Birmingham Jazz Legend – Cleveland Eaton

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 cafĂ© 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).


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    Eaton has played on notable recording sessions with nearly all genres – jazz with John Klemmer and Bunky Green, R&B with The Dells and Bobby Rush, pop with Minnie Riperton, Jerry Butler and Rotary Connection, big band music with George Benson, Henry Mancini, Frank Sinatra, Joe Williams, Billy Eckstein, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald. Eaton was dubbed “the Count’s Bassist” during his seventeen year stint and over ten recordings with the Count Basie Orchestra. Eaton has also performed with Nancy Wilson, Peggy Lee, Meme Hines, Sammy Davis, Jr., Julie London, Bobby Troupe, Brook Benton, Lou Rawls, Nipsey Russell, Morgana King, Gloria Lynne, Herbie Hancock, the Magic City Jazz Orchestra, The Platters(original), The Temptations, and The Miracles. In 1974, he began performing and touring with his own group, Cleve Eaton and Co., and in 2004 his group became Cleve Eaton and the Alabama All Stars. Several other well-known Alabama jazz musicians, including pianist Ray Reach, drummer John Nuckols, trumpeter Tommy Stewart and saxophonist Sam Williams, are frequent players with Cleve Eaton and the Alabama All Stars.
    According to the May 7th-14th 2009 issue of the Birmingham Weekly, a free weekly paper, Eaton was diagnosed with oral cancer. At present (January 2011) he is cancer free.

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    Taylor, thanks for the great story on Cleve!

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