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Navigating Cleveland Through Musical Maps

Map of  some  locations where jazz and R&B guitarist Tiny Grimes played in Cleveland in the late 1940s and early 1950s [George Blake]
Map of some locations where jazz and R&B guitarist Tiny Grimes played in Cleveland in the late 1940s and early 1950s [George Blake]

If asked to a draw a musical map of the city, many Clevelanders would place classical music in University Circle, jazz on the East Side and heavy metal and polka on the West Side.

George Blake wondered if that’s what Cleveland really looks like.

Blake, who grew up in Cleveland Heights, earned his doctorate and master’s degree from the Department of Music at the University of Southern California, Santa Barbara. Blake’s research focuses on hidden musical histories, with a particular interest in black performers.

 George Blake [George Blake]

During his time in California, Blake had a realization.

“The kind of fishbowl I'd been in as a kid was a really fascinating place to study. I went to Cleveland Heights High School, and I found a very rich scene there. I would always find that there were these sort of hidden musicians beyond the sense of what I knew about. For example, I went to this concert as a kid where Skeets Ross, Neil Creque, Joe Hunter and Dan Wall were doing this piano history of Cleveland and just kind of opened up this idea that there a much larger story here. When I learned about jazz as a kid, it was usually about New York City. To find that Cleveland had a whole rich jazz history really opened my eyes to some further research. I decided to come back to Cleveland to explore the worlds of music here,” Blake said.

Blake returned to Northeast Ohio where he is now a postdoctoral scholar at Case Western Reserve’s Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities. 

As an ethnomusicologist, Blake looks for contradictions and gray areas in the Cleveland music scene in the hopes of arriving at a more nuanced view of what music means to those who play it and for the city at large. 

Cleveland's Club Cafe Tia Juana [Drake Family photo/ideastream] 

Blake said following jazz trumpeter Kenny Davis to his various gigs around Northeast Ohio illustrated how notions of who plays where and when aren’t as neat as people might think.

“He would play over the course of about two weeks in Little Italy, on 8th Street, in Solon and in an ex-urban shopping mall. The traditional idea of a jazz scene was exploded just following musicians through the city,” Blake said.

Through his research, Blake uncovered the stories of what he calls “musicians out of place,” perhaps most notably blues legend Robert Lockwood, Jr.

Robert Lockwood Jr. [Robert Lockwood Jr./ideastream]

Lockwood is known as a Delta blues musician, a Chicago blues musician and a jump musician. He's known as a jazz musician. He lived in Cleveland from 1960 till the last years of his life in 2006. (Lockwood) would play shows and in Cleveland, maybe to smaller crowds. Then he'd go on tour, around the country, and there'd be these big shows for the Chicago blues musician Robert Lockwood coming from Cleveland. The idea that he belonged in Cleveland within the cultural imagination isn't really part of how we've imagined the blues,” Blake said.

One of the courses Blake teaches is “Mapping Music Through the Digital Humanities: A Cleveland Atlas.” Students use geographic information system (GIS) technology as part of the class at the Freedman Center for Digital Scholarship.

“I'm teaching them to look at gray areas, to look at how music genres are known and to ‘go through fences,’ as (historian) Lawrence Levine said. There's a constant movement of thinking culturally, analytically and looking at these details of how messy music is, and then also being challenged to zoom away and come up with something that looks like this clean, easy map and have those two processes going on at the same time,” Blake said.

The Temptations performing at Cleveland club Leo's Casino [ideastream]

Blake’s hope is that his students will be able to answer the question: Does music in Cleveland builds bridges or borders or a combination of the two?

Blake will give a public lecture, “The Lies We Tell about Cleveland Music With Maps,” Tuesday at 4:30 p.m.

Blake said maps are dishonest by their inherent nature, a lesson he became acutely aware as he created them for his dissertation. 

“My challenge was always that I wanted to create a map at the beginning of my dissertation, and I could not figure out a way to do a map that would do justice to the kinds of issues that I was working with. The issue became looking for maps that failed better. All maps are going to lie in some ways. They all exclude. They all leave some sorts of distortions, but you can fail better in creating maps in other ways. That's sort of the project I'm working on now is really trying to listen to the city, to people's voices and try to create various maps that help get at some of the complexities of the city we're in,” Blake said.

Blake understands that some people might struggle with the notion that there are larger lessons to be learned about Cleveland through the study of its music scene.

“There's a lot that music can do to kind of help people imagine themselves in new ways,” he said. “There's a lot of really intransigent historical inequalities that are still shaping our lives,” Blake said.

Check out a larger version of the map showing where guitarist Tiny Grimes played in Cleveland in the late 1940s and early 50s.


George Blake will discuss “The Lies We Tell about Cleveland Music With Maps” Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. in Clark Hall Room 2006 at 11130 Bellflower Road on the CWRU campus. A pre-lecture reception starts at 4:15 p.m. Registration is required.