Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series
Part 91 - Benny Masonís Farm
One of Greater Clevelandís more popular jazz spots in the 1940s was Benny Masonís Farm on Cochran Road in Solon. Coleman Hawkins, Art Blakey and Mary Lou Williams were among the jazz musicians who played at the African-American nightclub and resort that was also known as the Cedar Country Club. An old postcard found in the Cleveland State University Library showed the bar, dinning room and bandstand at Benny Masonís Farm and proclaimed, "24-hour bar service, the most beautiful nightclub in Northern Ohio, with two floor shows nightly."
The club was run by a man named B. B. "Benny" Mason, a man with a colorful and notorious reputation. Researching old newspaper articles disclosed some interesting information about Mason.
In the 1920s, he was considered the "overlord" of Clevelandís numbers racket, an illegal betting system that flourished years before the establishment of the state-run Ohio Lottery. There was testimony that Mason grossed over a million dollars a year with his so-called "policy syndicate." Internal Revenue agents testified before a grand jury that in one year, Masonís numbers game grossed at least $1,300.000.
In 1930, when Prohibition was still the law, an Associated Press story said Mason was indicted on bootlegging charges. Agents said they caught him with 275 gallons of whiskey and 500 gallons of wine.
In 1932, the Cleveland Mafia accused Mason of "muscling in" on the mobís numbers racket and Cleveland police said Mason was "marked for death." Four gunmen were found waiting to ambush and kill Mason. Fearing an all-out gang war, the police rounded up more than 70 men, including 21-year-old Angelo Lonardo, who later became the head of the Cleveland Mafia family, and even later became a government informant on underworld activities. At the time, Mason told the police he was "quitting the racket."
By the early 1940s, Mason had opened his Cedar Country Club in Solon. Cleveland drummer Fats Heard, then a student at old Central High School, recalled he played with saxophonist Coleman Hawkins at Benny Masonís Farm. Heard later played and recorded with Erroll Garner. Art Blakey and Mary Lou Williams formed a jazz group in Pittsburgh and their first gig was at Masonís country get-away in Solon.
In May of 1947, Masonís Cedar Country Club was the sponsor of one of the first radio broadcasts on Clevelandís WSRS of a Negro League baseball game, a contest between the Cleveland Buckeyes and the Chicago American Giants.
But Mason may not have completely given up the numbers racket. In December of 1949, according to another Associated Press report, four robbers, one dressed in a policemanís uniform, broke into Masonís home. They blew open a safe, tied up Masonís father-in-law, Travis Brabson, and fled with $15,000 in cash.
Mason died March 28, 1954 in a head-on automobile collision on route 42 five miles northeast of London, Ohio. The day after his death, according to Cleveland police, numbers players consulted the so-called "dream books" for a number to play in that dayís numbers game. The books suggested a specific number for "death" and that number hit! There were hundreds of winners. Sgt. Carl Delau of the Cleveland police said the hit forced many Cleveland numbers operators out of business.
At Masonís funeral April 5, 1954, a Baptist minister pointed to the mahogany casket surrounded by hundreds of flowers at East Mount Zion Church at 9900 Euclid Avenue and told the 500 mourners, "Here before us is one of Clevelandís most popular and colorful characters." The minister said of the numbers king pin, "Bennyís book is finished. Let us hope that he and the Lord are on speaking terms. Iím not trying to get Benny Mason into heaven. Thatís up to someone else."
But the Benny Mason story did not end with his funeral. The following December, a piece of paper purporting to be Masonís handwritten last will and testament, arrived in a plain envelope at Probate Court. The will, leaving only $10,000 each to his widow and daughter, and the bulk of his $182,000 estate to someone named Earleen Lander of Dayton, was supported by three witnesses and admitted to probate by Judge Frank Merrick. Masonís wife and daughter contested the will. During a trial, handwriting experts testified that Mason had neither written nor signed the purported will. The jury decided it was a forgery. Judge Joseph Silbert ruled Mason had died without a will and awarded his full estate to his widow and daughter.
While Benny Masonís Farm may have been a colorful and popular suburban nightclub, featuring a number of outstanding jazz artists, the nightclub certainly was never as colorful or as well known as the man who ran the place.
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 Mosbrookís Cleveland Jazz History book is available from the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society, 4614 Prospect Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio 44193.