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

Part 75 - The Northeast Ohio Jazz Society at Age 25
Story filed June 30, 2003

The Northeast Ohio Jazz Society, which has played a key role in the renaissance of jazz in Greater Cleveland, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.

The founder of the volunteer jazz-support organization, Willard Jenkins, recalled the NOJS was formed during a particularly quiet time for jazz in Cleveland. "There really wasn’t a whole lot happening as far as opportunities to hear live jazz either on concert stages or in clubs," said Jenkins.

"There was only one major venue that was featured touring jazz artists, the Smiling Dog Saloon."

But, because of a lack of parking near the West 25th Street club, the Smiling Dog was forced to close and Jenkins and some of his jazz enthusiast friends decided something had to be done to fill the jazz void. He recalled, "There was an article in DownBeat magazine. The headline was something like ‘How to Start a Jazz Society.’ It was a point-by-point account of the benefits of having a jazz society in your local community and how to start one." He believed the idea might work in Cleveland and called a meeting of some of his jazz friends. They got together the day after Thanksgiving in 1977 and decided to contact the writer of the Downbeat article, an officer of the Las Vegas Jazz Society.

Michael Brown went to Las Vegas on business and met the writer, Danny Skea, a drummer who planned to come to Cleveland with the Doc Severinsen Orchestra to play at the Front Row Theatre.

When he arrived, Skea met with Jenkins and the others who wanted to form a jazz society in Cleveland. "He laid out all the cards for a group of us," said Jenkins, "how to put together a jazz society. We got real excited and started putting things together."

They found a lawyer, incorporated as the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society March 22nd, 1978, elected Jenkins as the first president, and began staging jazz events. The first event was a recruiting party at the Cleveland Institute of Music. "We had a good turnout," recalled Jenkins. "Thirty people signed up on the spot and others joined by mail."

The second event was a screening of collector David Chertok’s historic jazz films at Cleveland State University. "It was a big success," said Jenkins. "People were lined up around the block to get in." Founding member Jim Szabo remembered, "Members of the audience would applaud after the solos, just like a live jazz gig, and one guy even stood up and took a picture of the movie screen when Charlie Parker was being shown."

Bolstered by their early success, Jenkins and the other leaders of the Jazz Society began presenting live concerts. The first, in 1979, was by Woody Shaw and his Quintet. Membership grew to about 200. "But, everything wasn’t all roses," admitted Jenkins. "We presented the Cedar Walton Quintet at the Tri-C Metro Auditorium and took a huge bath."

With grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ohio Arts Council, the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society presented concerts by Art Blakey, Betty Carter, Sun Ra, Red Rodney, Ira Sullivan and the Heath Brothers in 1981 and launched a summertime Sunday afternoon concert series at Cain Park in Cleveland Heights. But, they were not all great successes. "We had the sense of who we wanted to see,’ said Jenkins, "but not necessarily who the Cleveland community wanted buy tickets to see. We took our lumps a few times."

Jenkins left Cleveland in 1984 to take jazz promotion jobs – first with Arts Midwest in Minneapolis, and then with the National Jazz Service Organization in Washington. From a distance, he watched the Jazz Society grow to more than 900 members. Today, he continues writing for national jazz publications, producing jazz for BET cable television, and serving as the artistic director of the Tri-C JazzFest.

Over the years, the Jazz Society has helped to keep jazz alive in Cleveland by presenting hundreds of concerts, educational programs and social events. The group’s greatest growth came after Dr. Evan Morse was elected president in 1987. The NOJS opened an office and hired a full time executive director, John Richmond, in 1989. During 1990, the Jazz Society presented 32 concerts, 20 social events and 12 jazz education events, including a series of school Jazz Weeks.

In 1991, the NOJS was selected as one of only 16 jazz presenting organizations in the United States to share a $3.4 million Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest National Jazz Network grant, the largest private grant in the history of jazz. The grant provided the Cleveland group about $30,000-to-$40,000 a year for the next several years for its wide range of jazz presentations. Included was the commissioning of saxophonist David Murray to compose "The Picasso Suite," which he premiered at the Cleveland Museum of Art during an exhibit of the art works of Pablo Picasso.

During 1993, about 12,000 people attended concerts presented by the NOJS. That was also the year the Jazz Society published the first edition of my Cleveland Jazz History book.

In 1994, selections recorded by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra at a Jazz Society concert at the art museum were released by Columbia Records.

Dr. Carlos Ramos became the executive director in 2002. Today, following the expiration of the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest grants, the NOJS has been forced to cut back its concert presentations, but is heavily involved with jazz education, particularly with its Instruments For Kids program, which was launched by the current president, Lawrence Glover.

The Northeast Ohio Jazz Society marked its 25th anniversary with a gala Founders Banquet in May. Jenkins, who returned for the celebration, said, "The fact that the organization has continued to survive and continues to be a presence in the Northeast Ohio community – I’m very proud of that."

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. The greatly-expanded second edition of Mosbrook’s Cleveland Jazz History book is expected to be published soon. 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).