04 May 2009

Night at the Ozark Club

Notes from Night at the Ozark Club in Great Falls MT
Compiled by Ken Robison
25 May 2007


These notes were compiled and displayed in the exhibits at The History Museum at the first Night at the Ozark in June 2007

The Birth of Leo Lamar’s Ozark Club:
During late1933 as Prohibition ended, Leo LaMar opened a new Ozark Club in a small house at 413 1/2 in Fourth Alley South, between Third and Fourth Streets. The next year, the Ozark Club moved to a larger, two-story building at 312 1/2 Fifth Alley South. By the fall of 1935 the Ozark Club had moved to its third and final location at 116-118 Third Street South on the upper floor of a large building. Owned by dynamic Leo LaMar, the Ozark Club for the next three decades anchored black nightlife in Great Falls. The Ozark achieved fame for its quality entertainment featuring some of the best jazz musicians, black and white, in the western United States. Leo La Mar, with his second wife Beatrice, achieved notoriety in the community for their involvement in gambling and a house of ill repute. There was never a dull moment in life at the Ozark Club. (Ken Robison)

Kid Leo:
Leo LaMar, fighting as “Kid Leo,” began his boxing career in Chicago when he was about 15 years old. By January 1921, Kid Leo was training regularly at the pre-Prohibition Ozark Club with other black boxers in Great Falls. He fought his first bout in Great Falls as a lightweight February 14, 1921, defeating heavier “Rough” Reed in two rounds. Sports writers reported that ‘Kid’ Leo “took the ‘Rough’ out of ‘Rough’ Reed”; raved about his “spectacular defeat of Reed”; and called him “one of the cleverest youngsters who ever appeared here.” Over the next five years, Kid Leo fought other bouts winning most of them. His fighting name and reputation stayed with Kid Leo over the years. Two decades later in 1945 when heavyweight champ Joe Lewis came to Great Falls, the Tribune paid tribute to Kid Leo with his photo, the caption “Remember Him?” and a synopsis of his boxing career. (Ken Robison)

Leo Phillip and Garneil Leota Winburn LaMar:
Leo LaMar or La Mars, a remarkable man, was born in Chicago June 5, 1902, the son of Leo and Dora Walk La Mars. He came to Great Falls about 1916 and over the next decade earned the name “Kid Leo” for his boxing skills while working for the Great Northern Railroad as a dining car waiter. Leo La Mars of Great Falls married Garneil Leota Winburn in Great Falls on October 23, 1923, when Garneil was just 16 years of age. Garneil L. Winburn was born in Great Falls May 5, 1908, the daughter of Roy and Molly Simms Winburn. In 1927, Leo LaMar and his first wife, Garneil L. lived at 519 Sixth Avenue South. They had two sons, Clev A. born 1925 and Leo Phillip Jr. born 1927, and three daughters, Cleo born 26 Oct 1927, (Mrs. Edward Sanders); Mollie (Mrs. Charles Murray); and Bernice (Mrs. William Jones). Clev A. died in childhood. Garneil Winburn LaMar died during childbirth August 4, 1936, in Great Falls . Her funeral was held at the Union Bethel A. M. E. Church with services by Rev. Mr. Smith, and she is buried at Highland Cemetery. Garneil’s mother, Mrs. Mollie Winburn raised the four small LaMar children. (Ken Robison)

Leo and Beatrice Jeffers LaMar:
Leo remarried Beatrice Jeffers in 1037. In 1933 Leo LaMar opened the Ozark Club at 116 Third Street South, and over the next thirty years, the Club became the jazz music capital of Montana. Initially catering to a black clientele, during and after World War II the nightclub broadened its base to attract a multiracial crowd. At the time of his death in 1962, Leo LaMar lived at 4600 Seventh Avenue South. He was an avid golfer and served as president of the Great Falls chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He died June 20, 1962, of a heart attack. Funeral services were held at T. F. O’Connor Co. followed by Requiem Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes Church. His body was shipped to Knoxville, IA for burial. Leo LaMar was survived by his wife Beatrice; daughters Cleo, Mollie, and Bernice, all of Los Angeles; mother, Mrs. Dora LaMar of Chicago; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. (Ken Robison)

