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Published: Thursday, 10/8/2009

Renowned pianist Stanley Cowell, a Toledo native, talks about Art Tatum

BY SALLY VALLONGO
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE

When Art Tatum (1909-1956) was alive, few Toledoans knew much about their hometown piano genius. Stanley Cowell was among the select few who not only knew Tatum but heard him play in person.

Today, the centennial year of Tatum's birth, as awareness locally begins to match the musician's global reputation, Cowell is coming home to pay a personal tribute to the man many considered a keyboard deity.

Internationally renowned himself as a performer, a composer, and an educator, Cowell makes no pretense about playing at the same speed and complexity his blind hero managed.

That's not his style, then or now.

“Art Tatum's a big mountain to climb,” said Cowell, chairman of the jazz program at Rutgers University in New Jersey, from his Maryland home. Only a few contemporary pianists — Dick Hyman and Adam Makowicz among them — manage to re-create the symphonic virtuosity that distinguishes Tatum's style.

What Cowell does share with his fellow Toledoan is a driving creativity and enormous talent. With plenty of practice, hard work, and vision, Cowell, has scaled an entire range of his own musical peaks.

On Sunday at 7 p.m. he'll perform a concert/benefit in celebration of Tatum's centennial in Owens Community College's Center for Fine and Performing Arts. His appearance in town is sponsored by the African American Legacy Project, a local not-for-profit organization promoting black achievement.

It is one of several Tatum-related events, including a performance Saturday by Johnny O'Neal and a performance Oct. 25 at the Toledo Museum of Art by McCoy Tyner, Benny Golson, and Jon Hendricks.

Tatum was 32 and already making a reputation for himself in New York City when Cowell was born in 1941. A keyboard wunderkind himself, Cowell heard first-hand Tatum's way with a standard tune when the older pianist returned to Toledo for a family visit.

The experience, he recalls, helped define his own artistic path.

“I never wanted to play like Tatum,” he said, “but I've been stamped by the mention of the connection to Tatum in Toledo and the early experience of hearing him in my house.”

Like Tatum, Cowell began playing as a preschooler. He took classical piano training with Mary Belle Shealy and Elmer Gertz and studied organ with J. Harold Harder.

He earned his first music degree at the Oberlin Conservatory, studied further at the Mozarteum Akademie in Salzburg, Austria, and completed his master's degree in music at the University of Michigan.

He exited Ann Arbor and entered the Manhattan music scene, ready to test himself playing with the likes of Herbie Mann, Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, and Roland Kirk.

Also unlike Tatum, Cowell spread himself into other musical ventures: formation of a record label, organization of ensembles, and, in 1972, the Collective Black Artists, Inc., a performing and advocacy group where he also conducted. Into the 1980s he toured, recorded, and performed with the Heath Brothers Trio.

A Rockefeller Foundation/AT&T Jazz Program grant in 1990 enabled Cowell to compose his Piano Concerto No. 1, dedicated to Tatum and premiered with the Toledo Symphony during a Tatum tribute in 1992 organized by the Toledo Jazz Society and the University of Toledo Humanities Institute.

Sunday's concert will honor Tatum's genius in a very Cowell way.

"I'm playing six note-for-note transcriptions of Tatum," Cowell said. Titles include "Tiger Rag," "Begin the Beguine," "Tea for Two," and "Ain't Misbehavin,'" Tatum's own tribute to Fats Waller.

Cowell's daughter Sunny, a Swarthmore College senior, string player and singer, will join her father to re-create one of the earliest recordings of Tatum: "I'll Never Be the Same."

The second half of the Sunday concert will focus on Cowell's original compositions, including the 1992 Concerto, performed with taped accompaniment prepared by the pianist using state-of-the-art computerized sampling equipment. "There are ‘Tatumisms' in it, of course," Cowell said.

Tickets for the Stanley Cowell concert are $35-$100 at 567-661-2787 or boxoffice@owens.edu.

The African American Legacy Project also will celebrate the genius of Tatum with a special service at 10:30 a.m. Sunday in Grace Presbyterian Church, 1171 Oakwood Ave.

Contact Sally Vallongo at svallongo@theblade.com.



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