Editorial note: Aundra Willis-Carrasco shares her memories of waitressing as a teenager at her brother’s coffeehouse nightclub at the height of its popularity and some of the behind-the-scenes inner workings of what made it such a success. Hers is a frank and illuminating window into 1960s Cleveland and the close-knit Black family (originally from Montgomery, Alabama) from which Winston Willis emerged and went on to become a force in the annals of American entrepreneurship. Coincidentally, Aundra also remembers her family’s use of The Negro Motorist Green Book on their annual summer vacations. Although the Willis family had joined in the Great Migration in the early 1950s and settled in Detroit, several weeks of each year were always set aside for the long south-bound drives, crossing over the Mason-Dixon line, and carefully navigating their way through backwoods southern towns to visit family in Montgomery. The Green Book provided thoroughly researched road maps as well as a list of restaurants, diners, service stations, hotels, and other establishments that were safe to patronize. Aundra remembers that her parents kept their Green Book hidden in a secret place in their car in case they were stopped by the police.
At 11400 Euclid Avenue sits the enormous, oddly shaped, smoked glass-paneled Museum of Contemporary Art-Cleveland (MOCA). Positioned directly adjacent to Case Western Reserve University in University Circle at the corner of Euclid and Mayfield Road, the dark geometrical structure is surrounded by several large institutional and cultural buildings, as well as student housing apartments. The scene could not be more strikingly different from when the Jazz Temple (11339 Mayfield Road) stood on this spot.
A short walk east of MOCA, across the grassy plaza, a 21-foot-high sculpture of a human hand (Tony Tasset’s Judy’s Hand) digs deep into the dirt as though searching for remnants of the past. The only missing element of the striking imagery is the sound of jazz—the trumpet virtuoso stylings of Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey’s extraordinary drum solos, Sonny Rollins and Cannonball Adderley’s alto saxophone, the bluesy piano sounds of Horace Silver, and John Coltrane’s improvisational tenor saxophone—all wafting up as accompaniment to memories of this once-famous location where long ago, jazz enthusiasts “worshipped at the Temple.”
The Jazz Temple began as Winston Willis’s secret ambition and was later solidified with an unexpected meeting with one of his musical idols, legendary jazz trumpeter, Miles Davis, in Detroit. Just a few years later, after having moved to Cleveland in 1959 and establishing several successful businesses on the lower East side, Winston set out to make his dream come true. He bought a former Packard auto showroom at the corner of Euclid and Ford. During the remodeling of the building and the planning for the grand opening, a nationwide newspaper strike curtailed all print advertising possibilities. So, with his original plans interrupted, Winston purchased and refurbished a used UPS truck and converted the vehicle into a traveling billboard. His friend, local artist Nelson Stevens, painted large, colorful “coming attraction” signs heralding the Jazz Temple’s approaching presence in University Circle. And soon, Winston and his girlfriend Charlene opened their unique coffee-house nightclub to immediate and resounding success, though it would be short lived.
Opened in fall 1962, the Jazz Temple instantly became a cultural mecca. Having successfully transformed the building into Winston’s personal vision of a jazz venue, with careful attention to acoustics, he and Charlene were very pleased that the ambiance of the room was perfectly set: high, vaulted ceilings, unobtrusive overhead lighting, candle-lit tables with checkered tablecloths, comfortable seating, and natural hardwood flooring, covered with a sprinkling of sawdust. The steps leading up to the large stage were minimal and reinforced to prevent slipping, and careful attention was paid to stage lighting. The vibe in the liquor-free club was congenial and inclusive, with a broad demographic of jazz savants, college students, locals, and tourists, all gathered in one place, navigating the social inequities of the time in communal appreciation of jazz.
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My own personal memories abound with clarity and fondness for those days, as well as an even deeper appreciation for my brother’s brilliant vision, business instincts, and courage. In the fall of 1963, my family and I were in Cleveland on our latest visit with Winston to see and enjoy his spectacular business venture, the Jazz Temple. Our parents had splurged on airfare, and we enjoyed the short flight from Detroit. I recall being struck by the resplendent beauty of the change of seasons as Winston drove us around Wade Park. The air had just begun to become cooler and crisp, and the leaves on the mighty trees were starting to turn into magnificent colors and wear the ensembles of fall. One could not help but savor and appreciate the temporary status of such colorful natural beauty, knowing that these same trees would soon be Winter-bare.
Arriving at Winston’s large four-story brick English Tudor home on East Boulevard, which he shared with his girlfriend, Charlene and several other tenants and friends, our typical festive family dinner added to the occasion and relieved our mother of her normal cooking obligations. Later that evening, we had front row seats at the Jazz Temple where the featured performers were Art Blakely and the Jazz Messengers, Dinah Washington, and comedian Redd Foxx. Our mother was a long-time fan of Dinah Washington’s, and Winston carefully arranged for the two of them to meet backstage after Ms. Washington finished performing. During Redd Foxx’s stand-up set, Winston told me to take a glass of water to the comic, and I reluctantly obliged, never imagining that the notoriously raunchy comedian would pull me onto the stage and include me in his act. But the audience response was tremendous, and it did not escape my attention that the biggest laughs were coming from my brother.
