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

Part 98 - Remembering Benny Bailey
Story filed June 15, 2005

It was a tragic and puzzling end to a dazzling and under-appreciated career.

I received an e-mail message from a jazz drummer in Amsterdam, Holland, asking if I could help him find any of the relatives of native Cleveland jazz trumpeter Benny Bailey, the artist who inspired Quincy Jones to compose the classic big band anthem "Have You Met Benny Bailey." The drummer explained that neighbors on April 14th had found the 79-year-old Bailey dead in his Amsterdam apartment where he lived alone. The neighbors did not know Bailey and the police took the body to the local morgue. Hoping to locate relatives, Dutch authorities put a death announcement in a local paper -- almost two weeks later. "That’s how the Dutch jazz community found out about Benny’s death," said drummer Dries Bijlsma who played with Bailey in Amsterdam. "He often told me that he had a sister in Cleveland, and that’s why I contacted you."

I made some phone calls to Bailey’s friends and relatives and talked with his niece who said the family in Cleveland had just been notified of his death by the U.S. Consulate. This was two weeks after he was found. There was no mention of Bailey’s death in the Cleveland newspapers until 22 days after his death. Unfortunately, most of the media didn’t know much about the colorful life of the Cleveland jazz legend.

Born August 13, 1925 as "Ernest Harold Bailey," Benny told me he grew up on East 36th Street, went to East Tech High School, and formed a band called the Counts of Rhythm. He said the band got paid in hotdogs on its first gig. "We copied Louis Jordan records when we played for dances." Other members of the Counts of Rhythm included bassist Vic MacMillan, who later recorded with Charlie Parker, and saxophonist Willie Smith, who recently arranged for Joe Lovano.

One night, young Bailey attended a jam session at the old Majestic Hotel at East 55th and Central. Tadd Dameron was there and so was Dizzy Gillespie, whose playing made a huge impression on the young Cleveland trumpeter. "That was so different from anything I had ever heard, totally different," he said. "At first I thought he was missing notes." He said to himself, "What’s happening here? But the more I listened, the more fascinated I became with it. I was just sitting in the chair listening to these guys play and I really became fascinated with it. It was totally different from anything I had ever heard."

In 1944, when Bailey was 19, he and Smith joined the band of Scatman Crothers in Akron and went with Carothers to California for several years.

In 1948, with the help of Cleveland trombonist William "Shep" Shepherd, who was playing with Gillespie’s big band, Bailey joined Dizzy’s band. "Shepherd knew me from Cleveland," recalled Bailey, "and they were going to Europe." With Dizzy’s now-legendary bop big band Bailey went to Europe for the first time and played for wildly enthusiastic crowds. "They accepted this music we were playing which was very new," said Bailey, "and we got a great reception everywhere -- France, Sweden, everywhere. I liked it! I liked the way of life and everything. So I decided to come back. I decided I would like to live there."

He managed to return to Europe the following year. Bailey and Smith joined the Lionel Hampton Orchestra for a European tour. During that trip, Bailey soloed on a song written by Smith called "Cool Train." Another member of the Hampton Orchestra at the time was Quincy Jones who composed a salute to the Cleveland trumpeter that has become a jazz standard. It was called "Meet Benny Bailey. Jon Hendricks later added vocalese lyrics to the anthem.

After playing with the Hampton band in Sweden, Bailey in 1953 stayed in Stockholm and began performing with Harry Arnold’s big band on Swedish radio. Bailey moved to Europe permanently in 1961, in part he said, to get away from drugs in the United States.

He became a fixture on the European jazz scene, playing with most of the top bands in Holland, Sweden, Germany and Norway, and appearing on countless records. He also played with the Duke Ellington Orchestra during Ellington’s 70th birthday tour of Europe in 1969.

From time to time, Benny would quietly return to Cleveland to visit his sister, Doris Matthews, and his old childhood friend Smith. In April of 1992, Smith assembled an all-star big band to perform a Cleveland homecoming concert with Bailey at the Tri-C JazzFest. During the concert, Bailey soloed on "T and M," "Solar," "I Remember Clifford," "Groovin’ High," and sang on arrangements of "I Can’t Get Started" and "Take the ‘A’ Train." He was also honored with a resolution from the Cleveland City Council. It was the first time Bailey had played in Cleveland in decades. He demonstrated the amazing trumpet work that had impressed Gillespie, Hampton and thousands of Europeans. Plain Dealer reviewer Nick Charles wrote, "All who attended can now attest to this local legend’s unlimited worth. Welcome home, Benny Bailey!"

Earlier that day, I conducted a symposium with Bailey and asked him about a story Smith had told me, that the first thing he does in the morning, when he gets up, is practice with his trumpet. "Yeah," said Bailey, "I still do it, before I eat breakfast. It gets me set for the day."

Bailey’s last performance in Cleveland was two and a half years later. It was not as successful. In October of 1994, he agreed to play a benefit concert at Cleveland State University. At the last minute, two Cleveland area musicians, bassist Gary Aprile and pianist Eric Gould, walked out. They claimed Bailey was abusive to them during a rehearsal. The concert went on awkwardly with substitutes.

While he never performed in Cleveland again, Bailey did return to Cleveland quietly several times. Family members told me he was at the Cleveland Clinic for about a month a couple of years ago. But the public never heard about any health problems until we learned that he had died at his apartment in Amsterdam April 14th.

There was a memorial service May 10th in Amsterdam. Eight of Benny’s relatives and many fellow musicians participated, playing two ballads including "Bird Alone," and praising his musical talents, gentle personality and sense of humor. The Dutch drummer who first contacted me said it was a touching and solemn event.

Many believe that if he had remained in the United States, Bailey might have been one of the biggest names in jazz. Despite the confusion surrounding his death, he was certainly one of the biggest names in European jazz -- and one of Cleveland’s most important contributions to the art form.

Copyright 2005 Joe Mosbrook


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