Cleveland Gets a Nod in New Book About Jazz Clubs of the '40s and '50s

A few years ago, Jeff Gold, a music memorabilia expert who regularly donates items to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Library and Archives, received a tip about someone selling a collection of vintage photos and memorabilia associated with American jazz clubs from the '40s and '50s.

“Somebody connected me with this guy, whom I had met briefly years before,” recounts Gold, who has collected the images in the just-released Sittin’ In: Jazz Clubs of the 1940s and 1950s, in a recent phone interview. “[The seller] was transitioning in his collecting from jazz stuff to other areas of collectibles. I told him that I was always interested in buying stuff."

The seller lived in Southern California a couple of hours from where Gold lives, so Gold drove to his house and picked him up and went to his bank where everything was stored in large safe deposit boxes.

"He had been buying this stuff for many years, and it was stored in the order he bought it," says Gold. "There would be a photo and a ticket and a picture and a record and a poster in no order. I was going through these boxes in this six-by-six foot safe deposit room in a bank, and I started seeing these photos from Birdland and Small’s Paradise and these clubs I had heard of. I had never seen anything like this.”

Gold bought the entire collection and then proceeded to do research to find out more about the clubs, many of which have closed.

“There are some clubs that are really well-documented like Birdland,” he says. “And there are some clubs like the ones in Cleveland that are not well-documented. There’s almost nothing on Club 77. A friend of mine, [former Rock Hall curator] Howard Kramer, sent me the picture of Louis Jordan appearing there. I couldn’t find anything on Club 77 except [a mention] in a book on Cleveland jazz by [local broadcaster] Joe Mosbrook. That was the one end of the spectrum. It was tracking down information and doing detective work. Joe knew about Club 77, and I got a list of musicians who had played there through a Cleveland African-American newspaper from the time.”

While doing his research, Gold discovered that in some cities there would be a white band and white audience pre-midnight and black musicians and black audiences after midnight.

“I hadn’t heard about that before I started researching Cleveland,” says Gold. “In the ‘30s and 40s, it becomes the sixth most populated city and, it started booming. Val’s on the Alley was Art Tatum’s home place. Touring musicians would jam with him and Doan’s Corners pops up as an entertainment hub, and clubs open there in the ’30s and ’40s. The most famous is Lindsay’s Sky Bar, which had lots of touring national acts. At some point, there were more thatn two dozen jazz clubs booking national touring acts. It was a huge hub of activity. A lot of it is routing. There are more clubs in Chicago, and there’s a hearty scene in Detroit. It makes sense to play a few cities that bands can get to in a day’s drive.”

The book features 200 photos as well as colorful club graphics (cards, menus, flyers, matchbooks, postcards, and posters). Gold also interviewed musicians Sonny Rollins and Quincy Jones as well as jazz historian Dan Morgenstern for first-person accounts of the clubs. In addition, the book includes a Q&A with jazz pianist and composer, MacArthur Fellow and Kennedy Center creative director Jason Moran, who explores the history and culture of the music during the era when bebop evolved from and in response to the big band swing sound, and Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion critic Robin Givhan, who discusses the style of both clubgoers and musicians of the day.

“I think it’s an incredible celebration of jazz culture and African-American culture and an exploration about how even today when there’s still racism and problems across the country, this music was and is a great unifying force and stuff began to break down around art,” says Gold when asked about what he hopes people get out of the book. “It’s kind of this hidden world, and, as weird as it sounds, as I bought this stuff and stared it down and it stared me down, I realized it was important stuff that needed to be available to people. People need to see how important a role jazz played in people’s lives and in moving America forward.”

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About The Author

Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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