Creed Jackson:
Creed Jackson, who could tap dance and shine shoes with the best of them, was born in Heart Butte about 1893. During his remarkable life, he became Montana’s first black semi-pro baseball player, a winning jockey on the Spokane to Lethbridge circuit, an exceptional tap dancer from New York City to Portland in countless small bars and clubs, and a long-time story-telling shoe shiner at the New York Shoe Shine Parlor on Central Avenue and the Union Bus Terminal on 1st Avenue South. He danced in bars, clubs and theaters around North Central Montana, in the streets of Great Falls, and at the Ozark Club. Although slowed by arthritis and old age, Creed danced into his elder years, and a Tribune photo on his 92nd birthday in 1984 showed him “strutting his stuff.” Creed Jackson died February 14, 1988 leaving many friends and a reputation as a fine dancer and story-teller. (Ken Robison)

Leo Phillip LaMar, Jr.:
Leo LaMar, Jr., known as Brother, lived life in the fast lane, and died in a fiery crash in a car named “Mr. Lucky.” Brother, the son of Leo and Garneil LaMar, was born in Great Falls July 21, 1926. After attending local schools, he served in the Navy during World War II. Returning to Great Falls after the war, Brother worked with his parents at the Ozark Club often serving as bartender. He was married to Delores F. [NFI] in the 1940s, and they divorced in 1951. Leo, Jr. married Patricia Mitchell, and they had a daughter Beatrice Charlene. Patricia claimed her own life in 1959. Brother died in an early morning of June 26, 1961 in a car-truck head-on crash that claimed the lives of the five young occupants of the car. (Ken Robison)

Games of Chance, Games of Choice: Gambling at the Ozark:

Back in the 1920s in the days of Prohibition, underground drinking and gambling activities were part of the scene on the lower South side of Great Falls. In December 1925, young Kid Leo was arrested with three other men for gambling. Leo was released without bond and nothing came of the affair. When Leo opened the Ozark Club at the end of Prohibition, gambling was quietly carried on.

A key element in Leo and Bea LaMar’s complete entertainment package was gambling. The small backroom at the Ozark Club had a pool table and that was frequently in action with gambling activities. The games of choice in those days included Craps and a Greek dice game called "Barboot." During World War II, Montana and the city of Great Falls legalized limited slot machine gambling. In 1945 the Ozark Club legally operated two 5-cent and one 10-cent slot machines, paying a small percentage to the city. At this time there were some 51 machines legally operating in Great Falls, primarily at fraternal clubs. By the late 1940s, Montana law changed to prohibit slot machines.

Ozark Club illegal gambling went on over the years, carefully controlled by Leo, and generally tolerated by the city police. On occasion Ozark gambling became visible to the public. In July 1956, Roy A. Harrison lost about $5,000 in a gambling game to the Leo LaMar, and a resulting court case was covered by the Tribune. Ironically, the court treated the activity as legal, and ordered Harrison to pay $100 a month to Leo until the debt was paid. (Ken Robison)

The Decline and Fall of Empire Ozark Club:

During the 1950s the Ozark Club was flying high and attracting an interracial crowd of patrons that included servicemen, couples and singles, traveling salesmen, and visitors out for a good time. Leader Bob Mabane attracted the musical talent to keep the Ozark Boys one of the finest small dance bands west of the Mississippi. Booking agents sent quality singers and exotic dancers to the O-Club along the Great Northern circuit. Bea LaMar was running her “gravy train” prostitution ring at the nearby Doyle Apartments. Gambling was going on both in the back of the O-Club and in the Doyle. Leo LaMar was a power within the Great Falls community.

By 1957 dark clouds were forming. That year headlines broke revealing sordid details of the Doyle Apartment operations, and the State of Montana began abatement action to shut that down. “Brother” or Leo Jr.’s wife Pat brought more headlines in 1959 with her death by gunshot, ruled a suicide. Two years later Brother’s spectacular death with four friends in an early morning car-truck crash in June 1961 was a huge blow to Leo and to Leo, Jr.’s many friends. Leo’s heart attack and death one year later in June 1962 marked the end of an era, and the impending demise of the Ozark Club. Three weeks later, a spectacular late night fire forced emergency evacuation of about 50 staff and patrons, as the Ozark Club burned to the ground.

