Remembering Rod Cless

February 28, 2014 at 6:03 pm (history, jazz, Jim D, music, United States, whisky)

I recently came upon a stash of old jazz magazines, including some copies of ‘The Jazz Record’, edited by pianist-bandleader Art Hodes and his sidekick Dale Curran between 1943 and 1947. It’s fascinating stuff, full of contemporary reports of what was going on at Nick’s in Greenwich Village and what the likes of Pee Wee Russell, Sidney Bechet, Eddie Condon and James P. Johnson were up to. The piece reproduced below is from the January 1945 edition of the magazine, and I found it particularly moving. Clarinettist Rod Cless is now all but forgotten, but in the early 1940’s was a well-known and popular figure on the New York jazz scene. He died in December 1944 as a result of a fall over a balcony after heavy drinking, and then drinking some more from a bottle or flask smuggled in to him in hospital. This obituary – by someone who is obviously a close friend – strikes me as worth republishing as an example of how jazz people mourn:

By James McGraw

The rain fell from our hats in rivulets and formed little puddles on the warm mahogany. The old bartender looked annoyed as he served the two drinks we had ordered. We drank the raw whiskey in silence and pushed the shot glasses in front of us to indicate another round. Ray Cless fidgeted with his change. My finger traced designs with the water on the bar. Ray lit another cigarette while the other one in the ash tray still burned. He had brought cartons of them all the way from Greenland for his first leave from army duty in sixteen months. He had come to New York to celebrate the leave with his brother Rod.

We had been like this all the way in the cab. The wind slapped the rain against the misted windows with a force that made it sound like hail. The tires hummed a dirge on the wet pavement. We were wet and cold and gloomy. We tried to make conversation. Whatever subject we chose ended up the same way. No matter what we tried to talk about, Rod’s name was soon brought in and then we became silent again. That’s the way it was when we left St. Vincent’s Hospital and started up to the Medical Examiner’s Office at Bellevue and stopped off at this bar for a drink we both needed badly.

The doctor in the white apron at St. Vincent’s had been polite. Polite and nice in an officious way. He had asked Ray the usual perfunctory questions about relatives, names, dates of birth and so forth. He had escorted us down to an oven-hot basement to identify the body. He had said, “There are the remains of Rod Cless.” No reflection on him. he was hardened by the sight of corpses every day — every hour. He could not be held accountable for saying , “There are the remains of Rod Cless.”

How was he to have known that the real remains of Rod Cless were not on that cold slab before him? How could the poor fellow be expected to know that the best remains of Rod Cless were at that very moment and always would be rooted deeply, indelibly in the hearts and minds and souls of myriad jazz lovers in all corners of this war-torn world? How could he ever understand the lasting enjoyment that Rod’s clarinet had brought to all those who had been fortunate enough to hear his music? Did he ever experience the great thrill of hearing Rod play Eccentric and notice the technical mastery with which he handled his instrument? Did he hear him on records with Muggsy’s Ragtime Band or did he happen to catch him any night this past summer at the Pied Piper with Max Kaminsky when it was 90 outside and 120 in?

No, Doctor, those are not the remains of Rod Cless. His remains are scattered widely — in churches and in saloons, in brothels and in sewing circles, in fox-holes, submarines and bombers, in drug dens and in missionaries’ huts, in schools, in offices, in factories, in spaghetti joints on the south side and in Harlem rib emporiums, in tawdry dance halls and in glittering night clubs — everywhere you look — north, South, East, West, up or down — he’s there and he’s playing the clarinet; blowing his top and loving it, putting his heart, his soul, his guts, yes, his very life into that slender piece of black wood.

Why did he do it? Because he loved it and because tens of thousands of others love it. He was born to be a jazzman and he died just that. No more, no less, Doctor. Here is how it happened:

He was born George Roderick Cless in the year 1907 in Lenox, Iowa. At the age of 16 he played saxophone in the school band. Later, his family moved to Des Moines and at the age of 20, Rod went to Chicago. That was in the days when Chicago was the “toddling town.” Rod hung around the speaks where the finest jazz was being made. He listened for a while and he practiced constantly and then he took a job with a small band. Before long the quality of his playing (he doubled on alto and clarinet) was found out by such noted Chicago jazzmen as Teschmaker, Freeman, Condon and McPartland. Soon he played many dates with these men in top-notch bands and came to be known as one of the outstanding musicians in those parts. One night he went to the Sunset Café to hear Louis’ outfit. Johnny Dodds was sitting in. Rod listened to the clear, beautiful notes that came from Dodds’ clarinet. He was playing Melancholy Blues. The purity of tone and the amazing flash and brilliance with which Dodds used his instrument, decided Rod that this was it. Here is what he was after and he would settle for nothing less. At every opportunity he listened to the wondrous melodies, the variations which Dodds could produce from a well-worn clarinet. He took some lessons from Johnny. He knew now he was on the right path. He never played the sax again. From there he went to Spanier’s Ragtime Band.

