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Cleveland Eaton: UAB's Jazz Man

By Dale Short

Sonny Eaton still remembers watching his high-school band teacher’s huge old Chrysler glide into the parking lot one day. In the car’s back seat was a very large bundle wrapped in canvas.

“What you got in there, a dead body?” Sonny asked him. Mr. Springer just grinned and began to unwrap the parcel.

It was a standup acoustic bass, the first one Sonny had ever touched. As he stood looking at it in wonder, he had no idea that the instrument would one day take him several times around the world, performing with such legends as Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, and Miles Davis, and playing on some 40 albums.

Sonny, better known today by his real name, Cleveland Eaton, returned to his hometown of Birmingham last fall to join UAB’s music department after spending 17 years on the road as a musician and arranger with a list of artists who form a virtual Who’s Who of jazz.

Cleveland Eaton
More Than Hot Licks

The creator and conductor of UAB’s new Jazz Ensemble, Eaton prides himself not only on teaching music basics and theory, but also on preparing students for the rigors of careers in the music business. Several of his students are already performing professionally while working on their degrees.

Eaton’s earlier experiences with teaching—at another college, many years ago—left a bitter taste in his mouth. “My class was at 8 a.m., which is not the best time of day for a musician,” he recalls. “Still I’d show up, but the kids wouldn’t be there.

“And when they were there, they’d say, ‘Just show me some of them hot licks you do.’ They weren’t the least bit interested in the basics, in having a musical foundation. I never learned any hot licks, and I sure don’t teach ’em. I teach scales, arpeggios, the whole thing. Students have to be grounded in the basics. They have to know what they’re doing, first, before they think about improvising on it. . . .”

But he says he’s been “totally bowled over” by the seriousness and dedication of his Jazz Ensemble students at UAB: “Some of them are going to make their mark,” he predicts. “You’ll be hearing from them.”

Life on the Road

Eaton was helped along the road to making his own mark by a music-loving family, including an older sister who studied at both Fisk University and the Julliard School of Music in New York. Cleve graduated from Tennessee State University in Nashville. He was teaching, playing clubs, and writing his own music when he got a call from the Count Basie Orchestra, in 1979, asking if he could fill in for a bass player who was ill. He was told that his services would be needed for about two weeks.

He took the job, but not without trepidation. He was a trio player, with no big-band experience, and the prospect of having to learn Basie’s charts in a few days was daunting.

Basie seemed to like his playing, though. “After the two weeks,” Eaton recalls, “he took me aside and said he was cutting the other guy loose, and did I want the job?” And so Eaton’s two-week road trip ultimately stretched to 17 years. Although he has rich, fond memories of those years, he says he doesn’t miss the lifestyle, which he insists is not glamorous.

“Music is a business like any other,” he says, “and being on the road is no bed of roses. We’d finish recording an album in the studio and get right back on the bus, heading out for another tour. I went for years without a vacation.

“One time, I played 10 different countries in 10 days. Catching those 5 a.m. flights, having to exchange your currency every time you turn around—those parts of being on the road, I don’t miss at all.”

Freedom to Create

One of Eaton’s favorite memories is of an experience that happened much closer to home. He was playing a small club in the Birmingham suburb of Ensley during the turbulent days of the civil rights movement: “It was an integrated audience, and people kept saying that there’d be trouble, there’d be fights. And we kept telling ’em, ‘No, man, no. Jazz doesn’t draw that kind of crowd. Jazz is a more integrated world. Music people have never much cared about the color thing.’” And he was proved right—there wasn’t a single incident during the band’s engagement.

One drawback to being a musician for hire is that you often don’t get to choose your material. And while Eaton’s tastes run toward the great old standards—“April in Paris,” “Satin Doll,” “Take the A Train,” “In the Mood”—he toured for a long time with the Ramsey Lewis group, whose audiences wanted to hear their latest songs that were popular on the radio.

