Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series
Part 94 - Hank Kohout
For more than 60 years, Hank Kohout has been one of Cleveland’s leading jazz pianists. He is probably best remembered for playing with the Bob McKee Trio, the house band at the Theatrical Grill on Vincent Avenue, for 17 years, but Hank also played with some of the giants of jazz on New York City’s famous 52nd Street, with leading big bands, and with network broadcast orchestras as well.
Born and raised in Cleveland, Kohout graduated from West Tech High School and studied classical music for ten years before he was exposed to jazz. "One day," he recalled, "I heard Teddy Wilson play piano and suddenly asked myself, ‘What took me so long?’" He quickly dropped classical music. "I listened to Teddy’s records." he said, "and tried to copy what he was doing. Teddy was a very clean player and that’s what I like to hear; I like to hear every note nice and clear."
In 1939, after studying classical music for ten years, teenager Kohout immersed himself in jazz, playing everywhere he could. "There were a lot of people playing jazz in Cleveland at that time," he said, "and they used to have jam sessions which I attended. I learned a lot just sitting in." During some of those jam sessions, Hank met and played with an amazing young guitarist from Cleveland Heights who had gone to Ohio State University. "Bill de Arango called me," Hank recalled, "and wanted to put together a trio. We started playing at some of the nightclubs on Short Vincent.
Eventually the trio went on the road. One day in Indiana, Hank ran into a friend who was playing with the Red Norvo band and said Red was looking for a piano player. "I decided to take a crack at it," said Hank. "I left the trio and went to New York." He auditioned for the vibraphonist and bandleader, got the job, and began to tour with the Norvo big band.
They played the theatre circuit including the Palace Theatre in Cleveland. On the bill with the Norvo band were such entertainers as comedian Jimmy Durante, singer Mildred Bailey, and dancers Step ‘n Fetch It. But the Norvo big band was not a huge success. "When we got back to New York," said Kohout, "the war broke out and the band broke up. We put together a sextet which we took into the Famous Door."
The Famous Door was one of the jazz clubs along New York City’s fabled 52nd Street where every night for years the top jazz artists were performing. Clevelander Kohout found himself right in the middle of the action. He said, "Red hired Shorty Rogers on trumpet, Eddie Bert on trombone, Aaron Jackson on clarinet and Specs Powell was the drummer. We had Johnny Guarnieri’s brother Leo playing bass with us. And Red and myself."
When the Norvo Sextet broke up, Kohout continued playing on 52nd Street. In 1942, he was playing piano in the house band down the street at the Three Deuces. The other members of that house band were Powell and bassist Milt Hinton. They regularly backed such saxophonists as Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Flip Phillips and Georgie Auld. Looking back, Hank smiled and admitted, "That was pretty fast company!"
In the early 1940s, there were still seven jazz clubs concentrated on New York’s 52nd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. Top jazz musicians seemed to be almost everywhere on "the street." Kohout said, "That was an era that will never be duplicated again. There were a whole bunch of clubs and at any given time they had some of the best music in the world by some of the best players."
For several weeks, Kohout substituted for native Cleveland pianist Al Lerner, playing with the Harry James Orchestra, including an engagement at New York’s Paramount Theatre. He also played briefly with the Bobby Byrne big band. But, he decided to leave New York City in 1943.
"I left because they were looking for a piano player in Cleveland," he said. "I came back to Cleveland and auditioned for a job with the WHK studio orchestra." The orchestra, led by Willard Fox, was doing regular radio broadcasts from Cleveland to about 300 stations of the Mutual network. Kohout played for ten years with the radio orchestra, plus six or seven years on a program called The Ohio Story on WTAM. He also did TV work in Cleveland including The Mike Douglas Show which was produced at Channel 3 for a national audience. While working the studio jobs, Kohout was also playing jazz gigs at night at a variety of clubs. He said, "I think I played about every club in town."
Beginning in 1963, Kohout was the pianist in the house band at the Theatrical Grill for 17 years. With drummer Bob McKee and bassist Ken Seifert, he played six nights a week at the popular club that featured national jazz artists. "It got to the point," recalled Kohout, "that some of the touring musicians came in without their groups and we would play with them, people like Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickinson and Doc Severinsen." When Red Norvo came to the Theatrical, Hank pulled double-duty, playing piano with both his old boss’ group and with the McKee Trio. When Jimmy and Marian McPartland played at the Theatrical, Hank joined Jimmy’s group for several numbers and then sat side-by-side with Marian, playing four-handed piano. Newspaper reports said It brought down the house.
Mushy Wexler, who ran the Theatrical, liked traditional jazz and hired a lot of dixieland bands. Kohout remembered Wilbur de Paris, Billy Maxted, Jonah Jones and many others. "There were so many that I can’t remember them all."
The Theatrical, Cleveland’s leading night spot for more than 50 years, attracted a wide variety of customers. They included politicians, lawyers, newspaper people, and sports figures. Hank said, "We had them all, clergy sitting next to guys in the Mafia. We had strippers. They were all there and they were like family."
Kohout finally left the Theatrical in 1979 after Wexler died and the music policy changed. The club stopped presenting live jazz in 1990 and closed a few years later. "If Mushy had lived another ten or twenty years," said Kohout, "it wouldn’t have changed at all. It would still be today like it used to be."
Kohout, now 81 and living quietly in Parma, teaches a little, but he is not playing piano very much. He said, "I have Parkinson’s now and it hasn’t helped my playing at all. I get disgusted. I can still do it, but if I can’t do it the way I want to do it, I don’t want to do it."
Like his early idol, Teddy Wilson, Kohout always played with a clean, pure technique. Performing in almost every musical style, the native Clevelander, who has been heard and appreciated by millions, is still remembered as a piano player’s piano player.
Copyright 2005 Joe Mosbrook
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You can hear radio versions of Cleveland Jazz History on WCPN/90.3 Monday nights at 9:30. 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.