Ralph Grugel  (1932-2005)


“Cleveland Jazz Father”


a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook;

additional contributions by Wayne Pauli and Ragtime Rick Grafing


     Ralph Grugel, known to many Clevelanders as the “Patriarch of Traditional Jazz,” died Monday,  July 18, 2005 at Heather Hill Hospital in Chardon.  He was 73.

     Grugel, a Cleveland native, graduated from Shaw High School before serving in the army during the Korean War.  Following the war, he worked as a brakeman for New York Central Railroad.  It was while working on trains that he got his first taste of Dixieland jazz.  He would travel to New York City where he would watch the local jazz bands play.  It was then that he fell in love with what would become his greatest hobby - Dixieland.

     “He really wanted to play the trumpet because Louis Armstrong played trumpet, but he thought the fingering was too hard,” his wife Tannis said.  “He never got the fingering.  He tried his whole life.”

     Grugel worked briefly as a bartender in the mid-1960s before working as a scrap metal salesman with M Weingold, a job he had until he retired in 1994.  All the while he learned to play trombone and continued his hobby.  Tannis would say, “Musicians have a saying according to Ralph: ‘You play terrific but don’t quit your day job, because you’ll never make a living at it’.”

     Grugel, who lived in Richmond Heights, became well-known to Cleveland when he played trombone at Fagan’s, one of the first nightclubs in the Flats with live jazz.

     The Cleveland Flats, an almost endless string of nightclubs on both sides of the Cuyahoga River, became one of the leading entertainment areas of the Midwest.  This part of the Flats made the transition from industry to entertainment partly because of jazz - Dixieland jazz.

     It was 1962.  Trombonist Ralph Grugel, a huge man with a huge sense of humor and a love for what he called authentic American music, had a traditional jazz band at the lone nightclub in the Flats with live entertainment.  Grugel said, “We were at Fagan’s for nine years.  I left the band and they stayed another two years after that.  It was the only place that was open down there.  Harry Fagan, the owner, named us ‘The Bourbon Street Bums’ and advertised ‘The Bums of Fagan’ and ‘Find us and have fun at Fagan’s.’  Another ad said, ‘New Year’s Eve every Saturday night.’  Then we started playing Friday nights and Thursday nights and boy, the crowds really picked up!”   The band became a mainstay at  Fagan’s.  Cleveland clarinetist Ted Witt remembers Grugel’s band in the early 1960s.  “That was the band,” says Witt.  “They started everything down in the Flats.”

     In the wake of Grugel’s success along the river, other nightclubs opened and began attracting good crowds for traditional jazz - at least for a while. Grugel remembered, “Diamond Jim’s had a band. There was a band across the street at the Warehouse.  Pickle Bill’s had Sam Finger and his band.  There were a couple of others.  There were maybe five or six joints that just had Dixieland.  Then, little by little, rock came into it.”

     But Grugel continued playing Dixieland jazz through the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s.  Almost single-handedly he carried the banner of traditional jazz with his Eagle Jazz Band.  Many of the musicians in his band had been playing with him since those days at Fagan’s.  Grugel played with this group for more than 25 years.

     In the 1970s, Grugel’s band played at the Market Street Exchange on the near West Side.  In the ‘80s he played at Sea World and returned to the Flats, playing at a club called The Cleaveland (spelled with an “a”) Crate and Trucking Company, at the site of the new RTA rapid Transit station.  Looking back, Grugel could rightfully claim much of the credit for the creation of one of the most popular entertainment areas in the Midwest.  The Eagle Jazz Band also occasionally substituted for the Cakewalkin’ Jass Band at Tony Packo’s Café, a Toledo restaurant made famous by actor Jamie Farr in the TV series “M*A*S*H.”   

     In 1986, Grugel - along with Jean and Paul Huling (better known as Sister Jean and Laundry Fat) - assembled a group of traditional jazz fans to form a club called EARLYJAS:  The Earlville Association of Ragtime Lovers Yearning for Jazz Advancement and Socialization.  They held monthly “meetings” (concerts and parties) at the Rusty Nail, just north of Kent, Ohio.  In May, 1990, EARLYJAS staged a 2-day Jazz Festival at the Tangier Restaurant in Akron, Ohio.  This soon grew into the 3-day EARLYJAS Fall Dixieland Jazz Festival in Strongsville, Ohio, where the Eagle Jazz Band was always a crowd favorite.  Of course, Grugel’s performances with Sister Jean and Laundry Fat, in the Cleveland area and at the Grand International Ragtime-Jasstime Festivals, are also legendary.

     The last time Ralph played was in May, 2005, before illness forced him to cancel the rest of his summer schedule.  In one of his last phone conversations, he commented that his two favorite places to play were Brennan’s in Grand River (east of Cleveland), and at the Grand International Ragtime-Jasstime Festival in Alexandria Bay,  New York.   “I love all those people,” he said.  “They’re the greatest people to play for!”

     Those people loved Ralph, too.  They will never forget him at the Spring Festival in Alex Bay.  And they’ve missed him and his terrible jokes - the “groaners” -  for the last several years at the EARLYJAS Festival in Strongsville, Ohio.  But his legacy will live on in Toledo.  The music he loved so much will resonate through the Ballroom, the Lounge, and the halls at the GRUGELFEST until the last notes fade away on Sunday evening.  Ralph himself might add, “Of course, it won’t sound as good as it would if I were there.” 

     Maybe not Ralph, but we’ll do our best.  And we promise not to talk about the horse named Bob.

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     A New Orleans-style funeral was held on July 22, 2005, with the Eagle Jazz Band playing the music.  Ralph was survived by his wife of 33 years, Tannis, and by his sister, Norma Roberts.

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     The Eagle Jazz Band, under the direction of Sister Jean, plans to schedule a reunion performance at GRUGELFEST 2012.  (Details will be announced later.)

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Joe Mosbrook, a retired NBC-TV Newscaster, author of Cleveland Jazz History, and host of a weekly jazz radio program on WCPN, did the eulogy at Ralph Grugel’s funeral.

Wayne Pauli is Director of the Grand International Ragtime-Jasstime Society, which hosts its annual Spring Festival over Memorial Day Weekend in Alexandria Bay, New York. 

Ragtime Rick Grafing is the piano player for the Cakewalkin’ Jass Band and the Chefs of Dixieland, hosts a Saturday morning radio program on AM-1230 WCWA, and is Co-Chairman of Grugelfest 2012.






The Ralph Grugel Memorial Jazz Festival


“Traditional Jazz is good; taste some every day!”

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