Gleason's Musical Bar

In its heyday in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the corner of Woodland and East 55th was, in the words of bluesman George Hendricks, "like another city--it was like New York." Before Leo's Casino had its storied run as a Motown stronghold on Euclid Avenue, Gleason's Musical Bar was the anchor of what some called "Cleveland's Harlem." By providing a welcoming place for black musicians to break their talent, Gleason's played an important but seldom cited role in enabling Cleveland to assume its eventual reputation as the home of rock and roll.

The jazz and blues traditions that underlay the emergence of rock and roll found expression in the American South and, as a result of the Great Migration, in northern cities as well. Into the mid-twentieth century, African American performers played the so-called Chitlin' Circuit, a series of music clubs throughout the eastern United States that provided a safe haven from Jim Crow practices. Though less known today than Leo's Casino, Gleason's Musical Bar, opened in 1942 by William "Jap" Gleason at 5219 Woodland Avenue, was one of three local clubs on the Chitlin' Circuit.

Gleason's challenged social norms by being an interracial venue. Although patrons were predominantly black, Jap Gleason never discouraged white patrons from enjoying the music. One famous white patron at Gleason's was radio personality Alan Freed, who is credited with coining the term "rock 'n' roll." In fact, Freed recruited Gleason's performers to play on the WJW radio station. Freed was also the host, coordinator, and MC of the first Moondog Coronation Ball that took place in 1952. Gleason's kickstarted a number of black artists' careers. Jap Gleason employed noted musicians like James Brown and Tiny Grimes for a time. Tiny Grimes was one of the artists billed to play the Moondog Coronation Ball.

Jap Gleason's legacy runs deeper than simply being a music venue owner. He helped set the standard for music establishments in Cleveland. Gleason's Musical Bar was a small stage that seated around 100 people. Jap Gleason did not force patrons to leave after the shows but instead encouraged them to stay as long as they felt comfortable. To Gleason it was about people enjoying the music. He also set a dress code for his patrons and musicians, requiring a high standard of dress for everyone who entered his establishment.

The intimate setting and personalized attention that Gleason showed to performers was not enough to overcome an emerging trend in the music industry, one that accompanied the growing crossover popularity of black music. Gradually promoters at bigger venues began attracting multi-act Motown revues, and the center of gravity for nightlife shifted about two miles east to the "Gold Coast" around Euclid Avenue and East 105th Street. With the club's closing in 1962, Jap Gleason entered into real estate investment until his death in 1996.

In 1964, the location of Gleason's reopened as another club called the House of Blues. This House of Blues had no connection with the former Gleason's or the current House of Blues located on Euclid Avenue at East 4th Street. By shepherding musicians through a difficult time in American history and challenging discrimination, men like Jap Gleason gave up-and-coming artists the ability to hone their music abilities so that rock and roll had a firm foundation. In that sense, the connection between Gleason's Musical Bar and the chain concert hall in the heart of downtown could not be clearer.

Images

Gleason's Ad, 1948

Gleason's Ad, 1948

Tiny Grimes performed at Gleason's a number of times and was an employee of Jap Gleason in his early days as a musician. Grimes was one of the musicians who was billed to play the first Moondog Coronation Ball in 1952. Call and Post, July 3, 1948 View File Details Page

House of Blues, 1964

House of Blues, 1964

In 1962, Gleason's closed its doors. In 1964 the building reopened as the House of Blues, which had no connection to the House of Blues Foundation and the House of Blues located near Public Square. Image courtesy of Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection View File Details Page

5200 Block of Woodland Avenue, 1992

5200 Block of Woodland Avenue, 1992

As of 1992, when this photo was taken, the former building that once housed Gleason's Musical Bar was still standing, but all other storefronts in the block had given way to surface lots. This building has since been demolished too. Gleason's was important to the history of music in Cleveland by helping a number of artists to national success, but in concert with other nearby clubs it also made Woodland-East 55th a lively nightlife district until the action shifted eastward to the so-called "Gold Coast" along Euclid and East 105th. Image courtesy of Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection View File Details Page

Audio

Blues at Gleason's

Derwood Tatum remembers the many blues greats who played Gleason's. View File Details Page

Gleason's and the Chitlin' Circuit

George Hendricks recalls how, along with black radio stations WABQ and WJMO, the so-called "Chitlin' Circuit" clubs, including Gleason's, were bands' best hope of gaining widespread exposure for their records. View File Details Page

Gleason's Strict Dress Code

George Hendricks recalls how club owner William "Jap" Gleason instituted a very strict dress code as part of his effort to maintain the highest standard of decorum at Gleason's. View File Details Page

Evading the State Man

R&B musician George Hendricks recalls how he started playing at Gleason's in the late 1950s at age 17. With the help of a watchman, he sometimes left the stage in the middle of a show to hide in the kitchen from the "state man" until the coast was clear. View File Details Page

Ahmed Evans on Saxophone

George Hendricks recalls how he started playing gigs at Gleason's with a blues band with a blind drummer named Connie and Ahmed Evans (who later gained notoriety for his role in the Glenville Shootout) on saxophone. View File Details Page

Contrasting Gleason's with Problems at a White Club

To demonstrate how Gleason's was a safe haven for black musicians, George Hendricks recalls when he and Lou Ragland played in an all-black club that was warned not to mingle with white patrons, especially women, when they played at the Can-Can on West 25th Street. Police stopped and questioned the band almost every night as they tried to make their way home from the club. View File Details Page

What Killed Gleason's

George Hendricks credits $6 multi-artist Motown shows at large venues like Keith-105 Theater and the Arena with driving Gleason's and other smaller clubs out of business. View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Adonees Sarrouh, “Gleason's Musical Bar,” Cleveland Historical, accessed March 27, 2017, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/634.
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