Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series
Part 80 - Bunk Johnson’s Cleveland Connections
We have discovered new information about the Cleveland connections to the "re-discovery" of Bunk Johnson, the New Orleans jazz pioneer, who played with the legendary Buddy Bolden and said he was Louis Armstrong’s teacher. Among the discoveries – Johnson’s new trumpet came from a musician in Cleveland. The new discoveries are based on our local interviews which expand information contained in a book entitled Bunk Johnson, Song of the Wanderer by Mike Hazeldine. His book includes hundreds of letters to, from, and about Johnson.
In 1940, Heywood Hale Broun, the 22-year-old son of a newspaperman whose column ran regularly in the Cleveland Press, went to New Orleans to record some early jazz pioneers. Among others, he found Willie "Bunk" Johnson, but Johnson refused to record, saying he needed some new teeth and a decent trumpet before he would try to make records in the old style.
A group of jazz fans organized a campaign to raise money to buy Bunk false teeth. Among them was a Cleveland resident named Hoyte Kline. Cleveland jazz guitarist Fred Sharp told me Kline was a wealthy Cleveland jazz enthusiast who had an enormous jazz record collection. In the book, Kline wrote a letter saying he organized "The Bunk Campaign" in Cleveland. He listed six donors. A student named Bill Russell then persuaded the dentist brother of saxophonist Sidney Bechet to provide dentures for Johnson at a bargain rate of $60.
As the Bunk Johnson mystique grew, a 36-year-old employee of RCA Victor Records named Mary Karoley, who reportedly lived in Cleveland at one time, went to Johnson’s home in New Iberia, Louisiana in 1942 and persuaded him to play his beat-up old trumpet with sticky valves for her crude disc recorder. She also recorded several personal messages from Johnson – to Russell, to Kline in Cleveland, and to Bunk’s old New Orleans musical friend Sidney Bechet. In the recorded message to Bechet, the cagey old musician said, "The horn that I have here is just a little better than a cow horn... I need a good trumpet."
Three months later (April 1942), Cleveland trumpeter William "Wiz" Rosenberg, who had apparently contributed to Kline’s "Cleveland Bunk Campaign," wrote that he had found a trumpet for Bunk, a shiny, gold-plated Selmer trumpet. The Cleveland musician mailed the trumpet to Johnson at his home in Louisiana. At the time, Rosenberg was playing at Julian Krawcheck’s Hot Club of Cleveland jam sessions. Krawcheck, a retired editor and columnist at the Cleveland Press, remembered, "Rosenberg played a wonderful trumpet and Louis Armstrong was his idol." Krawcheck told me Rosenberg was playing with a group called the Dixie Dandies which included Sam Finger (clarinet), Kenny Amerson (trombone), Fred Sharp (guitar), George Quittner (piano), and Orly May (drums).
A month after getting the trumpet from the Cleveland musician, Johnson used it to make his first records. Russell and two other jazz researchers went to New Orleans in June of 1942 and made a series of records of Bunk playing with a band that included George Lewis (clarinet) and Jim Robinson (trombone). The researchers also interviewed Johnson, who claimed he had taught Louis Armstrong and Joe "King" Oliver. He said his claim was supported by a letter he had received from Oliver. "That letter is in Cleveland," said Johnson. "Miss Mary has that." He frequently called Mary Karoley "Miss Mary."
With the help from the Clevelanders and the new records, Johnson set off on a wild seven-year jazz history odyssey, playing in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, New York, New Orleans, Chicago and Philadelphia, being praised by the press, and making dozens of records that were said to be authentic recreations of the earliest forms of jazz.
Kline, the Cleveland resident who had helped raise money for Bunk’s new teeth, went into the Army during World War II and was killed in Italy. Kline’s wife gave his huge record collection to Russell, who sold it and used the money to help finance Johnson’s band.
The enthusiastic jazz researchers who found Johnson and promoted him, quickly discovered, however, they had created something of a monster. According to the many letters in the book The Song of the Wanderer, Bunk emerged as essentially a manipulative con man, often begging the researchers for money, frequently getting drunk, and sometimes failing to show up for concerts. Eventually, Johnson managed to alienate most of his friends. Bechet fired him from his band. Armstrong, who in 1939 praised Bunk as his "life-long inspiration," later said angrily, "Bunk taught me nothing!"
The Bunk Johnson saga ended when he suffered two strokes in late 1948. He died the following July.
While jazz historians continue to argue over Johnson’s real or imagined importance to jazz history, we do know now that some of the key efforts to "rediscover" early New Orleans jazz musician Bunk Johnson, more than 60 years ago, came from jazz enthusiasts and musicians in Cleveland.
Copyright 2003 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. The greatly-expanded second edition of Mosbrook’s Cleveland Jazz History book is available from the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society, 4614 Prospect Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio 44193.