Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series
Part 86 - Noble Sissle
It would be inaccurate to call Noble Sissle a jazz artist, but the popular bandleader who attended high school in Cleveland, made enormous contributions to the early years of jazz.
Sissle moved to Cleveland with his family in 1906 when his father became the minister of Cory Methodist Church, then located at East 35th and Scovill. The 17-year-old Sissle enrolled in Central High School where he played on the baseball and football teams, sang in the school glee club, and became one of Cleveland's first civil rights activists.
In the book Reminiscing With Sissle and Blake, Sissle recalled going with a group of white friends to a movie theatre on Erie Street (later renamed East 9th). "When we tried to go in," he said, "they stopped me and told me to sit in the balcony because I was colored." His white friends were angry and persuaded Sissle to file a law suit against the theatre. In 1908, young Sissle was awarded $50 in civil rights damages by a Cleveland court.
Before he graduated from Central, Sissle was performing professionally. He sang with a male quartet on the Chautauqua circuit around the Midwest. After high school, he went to DePauw University for one semester and transferred to Butler University in Indianapolis. The manager of that city’s Severin Hotel asked Sissle to form an orchestra to play for hotel guests. He became the leader of what was probably the first black orchestra to be featured in a hotel catering to white customers. It was the beginning of a pattern that would continue throughout Sissle’s life.
During World War I, Sissle entered the Army and became the drum major of an Army band that caused a sensation in France by playing a form of ragtime music. The 369th Infantry Band, led by Lt. James Reese Europe, began calling itself a "jazz band." Reese’s Army band not only helped popularize the new music among U.S. soldiers, but it was the first exportation of jazz, America’s new art form. Sissle said at the time, "The jazz germ hit France and it spread everywhere" they went.
In 1914, Europe’s band, including Sissle, recorded such songs as "Too Much Mustard" and "Castle Walk." Some historians, including saxophonist Jackie McLean, in the October, 1990 DownBeat magazine, have argued that those records, three years before the first recordings by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, were actually the first examples of recorded jazz.
Shortly after the war, Sissle became the leader of Europe’s civilian band after a crazed band member attacked Europe with a knife and killed him. It happened at the end of a cross-country tour, May 9, 1919, at Mechanic’s Hall in Boston,. Drummer Herbert Wright was angered by Europe’s strict direction. Sissle later recalled, "Jim wrestled Herbert to the ground. I shook Herbert and he seemed like a crazed child, trembling with excitement. Although Jim’s wound seemed superficial, they couldn’t stop the bleeding." As they rushed Europe to a hospital, he told Sissle, "I leave everything for you to carry on." The next day, newspapers carried the headline: "The Jazz King is Dead."
In 1919, when the Sissle-led band was in Chicago and looking for some new musicians, Sissle auditioned a 22- year-old clarinetist from New Orleans named Sidney Bechet. Sissle remembered, "Bechet pulled half of his clarinet from his right coat pocket, half from the left, and his mouthpiece from the inside coat pocket." According to Sissle, "The instrument’s keys were held together with tape and rubber bands." But, with the dilapidated instrument, Bechet played a spectacular audition and joined the band despite the fact that he could not read music. Shortly after he joined Sissle’s band, Bechet got a more attractive offer. Will Marion Cook, who had studied at Oberlin College, was planning to go to Europe and wanted Bechet to go with him as a member of Cook’s orchestra.
Sissle, giving up his band for a while, formed a vaudeville act with pianist and composer Eubie Blake. In 1921, following the earlier lead of Cook, they wrote an all-black Broadway review, Shuffle Along. The show launched the career of dancer Josephine Baker and opened the door for African-American entertainers. One of the songs in the show was Sissle’s composition "I’m Just Wild About Harry," a song which 27 years later Harry Truman used in his presidential election campaign. A member of the chorus of Shuffle Along was 19-year-old Fredi Washington who later starred in Duke Ellington’s first film, Black and Tan, and married Ellington trombonist Lawrence Brown.
In 1923, three years before Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer, the first feature length sound film, Sissle and Blake made one of the first sound motion pictures, a short called "A Phonofilm." It was first shown at Cleveland's Palace Theatre December 10, 1923.
After producing several other Broadway shows, Sissle in 1928 went to Paris where he formed another band. He re-hired Bechet and added longtime Ellington band member Toby Hardwick.
Sissle returned to the United States in 1930 and his band became popular in theatres and hotels that catered mainly to white audiences. At one point, Jelly Roll Morton tried unsuccessfully to hire away some of Sissle’s musicians. The band recorded for Brunswick in 1931 and toured Europe. When Sissle and his Franco-Harlem Review performed at Cleveland’s Palace Theatre for a week in December of 1934, a member of the band was a singer from Cleveland named Billy Banks.
The following year, Sissle hired a young singer who had been a chorus girl at New York’s Cotton Club. Lena Horne made her first record with Sissle’s orchestra, "That’s What Love Did to Me." She was singing with the Sissle Orchestra when it returned to Cleveland for another week in October of 1936.
The members of Sissle’s band said his style of leadership was a combination of "a stern uncle, a jovial headmaster, and a conscientious sergeant major." His concept of leadership was apparently based on his experience in the Army.
Sissle liked to say he traveled all over the country, including the South, with no racial problems, but Horne later said the band members usually had to go in the back doors of most of the hotels where they played and frequently had trouble getting hot meals and taxis. Sissle, however, was proud that he was the first bandleader to play at venues that had previously hired only white groups.
In the summer of 1936, he was scheduled to break the racial barrier at the Moonlight Gardens ballroom in Cincinnati. On the way to Cincinnati, his car blew a tire near Delaware, Ohio, causing an accident which seriously injured Sissle. >From the hospital where he was being treated for a fractured skull, Sissle sent word to his band that Horne should front the band in Cincinnati. Without Sissle, the band continued playing at the ballroom for three weeks. After recovering from his injuries, Sissle asked the band to play a special concert for the doctors and staff at the Jane Case Hospital in Delaware.
By the late 1930s, despite the presence of Bechet, Sissle’s Orchestra was being overshadowed by the extremely popular big bands. In 1938, Bechet, who was becoming a star in his own right, left Sissle’s orchestra and soon was considered an all-time master of the soprano saxophone.
In 1942, Sissle hired a 22-year-old saxophonist and clarinetist named Charlie Parker. Bird played with Sissle’s band for nine months at about the same time he first began jamming with Dizzy Gillespie and setting the stage for the style of jazz called bebop.
Sissle continued leading his band into the 1960s. The musician who made important contributions to the earliest years of jazz died December 17, 1975 in Tampa, Florida. He was 86.
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.