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Published: Wednesday, 9/9/2009

Toledo Jazz Society explores variations on a classic theme

BY ROD LOCKWOOD
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The Toledo Jazz Society has a new name and mission.

As of today it's the Art Tatum Heritage Jazz Foundation, a moniker that is designed to expand the organization's scope, boost membership, and honor the iconic deceased piano player whose 100th birthday celebration is this year.

It's also expected to breathe new life into an organization that was admittedly struggling.

"It was time," said Jeff Jaffe, president of the foundation's board.

"The past couple of years we've noticed a decline in membership, we've noticed a decline in attendance in our concerts, and, of course, probably the nail in the coffin was Chrysler not being able to fund the festival this year."

The annual Art Tatum Heritage Jazz festival was canceled because of a lack of funding through corporate sponsorships.

Also last year, the Toledo Jazz Orchestra canceled the latter part of its season because of poor attendance.

Mr. Jaffe said it was time to rethink the jazz society's mission and find ways to bring the music to a younger audience. He said Mr. Tatum is known throughout international jazz circles as an innovative pianist who many still consider the greatest of the genre.

"That's our mission, to preserve his legacy and help people know more about him," he said.

"I grew up here and have lived here all my life and I don't think I knew who Art Tatum was until I was in my 30s and that's a shame."

One of the new organization's first steps is its "Pianos for Art" promotion in which refurbished pianos are being placed at various locations around the city - including the Toledo Zoo, the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, the University of Toledo Student Union, the Toledo Museum of Art - to be painted and for passers-by to play.

The effort led by Kay Elliott of the foundation has already received donations of more than three dozen pianos, and she's still receiving calls from people who want to give the group more instruments.

"Someone said, 'Are you OK?' and I said, 'No, I've been hit on the head by pianos,'•" Ms. Elliott said, laughing.

The foundation is going to create a Tatum Tots program to take jazz into area schools and a "Piano Idol" competition is being developed, both efforts to "raise the fun factor" for the organization, Mr. Jaffe said.

The University of Toledo's jazz program will be an integral part of the organization's effort, said Lee Heritage, interim senior associate dean of the college of arts and sciences.

"I don't know what shape it's going to take, but I hope we can achieve something new and effective and I'm sure she will," he said.

Both Mr. Heritage and Mr. Jaffe said that the group needs to work on bringing dynamic artists to the area to play jazz and take advantage of the area's history.

The Jazz Orchestra is a separate entity from the foundation, and it is working to develop a concert series this winter that would be at the Valentine Theatre, Mr. Jaffe said.

The Greater Toledo Convention and Visitors Bureau is partnering with the foundation to place large vertical banners on lamp posts downtown honoring Mr. Tatum, said Cathy Miller, director of tourism.

This marks a busy week for jazz fans in the city. Unrelated to the Jazz Society's name change, the Arts Commission of Greater Toledo will hold a dedication ceremony at 11 a.m. Friday for the "Art Tatum Celebration Column" outside the new Lucas County Arena.

The glowing 27-foot tower of 88 piano keys will welcome the public into the Superior Street pedestrian plaza of the new arena.

Contact Rod Lockwood at:

rlockwood@theblade.com

or 419-724-6159.



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