The names of Muggsy Spanier and Rod Cless are inseparable to anyone who knows jazz. And no wonder. Muggsy gave Rod his greatest opportunity to bring out what was in him. In this small but perfect combination, where, in a style invented by themselves, each musician took a solo chorus between ensemble playing, Rod slugged it out toe to toe with such world’s champions of strength and tone as Muggsy, Brunies, Bob Casey and George Zack and came out a very fair draw in his favor.

When the band came to New York, Rod tagged right along. He loved this town from the very moment he saw it. In 1939 when he arrived here, New York had become the unquestioned jazz capital of the world. The Village was rocking with Joe Sullivan in Café Society, Hodes at the Pirate’s Den; the Nut Club featured Jimmie Kennedy; Bud Freeman had a band at Nick’s where Muggsy opened, and Zutty Singleton’s outfit was loosening the plaster from the walls of the Vanguard. 52nd Street offered the Marsala’s, “Stuff” Smith with his Onyx Club Band featuring Cozy Cole and Jonah Jones, and others. Everywhere Rod turned he ran into good music, good musicians and, above all, appreciative audiences.

When the date at Nick’s ended, Rod took a job with Art Hodes in a five piece combination playing in one of Childs’ uptown restaurants. The story is one of the most peculiar, and certainly most amusing, of how jazz was making inroads into respectable parts of town. the band, which also included Brunies, was hired as the Columbia Quintette. Imagine the astonishment of the tea and cookie patrons when, without warning, Art tapped his foot twice and and the boys burst forth with Shimmy Like My Sister Kate, Apex Blues, That’s a Plenty and Ugly Child with Brunies doing the vocals. Writing of this event in the August 1943  issue of Jazz Record, George Avakian says, “…It sounded more like the Hot Five — without Armstrong.” They lasted for three months though, because, as Avakian writes, “As a concession to the regular and more conservative patrons the boys would sometimes break into Say Si Si or Down Argentine Way, featuring Brunies and Cless on maracas and wood blocks. Rod’s face as he tapped two sticks together expressed completely the sadness of the ages, and, specifically, Rod’s opinion of Frensi and all its relatives.”

It was about this time that the Muggsy Spanier Ragtime Band cut most of their records for Bluebird. Twelve of the sixteen sides were made here in New York, the first four sides being recorded earlier in Chicago. The Art Hodes Columbia Qunitette were recorded one night on the job and turned out beautiful renditions of Jazz Band Ball and Farewell Blues. Rod always felt that he was at his best when, in a trio with Hodes and Jimmy Butts, he made a record of Tin Roof Blues on Signature label. This was backed up with the same outfit doing Diga Diga Do. He played often in small bands which have been recorded by Commodore, Black and White, Blue Note and others.

Of all the bands that Rod played in, he liked best a small combination that “Wild Bill” Davison got together to play a date at a 52nd Street joint, the name of which escapes me now (they change them so often). Included were: James P. Johnson, whom Rod rated above any other piano player in the business; Brunies (later replaced by Frank Orchard); Danny Alvin on drums; Rod and “Wild Bill.” These men played so well together, with such complete accord and innate understanding of what they were achieving, that, as Rod put it, “It seemed that before we were on the stand we were off again and the next thing you knew it was time to go home. We hated to leave the place..” When a musician speaks this way of his work, you know he loves it.

While we were riding in the cab Ray said to me, “Rod certainly has a lot of friends in this town.” Yes, he has. But even if he had never put that mouthpiece to his lips, even if he had been, instead of one of the greatest jazz musicians of our time, a salesman or a lawyer, he would still have had a lot of real friends. He was that kind of guy. Warm, unassuming and unselflish to a ridiculous degree. He loved people who loved jazz. He was happiest when people dropped in to talk, drink, listen to records and eat his food. Next to music, good food was his favourite subject and he also knew how to cook it right.