Leo was gone, his famed Club was gone, and Bea was left with no husband, no club. One month later Bea LaMar was presented with an Internal Revenue excise tax bill for the Ozark Club, Inc. for more than $100,000.

Mrs. Bea LaMar stayed on in Great Falls for several years, running the Doyle Apartments, by then renamed the Vista Apartments with the help of longtime friend Major Murdock. About 1966, Bea LaMar moved on to Livingston and in 1974 to Billings, where she worked as a home nurse and was active in the St. Bernard’s Catholic Church. On August 14, 1989, Charlene Beatrice Jeffers LaMar passed away.

In the wake of the Ozark Club, two other African American nightclubs opened on the lower South Side of Great Falls: the Ebony Club at 217 1st Avenue South and the Caravan Clubs at 313 2nd Avenue South. But, those are other stories for another time. (Ken Robison)

The Ozark Club Hall of Fame – Famous Performers:

From 1933-1962 the Ozark Club offered an entertainment package that often included the house band, The Ozark Club Boys, one or more singers, an exotic dancer, sometimes a comedian or ventriloquist, or other performer. Black celebrities, sports figures, and bands traveling through the Great Falls area would often either visit or perform at the Ozark Club. We know that Joe Louis visited the Club in 1945, and that the Harlem Globetrotters spent their off-court hours at the Ozark during their many visits to Great Falls. We have heard that Lionel Hampton and his band spent a late night playing at the O-Club with the doors locked at 2 a.m. and the music continuing until morning light.

We will probably never know all the Ozark performers. The traveling musicians, singers, and exotic dancers were often on a circuit, sometimes known as the “chitlin’ circuit” out of Detroit or other major cities. They would be contracted for about a month at the Ozark and then move on to the West Coast. Some of the entertainers were on their way “up” and would later achieve fame, while a few were over the hill. Many, while quality entertainers, would never become famous. We have identified a sampling of those who did attained success with major bands or fame on their way to a long career. Here is a sampling of our version of the Ozark Club Hall of Fame performers:

Cicero Blake: Much admired by Chicago soul and blues fans worldwide, Performed at the Ozark Club in 1958.

Eugene Bolden: Played piano with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra before 1953. Played with the 3-Notes at the Ozark Club in 1953.

Ellsworth Brown:

Beulah Bryant: Sang with Duke Ellington, appeared on Jack Benny’s radio show, starred in her own radio show. Sang at the Ozark Club in 1953.

Vivian Dandridge: As teen-agers Vivian and her famous Oscar-nominated sister Dorothy Dandridge performed as the Dandridge Sisters at the famous New York Cotton Club. Vivian sang with Duke Ellington Orchestra. Sang at the Ozark Club in 1953.

Oscar Dennard: Played piano with the Lionel Hampton Band in France in the Fall of 1961. Played piano with the Ozark Club Boys in 1953.

Redd Foxx: Young comedian destined to achieve national fame for his comedy routines and TV show. Comedy act at Ozark Club in 1957.

Rita Grenae: Sang with Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, and at the Harlem Club. Sang at Ozark Club in 1958.

Lionel Hampton: Performed with his band at the Ozark Club one late night about 1957. Hampton played piano. [John Stevens was there]

Beverly Harris: Toured with Earl Bostic, Johnny Otis, and Charley Barnett bands. Sang at the Ozark Club in 1958.

Jean Idelle: Cover girl for Ebony Magazine. Exotic dancer at the Ozark Club in 1955.

Chubby Kemp: Sang with Duke Ellington band in early 1950s. Sang at the Ozark Club in 1959.

Doris Knighton: Sang in the early 1950s with The Cats & The Fiddle, a harmony vocal group inspired by the success of the Mills Brothers. Singing partner with Jimmy “Pops” Teasly on Mercury label recordings. Sang at the Ozark Club in 1954.

