Cafe Tia Juana was meant to be a catalyst for change during the racially divided 1940s. The most "plush" jazz club in Cleveland became one of the most infamous, with a reputation that eventually brought the café to its demise.
It’s a typical cold and drizzly evening in Cleveland, 1948. A young woman can be seen walking along the cracked asphalt. The buzzing light of the flickering neon sign ahead beckons her as the wafting sounds of snare drum riffs, husky baritone vocals, and a blaring trumpet become louder. The sultry-sounding music coming from behind the fogging windows increases her anticipation. The rat-a-tat riffs and spontaneous blats of the saxophone call her name as her heartbeat quickens with excitement. At last, she enters into its musical oasis.
This musical escape was called Cafe Tia Juana, a true oasis for Cleveland’s jazz fanatics during a time of tumultuous racial tensions in the late 1940s to 1960s. Located in the Glenville neighborhood, Cafe Tia Juana was one of Cleveland’s most popular jazz clubs and was nationally recognized for bringing the hottest names of jazz through its doors. It eventually developed a dually famous and infamous reputation, encapsulating contradiction. It was said that the club provided “a rich formula of beauty and glamour and top-flight musical talent,” yet was simultaneously “a source of disorder and aggression to the community.” Perhaps this complex identity mirrors the time, place and culture in which it was birthed. Cafe Tia Juana opened during jazz’s second wave, not the earlier Jazz Age, featuring the free form of bebop. Cafe Tia Juana developed a dual reputation for lawlessness and sensuality while also providing an interracial haven where people from mixed backgrounds could gather. The club–like jazz itself–broke through the social expectations of its time.
Cafe Tia Juana was intentionally integrated when racial segregation was common. The club was opened in 1947 by Catherine and Arthur “Little Brother” Drake, along with Little Brother’s previous business partner, Willie Hoge. The inspiration for the venture came after Catherine Drake was barred from entering a club in Cleveland because she was African American. She was with Hoge at the time, who was solely permitted, as he was a white customer. In response, the two Drakes and Hoge decided to open their own venue that would not discriminate against anyone who wanted to enter, creating an inclusive congregation of musical talents and admirers alike. Catherine Drake became the first African American woman to own and manage a jazz club in Cleveland.
The club’s appearance made it stand out amongst numerous other venues. It was designed by Charles L. Sallee Jr., the first African American graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Art. Sallee designed the club with unapologetic lavishness in a colorfully playful “Mexican style” with a surprising element of posh sophistication, using velvet carpets and excessive draperies. The interior architecture was also unique, with a four-leaf clover-shaped bar and booth design based around an elevated revolving stage in the center. Despite the club’s Spanish name (a variation of the Mexican city, Tijuana), Sallee’s design is rooted in Southeast Asian inspiration versus the “South of the Border” theme which advertisements claimed. Sallee served in the military during World War II and was stationed in the Philippines for some time where he drew his inspiration for the design of Cafe Tia Juana. The country’s sunny skies, colorful architecture, and vibrant culture inspired the colorful Pacific Island atmosphere of Cafe Tia Juana.
At its finest, Cafe Tia Juana was nationally recognized as a hot jazz club and was every bit the musical oasis that the Drakes had sought to create. It was luxuriously extravagant through its interior decorative style and by its nationally acclaimed jazz superstars. Impressively, in Cafe Tia Juana’s first two years of operation, it hosted the nation’s most famous jazz icons including Dizzy Gillespie, the King Cole Trio, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and Ella Fitzgerald, with The King Cole Trio being advertised as an upcoming performance in the club’s introductory article in 1947. The Cleveland Call and Post described the club in those early years as the “fabulous, most beautiful cafe spot in the Midwest” and as a “plush and fabulous cafe spot where top-flight entertainment is the mode.”
Despite the club’s promising start, Cafe Tia Juana struggled to maintain its positive reputation. As early as 1949, Cafe Tia Juana started to experience financial hardship as customers began to dwindle, due to changing music trends. In efforts to maintain excitement and to mitigate revenue troubles, Cafe Tia Juana became liberal in its entertainment offerings, first hosting talent shows and local bands, then clambakes, fashion shows and eventually exotic dancers. This expansion of entertainment also coincided with the club’s change of management and chronic financial and legal troubles. Catherine Drake became the sole owner of the club and managed Tia Juana with her two sons after Hoge and Little Brother were sent to prison for numerous racket schemes. In 1961, the U.S. Treasury Department “seized for nonpayment of delinquent Internal Revenue taxes due from Cafe Tia Juana.” The club was eventually managed by Mansfield Turner who started to bring in national jazz attractions once more, starting with Valerie Carr, in efforts to boost its image. Despite Turner’s efforts for revitalization, Cafe Tia Juana became exclusively associated with its poor management, gambling escapades, illegal activity and violence through a series of stabbings and a shooting.
In 1969, Cafe Tia Juana was closed permanently and the original building complex that ran along the corner of Massie Avenue and 105th Street was bought by Cleveland Christ Church Citadel of Hope Ministries and, soon after, was demolished. Although Cafe Tia Juana is long gone, its memory remains as an important symbol of Cleveland’s music history. It was both impacted and influenced by jazz and race during its short life and was a catalyst for change, it challenged cultural norms and expectations, representing an iconic time from Cleveland’s past. Tia Juana opened as a reaction to the discriminatory character of Cleveland and its racially divided public spaces. The space stood for equality and change in the face of adversity, successfully creating a lasting legacy.