Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series
Part 73 - Lindsay’s Sky Bar
While doing some research at the Cleveland Public Library, I ran across an old 1939 photograph that was titled simply "10555 Euclid Avenue." It showed a four-story brick structure called "The Denver Building," with awnings over each of the 12 third and fourth floor windows, a clothing store on the left, a barber shop on the right, and four 1930s-style cars parked in front. Looking closer at the photo, I noticed the sign over one side of the street-level entrance to the building. In big letters, surrounded by stars, it read, "Lindsay’s cocktail lounge and restaurant, air cooled." I had stumbled across a rare old City of Cleveland photograph of one of the most popular and longest running jazz clubs in Cleveland history – Lindsay’s Sky Bar.
Located on Euclid Avenue, just east of 105th Street, along a strip now occupied by the William O. Walker Center, Lindsay’s Sky Bar opened in 1934 and was the first club to regularly book nationally-famous jazz artists in Cleveland. That was three years before the Theatrical on Short Vincent opened for business and long before a string of other jazz clubs opened in the University Circle area following World War II.
Lindsay’s Sky Bar was run by Phil Bash and his blonde wife Rickie, along with her sister and her husband. Rickie, 29 years old when they launched the jazz, was the daughter of Russian immigrants who had settled in Cleveland. She loved to dress up in fancy movie star clothing and dazzle customers who came to the club to hear some of the biggest names in jazz. On the ceiling above the small stage there were dozens of lighted stars. There were also stars on the carpeting. For years, the cover charge was $1.
In the early years, Lindsey’s Sky Bar featured such local artists as Tadd and Caesar Dameron, Benny Bailey, Gay Crosse, Willie Smith and Benny Miller. There were regular Sunday jam sessions.
As early as 1937, an unknown singer named Frankie Laine, who was gigging around Cleveland at the time, was working at the Sky Bar. Laine told me a friend suggested he go to Lindsay’s. He said he auditioned, got the job, and "stayed there five months and it was a great learning experience." While singing at the Sky Bar, Laine met Cleveland pianist Art Cutlip. "We used to teach each other songs," recalled Laine. "One night, I heard him play a song and I asked, ‘What’s that?’ He said, ‘It’s a song called "Shine" made famous by Louis Armstrong.’ And I said, ‘I’d like to learn it.’ So he taught it to me." Ten years later, Laine’s recording of "Shine" became a major hit record.
When Laine and Cutlip were performing at Lindsay’s, they put together a book of about 1,000 songs. A few months later, Laine met trombonist Pee Wee Hunt who asked to borrow the song book. According to Laine, Hunt never returned it.
By the late 1940s, Lindsay’s Sky Bar was booking the biggest national jazz artists. Among them were Dizzy Gillespie, Billy Holiday and Erroll Garner. Rickie and Phil Bash frequently went to New York City to scout top talent and book them for their Cleveland club. Among the others who played at Lindsay’s Sky Bar were Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt, Johnny Hodges, Stan Getz, Mary Lou Williams, Oscar Peterson, and Art Tatum.
Cleveland pianist Joe Howard, who had long admired Tatum, was at the Sky Bar one night when Tatum was playing and ran into a problem, which he quickly managed to overcome. Howard recalled Tatum hit the top note on the piano and "There was thud. The piano tuner had apparently removed the string and used it somewhere else. So what Tatum did was make a whole symphony, if you will, utilizing that thud sound. It was fascinating to see how he just evolved it like that."
Others who played at Lindsay’s Sky Bar on Euclid Avenue included Coleman Hawkins, Earl "Fatha" Hines, Roy Eldridge, Gene Krupa and Slam Stewart.
Rickie and Phil Bash continued to operate the Sky Bar until 1952. Two years later, Phil Bash died. Rickie went to work as a secretary and, for years, was a volunteer at the Jewish Community Center. She died at the age of 97 on January 13th of 2003.
For Cleveland jazz fans from the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, there are still many vivid memories of some of the biggest names in jazz playing on that little stage, surrounded by stars, at Lindsay’s Sky Bar in that old building at 105-55 Euclid Avenue.
Copyright 2003 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).