Friday, November 2, 2012

Lou Kallie

It was one of those hole-in-the-wall places that you can find in any city, although usually the discovery is accidental or coincidental.  Like the many, many other people who lived and worked on the east side of Cleveland, I had driven by Kallie's establishment many times and never noticed it.  It was, and I hope still is, in the most ordinary of buildings, shared with a beauty salon, a small bank branch, the office of some personal injury attorneys, and a McDonald's.  For a few years the sign out front was cracked and, if traveling east on Mayfield Road, unreadable.  It didn't really matter, though, as all of the aficionados knew where it was.

I learned of it from a colleague during my first year of teaching at a high school.  He lived not far from there and, one day when our faculty lounge conversation turned to jazz, invited me to hear his brother-in-law's band play there. 

"What's it called?", I asked.
"The House of Swing"
"Where is it?"
He smiled and said, "It's where jazz is king."

Lou Kallie was the owner/operator/bartender/disk jockey/master of ceremonies of the biggest of the small jazz clubs of the Mid-West.  In terms of floor space, I doubt that it made it much past 1000 square feet.  But, on live music Fridays and Saturdays, it would host as many people as it could hold [roughly two people for every square foot] and, for the young musicians of the area, it was the Cotton Club, Birdland, and the Aragon Ballroom all wrapped up as one.

Kallie was a jazz drummer who had worked with many of the small bands that toured the Midwest from Chicago to Cleveland, playing the ballrooms and small clubs in places like Detroit, Toledo, and Indianapolis. He once played with a big name orchestra. When tapping out the rhythm to "Tangerine" night after night got dull, he bought an old Irish bar, mostly to house his collection of jazz records and related accessories, installed a turntable, and opened the doors.

In addition to serving as the godfather of Cleveland-area jazz, Lou's most spectacular contribution was his record collection; in the late 70's it numbered somewhere around 15,000 volumes, all housed on shelving surrounding Lou's turntable in the center of what space was available between the storage area and the restrooms.  On the nights when there wasn't live music, Lou would sit from around from 5pm until 2am playing from his collection, looping together themes in the music selections that made sense only to him, and talking about jazz in all of its forms and styles to anyone who desired the conversation. 

There are two things for which I thank him.  First, he introduced me to the music of Art Pepper.  Second, he gave me the best advice ever about playing in a small club.

"When the power goes out, and it always does in those small places, just keep playing.  It'll come back on sooner or later and that way you won't have to drop any songs from your set." 

That latter bit of advice rescued me time and again during my playing days, and also served as the basis of a pretty good sermon.  Once, I think it saved me from being trampled in a small club fire.

Lou Kallie died suddenly in the mid-1990's at the age of 67.  His widow and son still run the House of Swing and still host live music and play Lou's record collection every night.  They probably feel they must, as Lou's ashes are sitting on a shelf behind the bar, as if making sure that everything is at it should be.