CLEVELAND: For fans of blues music, there are two Cleveland institutions that deliver world-class music once a week: the Parkview on the West Side and Cebar’s on the East Side.
Both clubs have been serving up high-quality jam nights for more than a decade. Perhaps as a result of that longevity, the jams draw a sort of repertory company of regular players who know what they’re doing, know how to play together and have become known artists themselves to the audience regulars.
The result is a remarkable combination of the pure spontaneity a jam can deliver along with a level of quality that makes for great nights, week after week.
Of course, blues is an improvisational form of music that thrives when the only certainty is its familiar three-chord harmonic structure.
In the not so distant past, a young woman named Mary Bridget Davies joined the Parkview jammers to sing a few impassioned blues numbers in the vein of Janis Joplin. A few months later, she had taken over the lead role as Janis in the stage show about the iconic singer at PlayhouseSquare.
She is currently on Broadway in that role. That’s how good many of the players are.
The Parkview Jam happens every Wednesday night and is hosted by the Bad Boys of Blues, an ensemble that includes Michael Bay, a Northeast Ohio institution unto himself, on guitar, with Mike Barrick on bass and Jim Wall on drums. The music starts around 8:30.
Jam nights begin with a set from the house band, which sets a pretty high bar, playing a range of blues, R&B, jazz and rock.
Bay is a Zen-master of a guitar player, playing exactly what’s needed to support the song. His widely varied rhythm textures set just the right mood, and when he steps up to play a solo, he can be restrained and lyrical or burn up the fretboard with blues-shredder pyrotechnics.
Because he doesn’t sing, Bay rotates singers each week, with local talents including Becky Boyd, Brian Davidson, Butch Armstrong and Kristine Jackson.
Barrick is a former trumpet player who plays bass with a precise articulation that is usually reserved for melody instruments. Wall is also a seasoned pro, but his taste and reserve, like Bay’s, belies his serious chops, which may only be fully revealed in an occasional drum solo.
The second set brings up the jammers in the house, taking the stage in quickly arranged new ensembles.
The duty of casting these ad hoc ensembles falls to Bay, who gets to know the players and their strengths and designs groups of musicians who can complement one another and make music the crowd will enjoy.
The place is packed every week with a mix of regulars and new visitors. The crowd typically includes young and old from all around the area, with the common denominator being a love for blues and roots music.
Bay credited the jam night’s success to Parkview owner Norm Plonski. “He actually stuck with it longer than I would have. It took us nine months before things got going,” Bay said.
Asked why the event has survived for 18 years he said: “There’s two things to do on a Wednesday night: One. Go to the Liberty Baptist Church for the Wednesday night prayer meeting. Or two: Go to the Parkview jam. Both for the same reasons: to get your soul and spirit together to get you through the rest of the week.”
Beyond that, Bay said, “we’re blessed to have great players … in the band and all the quality players that come out every week. And an audience that is really there for the music. They listen.”
On Cleveland’s East Side, Cebar’s Euclid Tavern has been holding its weekly jams on Sundays for 15 years. The bar has a down home, if slightly time-worn, look. The house band is the Alan Greene Band, fronted by Cleveland’s resident blues/rock master Alan Greene.
Greene and the band have opened concerts for such notables as Robert Cray, Johnny Winter, Tommy Castro, and the James Gang with Joe Walsh. A veteran of the Cleveland music scene, Greene was voted “Best Guitarist in Northeast Ohio” in the 1997 Scene Magazine Annual Readers Poll and has played with national acts like Humble Pie.
With Tom “Odie” Odegard on vocals and harp, Rob Luoma on drums and Justin Butcher on bass, the band plays the blues with passion and an attention to nuance and dynamics that separates true blues from poor imitation.
Asked about the atmosphere at Cebar’s on Sunday, Greene describes it as “the weekend never ends.”
Some of the regular Cebar’s jammers include Donny Baker, who has played with Chrissie Hynde and many other greats over the years; Hank Hess; Dan Pheiffer; Alex Strekal; Brent Lane and Greg Castillo.
Sometimes the jams at Cebar’s and Plainview cross paths. A few times a year, Bay can be spotted sitting in at Alan Greene’s jam, and Greene stops by the Parkview for the jam now and again, too.
And some of the same players haunt both clubs, proving conclusively that the Eastside-Westside rivalry can be bridged by one of the strongest forces known to humanity: Great music.