Claude Black

Claude Black
Claude Black

To call Claude Black an accompanist is not to disrespect the local jazz pianist, who died last week of cancer at age 80. It’s how he described himself, and he bore that title with dignity and honor during a career that spanned more than six decades.

Mr. Black didn’t achieve the fame of other pianists such as Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson, or Toledo’s incomparable Art Tatum. But he had style, intensity, and a connection to the music he played that was palpable. And he had a genius for making other artists better.

A Detroit native who adopted Toledo as his home nearly 40 years ago, Mr. Black was, in his words, “rubbing elbows” with famous musicians from an early age. Fats Waller was among the family friends who would stop by to visit and play.

Mr. Black began to play professionally at age 16. His last public performance was at the University of Toledo last month. In between, he played with generations of jazz luminaries, toured with Aretha Franklin, and accompanied scores of singers. With bassist Clifford Murphy, Mr. Black was a downtown Toledo institution for more than two decades.

“It was my honor to accompany many vocalists down through the years,” Mr. Black said last year. “I was always good at that, and people hired me because of my accompanying skills.”

Those skills often were on display at Murphy’s Place, where he and Mr. Murphy not only melded their considerable talents, but also provided guidance and a stage for aspiring singers and musicians. He shared his knowledge with students in UT’s Jazz Studies Program.

A memorial to Mr. Black’s life and career will be Feb. 4 at Crystal’s Lounge in the Ramada Hotel and Conference Center on Secor Road. He won’t be there, but his music will.

That’s OK. For Mr. Black, it was always about the music.