Afternoons at his home was one continuous round of callers. We knew we could drop in any time and be welcome. Sterling Bose, Danny Qualey, Stan and Maryon Wallman, Dorothy Defoe, Art Hodes, Pee Wee and Mary, George Lugg, George Zack, Earl Murphy, Bill Kennedy, Charlie and Sue Bowler, “Pops” Foster, Cliff Jackson, Danny Alvin, “Slim,” Max Kaminsky, Jimmie Johnson, Eddie Condon, Red McKenzie, Madeleine and Pete Ehlers, Peggy Dale, Joey Oaks, Dick Carey and many, many others were his regular guests. Rod would play the “Louie” records by the hour. He never tired of hearing Louis’ horn or of Johnny Dodds’ clarinet. He rated Dodds in the same class with Omar Simeon and Jimmie Noone. He would play Noone’s Four or Five Times or Every Evening and Pee Wee’s Pretty Doll over and over but when someone put on one of his own records, he would modestly retire to the kitchen and putter around with food.

In rare cases, when no-one rang his bell in the afternoon, he would retire to Julius’ and listen to Harold’s tall tales over a drink and get a kick watching little Johnny Pesci keep time to Condon’s recording of Balling The Jack on the jukebox. Friends would drop in and sooner or later they’d wind up  at Rod’s apartment to settle an argument bas to who played what in some band and stay for drinks, dinner, the night, a week or months in some cases. Rod neither asked  nor hinted that anyone ever leave his place. They stayed just as long as they wanted to stay and if necessary, Rod slept on a chair, if he slept at all.

The last job Rod played was at the Pied Piper on Barrow St. in the “Village.” He played there all summer with Kaminsky, Willie “The Lion” Smith, Mac McGrath, Frank Orchard and various basses. On those hot summer nights you walked in from the street and the atmosphere was so damp and hot and smoke ridden that you found it hard to breath. The doors were kept closed because the neighbors complained of the “noise” and there was no other ventilation of any kind. You fought your way against the foul surge back to the bandstand. James P. Johnson was playing intermission out on the stoop or sitting in Mac’s car with a jug. But Rod was in that oven listening to Jimmie’s hot piano. He had heard it a thousand times. It didn’t matter. He wanted to hear it more. perhaps it was a premonition that soon he would never hear it again on earth.

Then the band would get up on the stand choking with the heat, wiping their faces with already saturated handkerchiefs. Max would raise his hand slightly for silence, Willie would tap his foot twice and off they would go. Dipper Mouth. Long, difficult, exhausting clarinet part. Rod takes it. He gets the feel of it. He blows. Lower register, sweet but not saccharine. He’s climbing, skirling, up, up, up, he’s touching a star; the late Johnny Dodds, Rappolo, Simeon, Tesch. You can’t go any higher. He does. He stands. He’s taking another chorus. He can’t. Good Christ, it’ll kill him. He does it again. His agile fingers are all over the instrument at the same time. His face is fiery. The meagre audience is wild, bobbing their heads, tapping their feet, calling for blood. He’s up there higher than before, like the wind whistling mournfully through the top branches of a pine forest. Oh, play that thing! His heart is coming out of that slender piece of black wood. His soul is penetrating every last dark corner of that steam-bathed room. As he goes out on a diminuendo, Max picks it up and Rod sits down again to a ripple of applause. An expression of great satisfaction mingled with a little relief is written all over his sweat covered face.

Why did he do that? Well, Doctor, you see he knew we loved it. But the funny part of it is, Doc, he loved it even more than we did. He had no choice in the matter, Doctor. He was born with it, and as you so aptly pointed out, he died with it.

More on Cless over at Michael Steinman’s Jazz Lives


  1. Robert Calder said,

    Long ago there was a sudden burst of Cless recordings on the market when BlueNote finally disgorged some of the stuff in its archives — rather flashily presented foldout sleeves with LPs a little short on playing time and rather quirkily selected. There was a Jazz Journal article around that time, and on the radio the late Peter Clayton did a bit of enthusing, although if he’d read the article he wouldn’t have referred to Cless as Rodney (anyway he certainly did know the music!!! Bless him!)
    And many thanks for a reminder to listen to Roderick (and such a good piano solo on this link above!)


    […] I’ve written about Cless here (this posting has four audio samples) and here is a reminiscence by clarinetist Paul Nossiter, who actually took lessons from Cless. And my friend Jim Denham has offered his own touching assessment, the very beautiful elegy by James McGraw, and four other audio samples here. […]

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