Artifact Spotlight: Big Band behind bars

The Cleveland Police Museum collects and preserves the history of policing in Cleveland. Each year, we receive donations of artifacts, photographs and archives that help us tell that story. In these posts, we’ll highlight some of those donations.

Irving Aaronson was a silent movie accompanist from childhood who began leading his first band, The Crusaders, in 1923.  He recorded with Edison and later began recording for Victor, “…making semi-hot recordings with a flair for novelty. Some of these early Aaronson records proved very popular, among them The Pump Song, I’m Just Wild About Animal Crackers, and Crazy Words – Crazy Tune” as reported in Red Hot Jazz Archive.

The band name was changed to the Commanders in 1926 and played the movie theater circuit, mainly in large, urban cinemas.  “Visual stimulus and tomfoolery was an important part of their show, and vocalist and reedman Phil Saxe was Aaronson’s biggest asset in this respect, a natural comic with a great sense of timing and a gift for vocal characterizations.”

The Commanders visited Cleveland in early 1926, playing several weeks at the Allen Theater.  During their stay they were able to arrange a private tour of the brand-new police station that was scheduled to open on April 26, 1926.

In conducting research into groups from the Big Band Era of the 1920s and 1930s, Randy Skretvedt, an American film and music scholar, author, lecturer and broadcaster, found a photo that he thought the Police Museum would find interesting, and shared it with us.  He was certain that the image shows the jail in the new Central Police Station located at 2001 Payne Avenue.  It shows the members of the band serenading their leader, Mr. Aaronson, behind bars.  The original photo has the caption Irving Aaronson and his Commanders “christen” the new police station with jazz.  Mr. Skeretvedt was interested when the building officially opened to the public, to support his research.  Randy was informed that the grand opening took place on April 26, 1926.   Checking old Cleveland Plain Dealer newspapers, several articles and advertisements were found talking about the Commanders performances in downtown Cleveland.

Aaronson’s Commanders at the new Cleveland Central Station jail cells

“The swing band version of Aaronson’s Commanders struggled on for two more years, and they even backed up Bing Crosby‘s last ARC session. But as Benny Goodman’s band was packing them in at the Palomar, in the LA based homestand largely credited as the touchstone for the swing era, Aaronson’s Commanders were appearing for the last time at the Avalon Ballroom at nearby Catalina Island.”

“In terms of jazz, Aaronson’s Commanders was most valuable as an incubator for musicians who would become significant, even dominant figures in the Swing Era. Artie Shaw, Tony Pastor and pianist/arranger Chalmers “Chummy” MacGregor all served in the earlier edition of the Commanders, and vocalist Kay Weber and drummer Gene Krupa participated in the “swing” band.”

According to Wikipedia, “When Aaronson was 45 years old, his musician career had faded, but Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios hired him as a musical supervisor. Less notable appearances in movies and on television include his voicing of Mr. Nobody in the MGM’s animation Betty Boop for President.” Mr. Aaronson died in Hollywood of a heart attack in 1963 and was interred at Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery.

Information and photos for this article were gathered from The Red Hot Jazz Archive as published in the Syncopated Times, May 2021, and Randy Skretvedt, author and host of the radio show Forward Into the Past, which airs weekly on KSPC-FM in Claremont, California (88.7-FM and KSPC online). His nom de heterodyne is Randy Brian. Article written by Cleveland Police Commander Robert Cermak, Ret.