Filed Under Music

Cafe Tia Juana

Second Wave Jazz in Glenville

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.

Images

Cafe Tia Juana at the corner of Massie Avenue and East 105th Street Standing on a prominent corner along one of Glenville's principal commercial corridors, Cafe Tia Juana was a mainstay in the neighborhood that also drew national renown as a jazz club. Source: Cleveland Public Library City Hall Photography Collection Creator: Warner Thomas Photographer City of Cleveland Date: July 30, 1969
Cafe Tia Juana in Pen The sombrero-shaped club sign evoked the Mexican city despite there being no connection whatsoever between the club and Mexico. In fact, the inspiration was from a different part of the onetime Spanish Empire--the Philippines. Source: Petraglyphs Creator: Petra Brown Date: October 2019
Interior after Closure This photo was taken by the City of Cleveland shortly after Cafe Tia Juana was permanently closed in 1969. When the club was first opened, it was known for its plush and lavish interior. Charles L. Sallee Jr., the first African American graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Art, designed the club with unapologetic lavishness while incorporating a colorfully playful, so-called “Mexican style” with an element of posh sophistication, using velvet carpets and excessive draperies. “Using a south of the border theme, Sallee turned the space into a swank café, hanging large mirrors on the wall, laying down luxurious carpet, painting beautiful large Mexican themed murals, and creating a smooth ambiance with warm-colored spotlighting.” Source: Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection Creator: Warner Thomas, Photographer City of Cleveland Date: July 30, 1969
Cafe Tia Juana in Prismacolor This is an interpretive rendering of what Cafe Tia Juana's interior may have looked and felt like. There was a four-leaf-clover-shaped bar and booth built around a central elevated revolving stage, and four curved booths surrounded the stage with a small bar and a tender at each. Source: Petraglyphs Creator: Petra Brown Date: November 2019
Billie Holiday at Cafe Tia Juana “Crowds six deep around the bar and overflowing” came to fill the club to its brim while Billie Holiday performed. She stayed and performed at Tia Juana for an entire week in 1948. 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.” Source: Cleveland Call and Post Date: July 11, 1948
The King Cole Trio is Coming to Town! Impressively, Cafe Tia Juana’s first two years of operation were the ones to host 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. Source: Cleveland Call and Post Date: November 6, 1948
Presenting Maxine Sullivan at Cafe Tia Juana! Source: Cleveland Call and Post Date: January 1, 1949
Go-Go Girls to Spice Up the Nights! As early as 1949, Cafe Tia Juana started to experience financial hardships as customers began to dwindle, due to changing music trends. In the '50s and '60s, jazz began to fizzle as other musical styles took the spotlight. Tia Juana began to veer away from jazz as a result, offering other forms of entertainment, from clambakes to fashion shows. Exotic entertainment such as the go-go girls, attributed to the cafe’s later reputation as a sleazy joint with shady practices and entertainment. Source: Cleveland Call and Post Date: January 25, 1969
Fashion and Furs at the Tia Juana. Source: Cleveland Call and Post Date: November 15, 1949
"Tropical Lounge" Cafe Tia Juana was advertised as the "Tropical Lounge" at times, capitalizing on the club's unique "South of the Border" decor. Source: Cleveland Call and Post Date: January 1, 1949
What Remained After Tia Juana's Closure This photo was taken by the City of Cleveland shortly after Cafe Tia Juana was permanently closed in 1969. In her last years of operation, the club experienced extensive financial and legal troubles. Between 1955 and 1967, the club shut down temporarily and reopened under new management or ownership at least four times. The club became exclusively associated with poor management, gambling escapades, and violence through a series of stabbings and a shooting, leading to one fatality. Source: Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection Creator: Warner Thomas, Photographer City of Cleveland Date: July 30, 1969

Location

1045 E 105th St, Cleveland, OH 44108 | Cafe Tia Juana no longer exists. Cleveland Christ Church Citadel of Hope Ministries is now located where Tia Juana once stood.

Metadata

Petra Brown, “Cafe Tia Juana,” Cleveland Historical, accessed May 24, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/index.php/items/show/882.