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Many of Toledo’s jazz legends are gone now, and the number of jazz clubs has dwindled, but this uniquely American art form remains strong in the city, say its fans and practitioners.
“The Toledo Jazz Orchestra is an exceptionally skilled swing big band, and musicians who come and play with it are blown away by the skills of the musicians,” said Toledo attorney Fritz Byers, who has hosted Jazz Spectrum, a Saturday evening program on WGTE-FM 91, since 1989. (The Toledo Jazz Orchestra split from the Toledo Jazz Society, which is known now as the Art Tatum Jazz Heritage Society.)
A younger generation is also being drawn to the music.
The Toledo School for the Arts Urban Jazz Collective is renowned, while for nearly 40 years, Scott High School students have played jazz music from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on WXTS-FM 88.3.
And at the University of Toledo, “we have an active jazz scene," with talented and professionally viable musicians, said Gunnar Mossblad, UT director of jazz studies and instructor.
While he added that the UT Jazz Ensemble performs every Monday evening at Crystal’s Lounge at the Ramada Inn on Secor Road, he also said the comings and goings of jazz venues is natural in any city.
So this is still a jazz town? “Maybe not quite as it was years ago, but not too many towns are. It has become more of an art form. Jazz was started to be art music rather than the popular music of the times. Today, jazz music is an art music. With that said, the beautiful thing about what’s going on in the schools is that we play music from a variety of eras,” Mossblad said.
Toledo has a distinguished place in jazz history. This is the home of renowned jazz pianist Art Tatum, who died in 1956, as well as vocalese pioneer Jon Hendricks, who continues to perform at the age of 92.
“Toledo is the birthplace of the person who did things on piano that to this day have not be duplicated and haven’t been understood. That alone makes Toledo a significant jazz city,” Byers said of Tatum.
“Toledo for a long time was the destination for jazz groups. That is not so much the case anymore. Through the 1950s to the 1980s, it was a desirable venue. All the great big bands played in Toledo — Duke Ellington, Count Basie — and that remained true probably into the ’60s.”
Today’s economy and the loss of significant jazz figures in recent years have adversely affected jazz in the city.
“Until the demise of Rusty’s [Jazz Cafe] and Joan Russell, Toledo had extremely prominent jazz clubs. In the late ’80s, when I began my jazz show, I remember reading that outside of New York City, there were 40 full-time jazz clubs in the United States, and two were in Toledo: Rusty’s and Murphy’s,” Byers said.“So through a combination of great music, sophisticated audience, and dedicated club owners, Toledo has been for almost the entire history of jazz a great jazz city.”
Rusty’s entertained jazz aficionados for 40 years, until 2003; Toledo’s “Queen of Jazz,” Margaret “Rusty” Monroe, drove Rusty’s success. By the time Monroe died in 2008, Murphy’s had become the go-to jazz club. But a year after after Murphy's co-owner Joan Russell died in early 2011, the club closed. Co-owner Clifford Murphy, a noted bassist, continues to play locally.
Like jazz, blues has had its ups and downs in northwest Ohio.
Musician John Rockwood, who noted that the Black Swamp Blues Society boasts about 200 enthusiasts, said Hines Farm in Swanton is an example of changing fortunes. Although the venue once drew some of the biggest names in music — B.B. King and Bobby Blue Bland among them — there was only an occasional event at the blues club after the original owners died in the 1970s. Now it’s making a comeback.
“When I first started getting into this, I thought the blues was in Mississippi,” said Rockwood about his pursuit of the genre in the early 1960s. The harmonica player, whose band is Voodoo Libido, added, “But [blues] was in my own backyard.”
The blues scene is “still out there, but not like it was. Toledo is both a blues and jazz city; it's a little bit more jazz, probably,” Rockwood said.
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Some worry that the decrease in local jazz clubs has eroded interest.
“The scene continues to shrink because there are not a whole of venues,” said UT music graduate Allen Ashby, 28. While he plays tenor sax with the Skip Turner Band, he has a day job as a banker at the Huntington Bank in Sylvania. “It seems like there are fewer jazz gigs available. As for the ones that are, what we end up playing is not really jazz but instrumental R&B and smooth jazz. That’s how it’s been since Murphy’s shut down.”
Ashby said any local jazz revival will depend on businesses promoting the genre.
He added that jazz musicians must remember “that not everyone is an avid jazz fan. Sometimes the music that’s being played is not what people are accustomed to because if you don’t have an appreciation for it, it sounds like noise.”
Skip Turner, a trumpeter whose band is named for him, said there that though Toledo is the home of Art Tatum and Jon Hendricks, and there is an ongoing Tatum society, “The city of Toledo should be gathering these gifted musicians and making sure they have a place to play. Few support the art of jazz music,” he said, noting too that it’s unfortunate that there is no locally dedicated 24-hour jazz radio station.
“What about all the great artists who spend time creating all this music? They are trying to keep it alive. We have jazz lovers here, but they are so tired of trying to keep the music alive,” said Mr. Turner.
Hendricks said the general public also has a role to play in keeping jazz alive.
“The public has to be interested in cultural art forms,” Hendricks declared in a recent telephone interview from his New York City apartment. “The Germans’ interest is science; England has a great history of drama, so you are never far from Shakespeare plays in London. France is home for good painters, but American culture is jazz music.”
He laments that aficionados outside America have become its biggest fans.
“You hear more blues and jazz in Europe than in America. Americans are guilty of ignoring their own culture and sucking up to almost any other,” he said. "But if you go to Germany, you will find some of the [finest] jazz bars. France did the first internationally read criticism of jazz as a cultural art form. They loved all of it and they wrote about it very, very dearly,” Hendricks said.
“Everybody knows what their own culture is except the United States. How can every great American city have an opera house which [costs] millions? That is because their own culture is something they are not conscious of. That's a stupidity that boggles the mind.”
Contact Rose Russell at: email@example.com or 419-724-6178.