I had been enrolled in college and was scheduled to begin classes in Detroit in a few weeks, but when Winston invited me to stay on and work with him and Charlene in the club for a few days, I eagerly accepted his invitation. It took some doing for him to convince my parents to agree, but somehow, he managed to gain their approval. When Winston was helping me get settled in my room, I could hear the weird and strangely improvisational sound of what I guessed was a saxophone coming from somewhere upstairs. When I inquired about it, my brother, as was so typical of him, gave me a quick tutorial about the superiority of jazz and why I should appreciate it as much as he did. In those days, however, musical tastes formed in my adolescent and teen years revolved around dance hits and rock ‘n’ roll, and I was still swooning over Sam Cooke and Johnny Mathis. So Winston’s entreaty was completely lost on me. I was equally as unimpressed when he said: “That’s a friend of mine. He’s rehearsing his music, so don’t ever go up there or disturb him.” I was soon to discover that the noisy friend upstairs in the secluded loft was John Coltrane.
My waitress training consisted mostly of my being instructed to service as many tables as humanly possible. And to remember, at Charlene’s insistence, to constantly remind the customers that the coffees were imported, and the burgers were made with pure, prime beef. “You’re gonna be competing with the acoustics and the music,” said my brother. “So when you’re taking orders, just remember to keep your voice strong enough for the customers to hear you, but not to interfere with the performers as they’re playing.”
Winston’s girlfriend Charlene was very kind to me, and she became like an older sister. She really appreciated my help, waitressing at the club in the evenings as well as performing receptionist duties during the day. During daytime hours, she was working as a hair stylist and managing her popular beauty salon, so I was happy to be able to relieve her of some of the hands-on responsibilities at the club. I also served as an occasional babysitter to her beloved Maltese dog, Ming-Toi. In my role as receptionist, I was immediately shocked by the number of threatening racist telephone calls coming into the club on a frequent basis. I had not encountered such vile and hateful language since growing up in Alabama and I found it disturbing. However, I was in for an even bigger surprise.
At the time, a popular Italian restaurant was located directly across the street from the club, and there came a time when several of the musicians in Dizzy Gillespie’s band walked over to the establishment to purchase a meal, only to be refused service and turned away. Upon hearing of this insult, Gillespie took considerable umbrage, stating, while walking out the door and heading over to the restaurant: “Well they’re gonna have to tell me to my face.” And when he returned to the club a few minutes later in a huff, it was clear that he had indeed been told to his face. After this incident, Winston and Charlene began hosting huge meals for the performers at their home, and festivities were truly memorable. I mostly assisted with food prep activities in the kitchen, but Charlene, who was a fabulous cook, did most of the cooking with Winston’s able assistance. The performers really enjoyed the food and were deeply appreciative of having home-cooked meals during their frequent travels.
When I began to navigate my way around the Wade Park area, I was warned by family and friends not to venture onto certain blocks up and down Euclid Avenue because it was “forbidden territory” and “off-limits to us.” My aunt and uncle, who lived on Quincy Avenue and had been Cleveland residents for many years. They shared numerous accounts of incidents of police harassment and brutality occurring frequently. So, I soon learned to limit my forays into the city to short trips to and from the club. Of course, Winston, in his self-appointed over-protective brother role, insisted on driving me anywhere I needed to go, or assigning one of his employees to drive me.
During the brief existence of the Jazz Temple, which was directly adjacent to what was then called Western Reserve University, the huge local college crowds were actually enhanced by other college students coming in from other areas. But the neighboring Murray Hill (Little Italy) residents let it be known that the wildly popular place was not welcome in their community. As did local police departments. Each evening that the club was open, my brother pointed out to me the number of identifiable police officers in the audience who were clearly there to stake out the place for no obvious reason. And very often, observing them visually and from their demeanors, I could see that they took offense at the number of inter-racial couples that were in attendance. The bogus fire inspections, and searches and seizures at the liquor-less club were ridiculous but they were also a portent of worse to come.
As historian Todd Michney has written: “…Little Italy’s residents historically marked their territory and sought to ward off racial residential transition through the use of violence…” And so it was.
Visit the author at aundrawilliscarrasco.com
- “Art Blakey, Redd Foxx Share Spotlight At Jazz Temple.” Call & Post. August 3, 1963.
- ATNSC: Jazz Temple Project. www.thejazztempleproject.art.
- “Believe Racial Bigots Behind the Jazz Temple Bombing.” Call & Post. August 17, 1963.
- “Dizzy, Cannonball, and Milt Headline Jazz Temple Bill.” Call & Post. August 24, 1963.
- Jazz Temple Cleveland on Facebook. www.facebook.com/jazztemplecleveland.
- Michney, Todd M. “Race, Violence, and Urban Territoriality: Cleveland’s Little Italy and the 1966 Hough Uprising.” Journal of Urban History 32, no. 3 (2006).
- “The Jazz Temple.” Wikipedia. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Jazz_Temple.
- Willis-Carrasco, Aundra. “The Jazz Temple: When Jazz Came to University Circle in the 1960s.” Cleveland Historical. clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/811.