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Remembering One Of Cleveland's Hottest Jazz Clubs: Cafe Tia Juana

The Cafe Tia Juana opened in 1947 in Cleveland. (Drake family photo)
The Cafe Tia Juana opened in 1947 in Cleveland. (Drake family photo)

At one time Cleveland was one of the nation’s primo spots for jazz, and in the late 1940s, the Café Tia Juana was one of THE hottest jazz clubs. In 1947, the club sat on East 105th in Glenville, known then as a kind of Gold Coast.

Music: Cats and the Fiddle

The Call & Post newspaper has been telling the story of the Tia Juana’s early days in a three-part Black History Month series. Ryan Miday is in government relations by day, but dove into the Tia Juana’s history as a freelancer for the paper. He said the Tia Juana’s beginning was prompted in part by the eventual owner, Catherine Drake, being turned away from a segregated club.

MIDAY: “The opening of the Tia Juana was really a story about being turned away from a segregated jazz club, downtown Cleveland, and the Drake family, along with their partner Willie Hoge deciding that ‘we’re going to open up our own jazz club,’ and they also decided to open it up to all races, which became known as a mixed-race jazz club. And later on it became great for business, because it became a destination for not only blacks but for whites.”

Music: Ella Fitzgerald

Catherine Drake’s husband “Little Brother” Drake was a numbers racket kingpin, which provided starting capital. In today’s dollars, Drake splashed the equivalent of three-quarters of a million to bring in top talent to design an impressive Mexican themed club, and to bring in top acts.

MIDAY: “All of the great jazz acts came through the Café Tia Juana, but as Joe Mosbrook, the Cleveland jazz historian, notes, that you know what, Cleveland was a hot destination for jazz, so it was not just the Tia Juana. But through the Tia Juana, from Savannah Churchhill, to Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, all of the jazz greats came through the Tia Juana and played there, as well as the other lively spots in Cleveland at the time.”

Music: Nat "King" Cole Trio

GANZER: “How important do you think this club was for the African-American community here? You talked about it being integrated, this was a spot, I think the Call & Post itself called it a melting pot, a place everyone could enjoy. Can you put this in context for us?”

MIDAY: “The Café Tia Juana not only was nationally recognized as a hot jazz place to come and listen to the jazz greats, but I think, for the African-American community in Cleveland, this was started in a place that was predominately Jewish. And African-Americans because of discriminatory housing practices were largely living in the central area. And after World War II, they began to migrate, and began to migrate into areas that were considered upper class, and one of those areas was the Glenville-Gold Coast area. And for the Tia Juana to open up squarely in the middle of that, I think, was symbolic that ‘you know, we can also achieve what everyone else can achieve,’ and that is live and experience the great parts of Cleveland as well as anybody.”

Music: Billie Holiday

In its first three years the Café Tia Juana burned very bright, but eventually the numbers racket, and a changing city, contributed to the club’s fall.

MIDAY: “The area slowly declined, but also Catherine Drake, who ended up eventually being the sole owner and operator of the Tia Juana, her husband, because of his dealings in the numbers racket, he and his partner Willie Hoge ended up going to prison. So she was really on her own, it was really her and her two sons. Eventually they closed in the early part of the 70s.”

The third in Ryan Miday’s series about the Café Tia Juana is in today’s edition of the Call & Post newspaper.

Tony Ganzer has reported from Phoenix to Cairo, and was the host of 90.3's "All Things Considered." He was previously a correspondent with the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, covering issues like Swiss banks, Parliament, and refugees. He earned an M.A. in International Relations (University of Leicester); and a B.Sc. in Journalism (University of Idaho.) He speaks German, and a bit of French.