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Toledo jazz legend Claude Black, a pianist who played with Charlie "Bird" Parker, Stan Getz, and Wes Montgomery, and who toured with Aretha Franklin, died Thursday morning.
He was 80 and had been battling cancer for more than a year. He died in a hospice facility, said Susanne Scott, his ex-wife and caretaker.
She said the last year was tough for Black as he battled the disease, but he used that time to foster his relationship with one of his daughters who helped care for him and he was greatly appreciative of the encouragement he received from Toledo-area musicians and fans.
A pair of benefit concerts last year to raise money for his health-care costs led to an outpouring of support, Ms. Scott said.
"They came out of the woodwork when it came to those concerts last year," she said. "He was absolutely flabbergasted — we all were — and it never stopped."
Black grew up in Detroit and his life was struck with tragedy when he was just 13. In a jealous rage, his stepfather killed the boy's mom and sister and then turned the gun on himself. Ms. Scott believes that experience, along with later deaths of several of his children, helped forge his emotive style of playing.
"When someone was in a trauma like he was and he kept losing people, it just chipped away and chipped away, but the music allowed him to touch people," she said.
"Some people could have his technique, but there was something in Claude and his heart was in it and it was so deep. He couldn't help but pull people in. He was his music right to the core."
Raised by his grandmother and an uncle, Black was exposed to jazz in the 1940s and he loved the music. Some of the stars of the day, including Fats Waller, were friends of his uncle and they would come to the house to socialize and play.
"I got swept away by these bands," he told The Blade in a 2000 interview. "I was rubbing elbows with all these musicians and I eased right into it."
He played in various bands and in 1952 he was drafted into the Army, where he spent much of that time playing music. When he was discharged he met bassist Clifford Murphy in a Detroit church and they formed a musical partnership that lasted more than 40 years.
Black joined Aretha Franklin's touring band in 1965 and played with some of the greatest jazz musicians of the 20th century ranging from Jon Hendricks to Wynton Marsalis. He traveled back and forth from Detroit to Toledo for gigs and in 1973 he settled here. He and Murphy formed a potent pairing at the jazz club Murphy's Place for 20 years before the club closed.
"He was a great listener as well as a teacher and when he played, he strived to do the best that he could do and it was always great and he always tried to get better," Murphy said. "He was learning all the time. Even up to passing he was still learning."
Black was well known for helping young musicians through the University of Toledo and mentoring them in local clubs.
"He took pride in teaching the best things he could teach on the music scene. And I can't think of anything better to say," Murphy said.
Matt DeChamplain was one of the young pianists who received Black's assistance and he played with him at Black's final public performance at a Christmas concert at the University of Toledo a month ago.
"He was a gentleman and had a quiet intensity about him that was very refreshing. He was very humble and a beautiful person," DeChamplain said.
He graduated from UT in December and performs with his wife, Atla DeChamplain, who is a vocalist. He said Black's help was invaluable in teaching him the intricacies of working with a singer.
"Naturally he accompanied tons of vocalists, so he was very supportive in helping me learn about the art of accompaniment," he said. "He knew thousands of songs, not just chords and melodies but also lyrics."
Black was married several times and he had five surviving children, according to Ms. Scott, who was married to him from 1974 to 1997 and remained close friends with him. Surviving daughters are Rosemary Hackett, of Ypsilanti, Mich.; Gloria Black, address unknown; Darlene Bryant, of Toledo; Deborah Bryant, of Toledo. Surviving son is Eric Black, of Texas.
Ms. Scott said Darlene Bryant cared for Mr. Black during his most recent illness and he became especially close to her "and it was beautiful."
Ms. Scott said the body will be cremated and no formal services are scheduled. However, she is certain that local musicians will schedule a jam session to celebrate the life of one of Toledo's greatest jazz players.
As for Murphy, he said he will miss his friend.
"He was Claude Black and there was no other," he said.
Contact Rod Lockwood at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6159.