasn’t much room for solos. He toured the Midwest with the Jeter-Pillars Orchestra before joining Count Basie three years later.

Another member of the band formed in Cleveland was drummer Sid Catlett who had played with Benny Carter and McKinney’s Cotton Pickers. Considered one of the top drummers of the 1930s and ‘40s, Catlett stayed with Jeter-Pillars for two years before joining Fletcher Henderson. When Catlett left, he was replaced by another pretty good drummer, Jo Jones. Bassist Walter Page was also a member of the Cleveland-based band. Within a year, Jones and Page became key members of Count Basie’s legendary rhythm section.

Another member of the Jeter-Pillars band in Cleveland was guitarist Floyd Smith who later played with Horace Henerson, Wild Bill Davison and Bill Doggett.

Clevelander Tadd Dameron wrote his first big band arrangement, "I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart, in 1937 for the Jeter-Pillars Orchestra.

Later in 1937, Jeter and Pillars moved their band from Cleveland to Chicago and recorded four sides for Vocalion Records. Included was a song called "I Like Pie, I Like Cake" featuring a vocal by Pillars.

From Chicago, Jeter and Pillars took their band to St. Louis and became a featured attraction at a club called The Club Plantation. In St. Louis, two extraordinary young musicians joined their band -- bassist Jimmy Blanton and guitarist Charlie Christian.

Blanton was playing with the Jeter-Pillars Orchestra at the Club Plantation when Duke Ellington first heard him in 1939. After joining Ellington, Blanton, more than anyone else in jazz, made the string bass a solo instrument.

In September of 1939, record producer John Hammond heard Christian playing with the Jeter-Pillars band and recommended him to Benny Goodman. On the basis of his recordings with Goodman, including "Solo Flight," Christian became an all-time master of the jazz guitar, influenced generations of guitar players, and played with the pioneers of bebop in the early 1940s before his death in 1942 at the age of 23.

Others who played with the Jeter-Pillars Orchestra included drummer Kenny Clarke and saxophonists Norris Turney, who played for years with Ellington, and Jimmy Forrest who later replaced Ben Webster in the Ellington Orchestra and composed and recorded "Night Train."

By 1942, the Jeter-Pillars Orchestra became the most popular band in St. Louis. Miles Davis, who grew up in the St. Louis area, called the Jeter-Pillars Orchestra "a great band." It was featured on a popular national radio program, The Fitch Bandwagon.

Jeter and Pillars finally disbanded their orchestra in 1947.

In 1981, the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University and the Smithsonian Institution honored Pillars for his contributions to jazz. When Pillars died in 1992, services were conducted at a St. Louis funeral home operated by Eddie Randle, a bandleader who had first hired the young Miles Davis in the early 1940s.

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).