Jack Larson: Played piano with the Dorsey Band in 1962. Played piano with the Ozark Club Boys in 1953.

Robert “Bob” Mabane: Played tenor sax with Charlie Parker in the famed be-bop Jay McShann Orchestra in Kansas City 1940-42. Played tenor sax and led the Ozark Boys Combo at the Ozark Club from 1948-1962.

Rock ‘n Roll Girls: Sang & danced with Louis Jordan show. Sang & Danced at the Ozark Club in 1956.

Pat Sides: Exotic dancer with Spike Jones TV Show. Exotic Dancer at the Ozark Club in 1956.

Myra Taylor: Singer and songwriter. Wrote “Spider and the Fly” for Stan Kenton and was recorded by him on Mercury label in 1950s. From a Kansas City music critic: “On her 90th birthday, Myra drew rave reviews from a Kansas City critic: “Happy 90th birthday, Myra Taylor! Our leading swing songstress and her many friends celebrate the big event on Saturday at Knuckleheads Saloon. Taylor is one of the great living links to the heyday of Kansas City swing . . . She has kept her voice and her sense of humor together, along with her ability to steal a show. I'm remembering a gig about three years back when Taylor was ready to sing, but the band wasn't ready to play -- so she simply did the song without them and had the whole crowd clapping and stomping along, making the room swing with just the power of her voice. It was pure essence of Kansas City swing and a great moment. Here's to many more!” Sang at the Ozark Club 1953-54, 1958.

Jimmy “Pops” Teasly: Singing partner in 1950s with Doris Knighton on Mercury label recordings. Sang at the Ozark Club in 1954.

Stan Turrentine: Tenor Sax player with Lionel Hampton Orchestra & Earl Bostic. From Steve Huey, All Music Guide: “A legend of the tenor saxophone, Stanley Turrentine was renowned for his distinctively thick, rippling tone, an earthy grounding in the blues, and his ability to work a groove with soul and imagination. Turrentine recorded in a wide variety of settings, but was best known for his Blue Note soul-jazz jams of the '60s, and also underwent a popular fusion makeover in the early '70s. Played tenor sax with Ozark Club Boys in 1955.

Dinah Washington: Sang at the Ozark Club in the late 1950s [Sharon McGowan]

Evelyn White: Sang with Louis Armstrong Band. Sang at Ozark Club in 1957.

Miss Wiggles: Infamous exotic dancer for her contortions in dancing upside down on a chair. Danced with Louis Armstrong Band. Exotic dancer at the Ozark Club in 1956.

Barbara Winfield: Singer. Sang with Duke Ellington as a teenager from 1950-52. Sang at the Ozark Club

The Ozark Club – House Band:

From 1933-1962 many musicians played with the house band at the Ozark Club. Many others musicians visiting Great Falls either performed at the Club or joined in jam sessions. We are still learning the identity of musicians that performed at the O-Club. The name of the Ozark house band changed over the years, most often known as the Ozark Club Boys, but also on occasion as the 3-Notes, Ozark Club Orchestra, Three Sharps, O-Club Combo, and Bob Mabane’s Dance Band.

Tenor saxman Robert “Bob” L. Mabane, a native of Tennessee born January 25, 1914, came up through the Kansas City early be-bop jazz era. He joined the Jay McShann band in 1940 as McShann was achieving national fame. Mabane on tenor sax sat side-by-side with young Charlie Parker with his alto sax until the McShann band disbanded in 1942, early in World War II. After some time in Colorado, Bob Mabane and his wife Modena came to Great Falls in the late 1940s, probably because Bob was ready for a quieter atmosphere and Modena wanted to join her aunt Bea LaMar. Bob Mabane remained in Great Falls leading and playing sax in the Ozark house band from 1949 until the O-Club burned down in July 1962. Mabane then moved on to the Portland area where he died in 1991.

