Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series
Part 96 - Bobby Short’s Cleveland Connections
Bobby Short, the elegant and stylish saloon singer who died March 21, 2005 at the age of 80, was a fixture for 35 years at the Carlyle Hotel in New York City. He became almost the personification of Manhattan sophistication, but Short was a native of the Midwest and had many ties to Cleveland.
Born in 1924 in Danville, Illinois, Short began his entertainment career before he even got to high school. He later recalled, "I began when I was 12. I was on the stage in vaudeville for two years as a kid performer and I learned to entertain people." Dressed in a white formal suit with tails, the boy singer and pianist performed in vaudeville theatres in Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Kansas City and Cleveland. He also played at the palatial old Hollenden Hotel at East 6th and Superior. On the road, he met such entertainers as Art Tatum and Nat Cole.
Short returned to Danville and graduated from Danville High School in 1942. America was at war and racial segregation was widespread. In a 2004 interview, Short recalled there were few job opportunities at the time for a young African-American. "I had very few choices back in 1942 and thank heaven," he said, "one has more choices today."
He got jobs entertaining in Chicago and began to tour. One of the first stops was at the Congo Room of the Fenway Hall Hotel at East 107th and Euclid in Cleveland’s University Circle area. When he arrived at the Fenway for a four-week engagements, he recalled in his autobiography that the manager, James Louis Smith, told the young black man he could not stay at the posh hotel. With the help of a Negro hotel employee, he found a room at the new Cedar Avenue YMCA.
The Congo Room, which he said had no suggestion of anything to do with its African name, was a small, intimate room with upholstered seats and a spinet piano on a short platform. Short recalled, "there was no way to avoid direct contact with the customers." In Cleveland, he said he learned an important lesson. "I was noted for my interest in very, very obscure material. And I thought I was putting something over on my audience. Well, of course, I was, and they wouldn’t like me too much. So I learned to hold these things down and to present myself in a more direct fashion and to touch the audience."
The audience at Cleveland’s Fenway Hotel in 1942 was well-heeled and quietly sophisticated. Foreshadowing his later years in New York, Short said he also learned to mingle with the customers. While in Cleveland, the 18-year-old entertainer also visited museums and libraries nearby, and began wearing tweed jackets instead of those theatrical white tails.
He went to California in 1943, New York in 1945, Paris and London in 1952, and back to California in 1953, making friends at every stop.
In the ‘50s, Short also performed frequently again in Cleveland. He was hired to sing an play at such nightclubs as Kornman’s on Short Vincent, Billy’s and the Hickory Grill. The Cleveland clubs where he performed were owned by the legendary Billy Weinberger who later ran Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. Short also remembered his friendship with Cleveland Press columnist Winsor French. Short recalled, "Those were nice times in Cleveland."
In 1968, Short began playing at the extremely elegant Carlyle Hotel Café at 76th and Madison in the upper east side area of New York City. It’s an intimate room that seats no more than 130 people. Short called it "very cozy with very discreet and polite waiters" and added, "It is not cheap." In that setting, Short practiced what he had learned at a Cleveland hotel in 1942: "You’ve got to make yourself a part of the audience, and make them comfortable."
In 1970, Short was invited for the first time to perform at the White House in Washington. He was asked to sing at a private party President Richard Nixon was giving for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Also performing at that party was a group of young singers from Los Angeles called "The Young Saints." The group was led by Cleveland native Evelyn Freeman, who had organized an historic teenaged jazz band in Cleveland in 1940, and her husband Tommy Roberts. Short recalled that because the White House did not offer him or the Young Saints dinner, he took the whole group out to a nearby restaurant. In Short’s autobiography, Saloon Singer, there is a photo of him with President and Mrs. Nixon, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and Clevelander Evelyn Freeman and her husband, Tommy Roberts.
In 1992, Short began recording for Telarc International of Beachwood. His first compact disc for Telarc was Late Night at the Café Carlyle. He went on to release six albums for the Cleveland company.
Short’s last appearance in Cleveland was in April of 2002 when he performed a Tri-C JazzFest concert at Severance Hall. Marty Ashby, who produced the concert for the Jazz on the Circle series and JazzFest, said Short made big Severance Hall "feel like a living room," just as he had learned to do at the Fenway Hall Hotel in Cleveland 60 years earlier.
At the time of his death, Short was planning to return to his old hometown of Danville, Illinois for a big celebration scheduled for April 16th.
Copyright 2005 Joe Mosbrook
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