Cleveland Jazz In The Jazz Age
At the Cleveland Museum of Art’s “The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s” visitors view the exhibit while the music that gives the era its name plays in the background. So what was playing in the foreground while the Jazz Age was actually taking place in Cleveland in the 1920s?
To find out, we asked Joe Mosbrook. He’s the author of the 1993 book “Cleveland Jazz History” and host of a weekly radio feature of the same name that’s aired on WCPN since 1988.
“Music and jazz in Cleveland in the ‘20s was dance bands. They were not the big bands that we heard later in the 30s, the 16 or 18 piece bands, but smaller bands that were 10 or 11 pieces. They played everywhere, hotels, restaurants and places like Euclid Beach Park, Luna Park, the Aragon Ballroom was operating in those days as was Oster’s Ballroom.” Mosbrook said.
Mosbrook also explained that jazz was often heard in a place you might not expect- Chinese restaurants- including the Golden Pheasant on Prospect, which had its own dance band as well as the Bamboo Garden at East 100th and Euclid.
Not everyone was so enthusiastic of this new music, including Nikolai Sokoloff, the first conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra.
“He banned them from playing jazz.” Mosbrook said.
Mosbrook said the government officials also frowned on jazz on moral grounds.
“There was a city regulation enacted in 1925 that said: ‘Vulgar noisy jazz music is prohibited. Such music almost forces dancers to use jerky half steps and invites immoral behavior,’” he said.
The regulation, according to Mosbrook, was impossible to enforce.
Like many spaces where people gathered, spots that offered jazz were often segregated. “Some of the ballrooms would have a band come in one night to play for a white audience and the next night for African American audiences. Some of the old musicians I talked to said there was a form of segregation beyond that, in which they would charge more for the black audience than the white audience for whatever reason,” Mosbrook said.
One of the centerpieces of the CMA exhibit is Viktor Schreckengost’s “The Jazz Bowl,” which he created in 1930. Mosbrook said that Shreckengost’s passion for the music extended beyond that of just a fan.
“Viktor told me that he played saxophone and clarinet with the Ken Webb band. They played a number of amusement park ballrooms in the ‘20s. This is when Viktor was an art student at what is now known as the Cleveland Institute of Art. I think his interest in jazz was reflected in designs and paintings and all of the visual art stuff he did.”
Joe shares stories of legendary star-crossed Jazz Age cornetist Bix Beiderbecke’s tragic times in Cleveland.