The Jazz Temple
When Jazz came to University Circle in the 1960s
Physical changes in neighborhoods are typical in most major cities, and with the passage of time they appear even more dramatic. Unlike fictional towns and buildings we’ve read about in childhood or seen in movies, change in community identity is inevitable. Yet some images from the past populate our memories and we recall them with remarkable clarity.
The Mayfield Triangle: The former street address 11339 Mayfield Road is now 11400 Euclid Avenue. And although official street numbering changes over the years for one reason or another (zoning requirements, city planning, urban renewal, or real estate development), certain historical facts about some properties often become lost amid the changes. Today, observing motorists and pedestrians teeming around the bustling Euclid Avenue and Mayfield Road intersection, it’s fair to say that few if any of them know the history of the Triangle area before it was transformed into the mini-metropolis now known as Uptown Cleveland. For a brief time in the early 1960s, the triangular lot, then known as the Mayfield Triangle, upon which now rests the Museum of Contemporary Art building, was the site of a popular coffee house jazz club called the Jazz Temple.
When the 1960s dawned in the United States, it was heralded as a new decade of youth and change by a dynamic young president, John F. Kennedy, who assumed office trumpeting his “new frontier”. In previous years, the calm complacency of the post World War-II era had lent a relative tranquility, but it was gradually disappearing as post-war babies were becoming young adults. With a cultural landscape that included sleek cars, the Twist, the Pill, and a persistent atmosphere of cigarette smoke, the nation was on the verge of a decade of counterculture and social revolution. A great deal of this culture fermented on college campuses where students were beginning to find their voices and express their own individual political views and values.
At a time when the U.S. was approaching some of its most explosive times, including the rise of a free speech movement, music was rapidly becoming the main vehicle of self-expression for young people. Jazz and one of its subgenres, free jazz/improvisational jazz, were very attractive, especially to college students. So when a shrewd and savvy young African American entrepreneur named Winston Willis brought his coffee house jazz club to University Circle, within arm’s reach of the Western Reserve University (now CWRU) campus, and at affordable prices, it appeared to be a dream come true for all concerned. Imagined, engineered and created by young Willis, who was also a big fan of the musical genre, the Jazz Temple arrived on the scene at the tail end of the Beatnik era and smack in the heyday of ’60s-type coffee houses. Willis chose the club’s name to symbolize a devout gathering place dedicated to the icons of the jazz world where legendary artists could be collectively enjoyed and appreciated.
Having operated several successful small businesses, he sensed that something was lacking in this upscale college community. So, after making a careful assessment of the area and determining what was needed and what would be likely to work, he decided that high-quality jazz performances at a student-friendly and affordable price was the answer. Then, quickly putting his idea into action, he secured a lease on a vacated building, a former Packard automobile showroom, and immediately began remodeling, devoting careful attention to acoustics. Shortly thereafter, in 1962, the club opened to immediate success.
The liquor-less establishment that seated approximately 450 people was near the ethnic enclave known as Murray Hill (Little Italy), a place that was notably hostile toward African Americans. As noted by former Cleveland mayor Carl B. Stokes, "... Cleveland was in the hands of ethnics, the immigrants from Middle and East European countries." Historian Dr. Todd M. Michney has observed that "... Little Italy's residents historically marked their territory and sought to ward off racial residential transition through the use of violence..." With surrounding institutional neighbors in the city’s so-called "cultural oasis," the Jazz Temple was a noteworthy, if incongruous jewel in the Mayfield Triangle.
From all over Cleveland and surrounding areas, dedicated jazz enthusiasts assembled to enjoy and appreciate the musical genre. Soon, the terms “preaching at The Temple” and “worshipping at The Temple” became popular colloquialisms and catchphrases. Legendary jazz greats, many of whom were considered musical geniuses, frequently headlined at the club. Miles Davis was cool but Kind of Blue, John Coltrane took Giant Steps to play My Favorite Things, and Dizzy Gillespie was blowin’ and Boppin’ and Groovin’. Many other notable artists also performed magnificent solo riffs, instrumentations and stunning improvisations that became sealed in memories forever. Though sometimes described erroneously in the local press as "the ultimate 'beatnik' club", the Temple also featured popular female jazz vocalists like Dinah Washington and Gloria Lynne, as well as great stand-up comics like Dick Gregory, Redd Foxx, and Richard Pryor.
During the early 1960s, the Western Reserve student body was predominantly white, and these students and others from surrounding universities accounted for a large percentage of the club’s patronage. But as is typical of jazz establishments, there was a noticeable amount of race mixing and many interracial couples in attendance each night. Individuals who managed to navigate the social inequities of the time and gather in a communal appreciation of jazz.
As the club’s notoriety grew, it came to be considered by many world-famous jazz musicians as the “Jazz Mecca." But the interracial dating and race-mixing at the club triggered widespread resentment in racially polarized Cleveland. Particularly in the Murray Hill (Little Italy) community, where visible racial tensions mounted. With attempted intimidation by local law enforcement, some nights saw as many Cleveland police officers in attendance in the club as regular customers. These visits were routinely followed by unscheduled and unannounced inspections and bogus citations. The warnings were dire and persistent, and thereafter, months of ominous threats of violence and anonymous phone calls during and after business hours foretold of the coming end. Several famous acts appearing at the club refused to be intimidated initially, insisting on performing. But finally, after several thwarted bombing attempts, the frequency and intensity of the threats were followed by a tremendous after-hours explosion in 1964 that completely demolished the Jazz Temple and its brief reign ended soon after. As reported in the local press: “Police were unable to find reasons for the bombing of the interracial house of jazz but they found remnants of a bomb." And the message was clear.