We have identified the following members of the Ozark Club house band:

1930s:

Earle L. Thornton, musician & night club entertainer 1934
John H. Christian, musician 1935
John F. “Frenchy” Christian, musician 1930s

1940s:

John F. “Frenchy” Christian, leader and musician 1940-46
Bob Mabane, leader and tenor sax 1949
Richard Brown, drums 1949
Chuck Reed, piano 1949

1950s:

Bob Mabane, leader and tenor sax, banjo 1950-59
Richard Brown, drums 1950-53, 1956
Chuck Reed, piano 1950-53
Oscar Dennard, piano, vocals July-November 1953
Eugene Bolden, piano March-May 1953
Jack Larson, piano May-1953
Fritz ?, piano August 1956
Joel Cowan, guitar March-April 1957


1960-62:

Bob Mabane, leader and tenor sax 1960-62
Larry Hall, piano 1960-61
Bobby Brooks, drums and vocals September 1960
Bobby Hamilton, drums 1961-62
R. D. Hopwood, piano 1962

The Ozark Club Jammers – Who Jammed At the O-CLUB?:

While Bob Mabane and his Ozark Club Boys house band were the primary band at the O-Club and visiting bands came and went, there was another category of musicians that frequented the club and contributed to the jazz music scene in Great Falls. These were the solo musicians that climbed the long stairs to the Ozark Club to join in the “jam” sessions held Sunday afternoons and perhaps at other times. One of these young adventurers was Jack Mahood, who after returning to Montana from World War II would bring his alto sax and join in the jam sessions. But, who are the other jam session musicians? We know the names of some of them, but would love to find the complete list. If you played at the Ozark Club or know someone who did, we would like to know.

Here are those we do know:

Al “Smoky” Eddington, Guitar early 1950s
Mel Eller, Tenor Sax early 1950s
John Huber, trumpet late 1950s
Jack Mahood, Alto Sax late 1940s-early 1950s
Jack Evans, bass early 1950s
Joe Richardson, Piano early 1950s
Joe Wilson, Piano early 1950s

Who are the others???
(Ken Robison)

The Ozark Club Jazz Recordings:

Fortunately, for posterity some audio insight into the Ozark Club and its hot jazz has survived. During April-May 2005 at Niel Hebertson’s Fireside Books on Central Avenue in Great Falls, Philip Aaberg, Montana’s modern musical treasure, and historian, Ken Robison jointly interviewed Jack Mahood, then 86 years of age, about the early days of jazz music in Great Falls including the unique Ozark Club, where as a young musician Jack played with some of America’s finest Black American jazzmen.

During this series of four interviews, Jack Mahood brought out a series of 33 1/3 and 78 rpm recorded discs that were made at the Ozark Club while Jack was playing there in the early 1950s. What a rare historical treat it was to listen to Sweet Georgia Brown, Lady Be Good, and other Ozark Club jazz music while listening to Jack as he described the Ozark Club, the musicians, and the musical life in Great Falls in the late 1940s and 1950s. Phil Aaberg is restoring and archiving these historic recordings using modern audio technology. (Ken Robison)

[Photo of Fireside Books]

The Failed Experiment: Prohibition
For thirteen long years from 1920 to 1933 the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages was illegal in the United States. Ironically, it was not illegal to drink alcohol. Supporters of Prohibition believed it would improve society. Many disagreed and border states saw an active trade in “bootlegging” across the border from Canadian breweries to thirsty Montanans. Others set up stills and made their own alcohol as “moonshiners.” Federal agents were given the impossible task of enforcing the law. Despite strenuous efforts to curtail alcohol, bootlegging, moonshine, and underground clubs were active. By 1933 the nation was ready to scrap Prohibition. On December 5 of that year, Montana became “wet” and started serving beer, wine, and alcoholic drinks. (Ken Robison)

The Pre-Prohibition (Prior to 1920) Ozark Club:
The first Ozark Club in Great Falls was an African American nightclub operating by 1917 on the South Side. This club continued operations in the early years of Prohibition, probably serving soft drinks on the surface, alcohol “under the table,” and gambling on the side. This Ozark Club appears to have been closed down by Prohibition sometime after 1921. (Ken Robison)

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