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

Part 83 - Raf and C.D.
Story filed February 27, 2004

This is the story of two Cleveland jazz musicians known as "Raf" and "C.D." "Raf" is trombonist and bandleader Ralph Grugel. "C.D." was his friend, alto saxophonist Caesar Dameron, the older brother of bebop pioneer Tadd Dameron. They were unlikely friends – a white dixieland band leader and a black bebop jazz musician and club owner.

Raf said he first met C.D. in the early 1960s. "We hit it off immediately," he said. "He was a good old guy and played an excellent alto saxophone in the style of Johnny Hodges (with the Duke Ellington Orchestra)."

Grugel described Dameron’s club, the Club Rendezvous at East 98th and Cedar, as "an unidentifiable joint, a speakeasy. It was a cheat spot. You’d knock on the door and a guy named Rackenback would come to the door, look you over, and let you in. All the way back in the room was a stage that was at least 65 feet wide. He had a piano up there and a set of drums. I heard some of the greatest music I have ever heard in my life there."

C. D. also reputedly ran a numbers racket. Raf said he didn’t knew anything about that but remembered, "Caesar used to drive a Rolls Royce, a big Silver Cloud. Man, that car was something! That wasn’t a salesman’s car!"

One night, after playing with his Bourbon Street Bums at Fagan’s in the Flats, Grugel ventured out to Cedar Avenue to listen to jazz at Dameron’s club. When he arrived, he was held-up. "I think there were three kids," he recalled. "I had the band payroll from Fagan’s and they said, ‘Give me all your money!’ I always took my trombone wherever I went and they said, ‘What’s in there (the trombone case)?’ I said, ‘That’s a trombone and I’m going over to Caesar Dameron’s place.’ They said, ‘You’re going to C.D.’s? I said, ‘Yeah, he called me up?’ They said, ‘You know him?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ They said, ‘Take your money and don’t tell him we were around here!’ They let me go!"

A few weeks later, Dameron called Grugel and asked him back to the neighborhood. "I had a brand new 1960 Pontiac convertible with payments longer than my arm and I said, ‘Caesar, I got mugged up there last time.’ He said, ‘Pull you car in front of the joint and just leave it in the middle of the street.’" When Grugel arrived outside Dameron’s club, he was again confronted by three young men. "One guy said, ‘You, Raf?’ and I said, ‘Yeah.’ He jumped in and said, ‘C.D. told me to take care of your car.’ The two other guys got in and they drove my car away. As I watched it go, I said to myself, ‘You gotta be nuts, man!’" Inside the club, he saw Dameron. "Hey, how you doing, Raf?" said Dameron. When Grugel asked, "Who are those guys who took my car?" Dameron said, "One is my nephew." After spending several hours in the club listening and playing, Grugel was ready to leave. Rackenback had his car brought to the front door. Grugel was amazed when he saw his car. "They had washed it, inside and out, cleaned it and waxed it! It was like a brand new car!".

Another night, when Raf was playing in the Flats, he got an urgent call from C.D. who said without explaining, "You better come out tonight. Just be here!" After midnight, Grugel finished his gig and drove to Dameron’s club. "The place was packed," he said. "There must have been 200 people in there. Caesar was smiling from ear to ear and said, ‘Hey, Raf, how you doing?’ I said, ‘Man, look at you. Did you get a license?’ I was kidding. He said, ‘No, man,’ look around. See if you see anybody?’" He pointed out trumpeter Clark Terry and saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, drummer Kenny Clarke and others. They were in Cleveland with Norman Granz’ Jazz at the Philharmonic touring show and went to Dameron’s club after their performance at Public Hall. They jammed until about 4 o’clock in the morning. Grugel recalled, "That night, I heard some of the greatest music in the world."

Another night, Grugel took a member of his dixieland band, tuba player Andy Homzy with him to Dameron’s club and suggested he take his tuba with him. "Caesar asked him, ‘Do you want to play?’ "Yeah!’ ‘Go ahead up there.’ Caesar asked me, ‘What’s he play?’ I said, ‘Tuba’ and he turned around, trying to be polite, but meaning, ‘What’s he going to do with our kind of music?’ You know, there aren’t too many bop tuba players." But, Homzy, a student at Baldwin-Wallace College at the time, was an excellent musician. The hard-boppers on the bandstand, including local tenor saxophone legend Joe Alexander, didn’t know what to expect when the young dixieland tuba player sat in with them.

"Finally," said Grugel, "they offered Andy a solo on some up-tempo riffy bop tune and these modern musicians were going, ‘Uh-oh.’ I saw the looks on their faces, ‘He’s going to take a chorus?’ So, he starts in and I swear about three jaws dropped to the floor. He started ripping and dipitty-bopping, up and down, high registers, low registers, middle registers, triple-tonguing – everything that you could do – in tune and in time. It was just marvelous! These guys started blowing riffs behind him. They wouldn’t let him quit! They were flabbergasted! And when they finished the tune, there was a big cheer and all the musicians on the stage went over and introduced themselves" to the young tuba player, who later became a respected jazz musicologist.

Racial tensions in Cleveland were running high in the mid-1960s, but they did not extend to the jazz players. Grugel recalled, "The musicians I knew didn’t know much prejudice. If you could play, that was all that they were interested in."

But that same attitude did not extend to other areas of Cleveland. One night in July of 1966, Grugel was at Dameron’s club and ran next door to make a phone call. "I looked out of the phone booth," he said, "and saw these guys on the street taking whiskey bottles and filling them up with juice or something and sticking cloth in the top." They were making Molotov cocktails and Grugel said, "They were all carrying guns and stuff." Grugel did not realize it at the time, but Cleveland’s Hough Riot was beginning – just as he, a white musician was going into a black club in a black neighborhood. "When I walked in and knocked on the door, Rackenback’s eyes were as big as saucers. He yanked me inside like a pro wrestler and said, ‘There’s a race riot going on!’" C.D. ran over and yelled, "They could have killed you!" Grugel looked at his friend and said, "I ain’t mad at anybody." "They don’t know that," yelled Dameron as he ordered his friend to stay inside the club until it was safe to go out.

Looking back on his friendship with fellow musician C.D., Raf said, "He took care of me big time!"

Copyright 2004 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 available from the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society, 4614 Prospect Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio 44193.