I live in Birmingham. In fact, all of us editors live here. And one of the city’s lesser-known treasures, even to travel writers, plays jazz every Wednesday night at a little Crestline neighborhood café called the Open Door. His name is Cleveland Eaton. Cleve was Count Basie’s last standup bass player, which makes him a living legend in jazz circuits, and the Alabama Music Hall of Fame inducted him to their Montgomery space barely two months ago. I first met Cleve two years ago when, researching a feature story for another magazine, I covered the Birmingham vanguard of players, several of whom drop in on the Wednesday night jams.
(Portrait by Jason Wallis)
Cleve, if you can ever meet him, talks a lot like he plays the bass. He scats, bips, and hisses out stories you might question if you simply met him out on the street. Miles Davis in Central Park. Sammy Davis Jr. eyeing his wife. Working with Henry Mancini, Frank Sinatra, Billy Eckstein, and Sarah Vaughan. Chatting with the man is almost as good as watching him rip the bass. Almost. When Cleve goes into a bass solo, the room stops. He embraces the worn, reddish instrument. He loses time, eyes closed and mouth barely open. The seventy-something hands picking faster the gaze can follow. It’s something to behold.
If you ever get a chance to catch Cleve performing live, you’ll know what I mean. Or see his live clips on YouTube, especially this one, where the Count himself perks up to a Cleve riff (minute 2:00).