“The beautiful part about jazz, though,” Eaton says, “is that no matter what you’re playing, you have the freedom to create. You can do something new every night. You never have to play a piece the same way twice.

“I mean, if it weren’t for that freedom, having to play ‘Hang On, Sloopy’ and ‘The In Crowd’ and ‘Wade in the Water’ exactly the same way every night would have run me absolutely crazy.”

Returning Home

Eaton, who’s 58, has a voice that’s both gruff and musical at once. When describing a part in a song, he closes his eyes, and his fingers reflexively play an invisible bass while he sings “Tee-dah-doo-da-TEET-ah....”

Over the years, there have been some 900 songs in his various groups’ repertoires. Count Basie alone traveled with more than 300 charts. So the pleasure of leaving the road was not just a homecoming for Eaton. “The fact that I don’t have to think about anybody’s music but mine feels wonderful. It’s like having a tremendous burden lifted off my shoulders.”

Which is not to say that Eaton has let any grass grow under his feet since returning home. In addition to his teaching career, he writes, arranges, records, and performs in groups of varying configurations, including GOE (the Garden of Eaton) and CEO (the 18-piece Cleveland Eaton Orchestra), which was on the bill of this year’s City Stages festival, and he has a new CD that’s due out this fall. He also does regular duo performances with various horn players and keyboard artists at Birmingham’s Blue Monkey. His wife Myra handles not only his bookings but other acts as well, through a company they call Cee.Me Productions, from Cleve’s and Myra’s initials.

“It took me 22 years to find a musician’s wife. Myra’s amazing. She hustles. I’m free to play my music, and she handles everything else.”

The Thrill of Teaching

But teaching continues to be very close to Eaton’s heart. His favorite thing about teaching, he says, is the immediate feedback: “The real payback is in watching your results. Seeing students catch on to something, seeing that ‘Ah!’ in their eyes when they reach a new level—that’s what makes it all worthwhile.”

His least favorite part of being a teacher? He doesn’t hesitate: “The paperwork,” he says, with a shy grin. “That’s something the department has to fuss at me about, every once in a while. I’m a musician; I just don’t have the concept of the whole paperwork thing.”

But Department of Music Chair Henry Panion, Ph.D., doesn’t bring up the “paperwork thing” when commenting on Eaton’s contributions to UAB and the community: “Jazz is especially significant in this part of the country,” Panion says. “A lot of famous musicians claim Alabama as their home, so we figure we’re the perfect location for a jazz program. We’re very fortunate that our students have someone with Cleve’s broad experience to teach them.

“The program has really taken off since the advent of the marching band. It’s gone from a small combo to enough players to outfit two jazz big bands. It’s flourishing, and I think Cleve’s overall vision for it is excellent. I can see it, down the road, becoming a full degree program.”

Another person who’s following the program and Cleve’s career with interest is his first mentor, John Springer. At age 72, he’s retired from teaching but is still active on the local music scene, playing in the Birmingham Heritage Band, among others.

Having a Ball

“I’ve just been having a ball this year, musically, working with the ensembles,” Eaton says. “We’ve ordered some new music, seven charts from Dr. Frank Foster, that I think the audiences are going to love.

“We’re structuring the groups more or less on the Count Basie, Duke Ellington model. Ordinarily, with a 15-member band you need four trombones, but we don’t have that combination. The kids have got so much enthusiasm, though, so much spirit, that you really don’t miss those extra horns.

“This next year, I think the bands are going to be smoking. We only had a few seniors, so we’ve got most of our really strong players back. I believe people are going to be impressed by how intricate, how different, our sound is.”

He has especially high hopes for two of his younger players, Sam Kennedy and Taylor Propp, both only 18. Not only are they already playing local clubs, parties, and wedding receptions, but recently they hired Eaton for one of their shows.

“And paid me well,” he says, laughing. “Helping my students get jobs is mighty satisfying. But when they start finding work for me...

“Man, now that’s a gas.”

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