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Revitalization project honors jazz great, Toledo native Art Tatum

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    Assistant artist David Ross paints during a celebration to honor the legacy of jazz pianist Art Tatum.

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    Tyler Fowler, left, and Kenton Davey, right, with the Tyler Fowler Trio, play jazz on the porch during a celebration, to honor the legacy of jazz pianist Art Tatum, and the installation of the Tatum House Mural project.

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    Mural installations that honor jazz pianist Art Tatum were installed this week at his boyhood home.

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    Ryan Bunch with the Arts Commission addresses the crowd during a celebration to honor jazz legend and Toledo native Art Tatum.

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    Murals that honor jazz pianist Art Tatum were installed at his boyhood home in the Junction neighborhood.

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    Art Tatum in 1944 photo

    BLADE

The century-old boyhood home of jazz legend Art Tatum sits at the end of a row of six homes on City Park Avenue, its peeling white paint, and rickety wood porch steps showing signs of age and neglect.

But now, the bright yellows, greens, purples, and blues of 15 murals offset the blight, serving as a reminder that revitalization is on the horizon for the two-story house where the late Mr. Tatum, who was blind in one eye and had only partial sight in the other, taught himself to play the piano, foreshadowing a short but legendary career in jazz.

We are here today to celebrate a person who had a disability, but made ability take place in our country,” said the Rev. Calvin Sweeney, pastor at Tabernacle Toledo, to a crowd of about 50 gathered outside the house Thursday.

RELATED: Tatum’s influence still forms younger jazz musicians today

The church was one of several neighborhood coalitions involved in the ongoing revitalization effort. The murals, created from wood panels and designed to cover the windows and entryways on the house, are part of the Toledo Arts Commission’s Creative Placemaking program, a project in which artistic board-ups are installed on vacant, blighted homes.

Local artist Maura Amato was commissioned by the Arts Commission as lead artist to design the murals, and then paint them along with local artist Victoria Stegner and teens from the Student Leaders in Action enrichment program through the Jones Leadership Academy’s YMCA after-school program, Arts Commission spokesman Ryan Bunch said.

Two additional local artists, Dave Ross and Frank Wright, also contributed to the vibrancy of the pieces by painting graphics on the murals: piano keys, an image of Mr. Tatum.

In addition to the Jones Leadership Academy and Tabernacle Toledo, the Arts Commission worked on the revitalization project with the Junction Coalition, and with the Frederick Douglass Community Center.

The house, located in what is known as the Junction neighborhood in the central city, is owned by Mr. Tatum’s niece, Lucille Johnson, believed to be the last living relative of Mr. Tatum in Toledo, and has been unoccupied for more than a decade. Ms. Johnson was not able to come to Thursday’s celebration, but gave the Arts Commission and the other organizations permission to move forward with the project, said Alicia Smith, executive director of the Junction Coalition.

“That’s where the community comes in, to do work as a team to preserve our history and culture,” she said. “That’s the most important thing, that we continue to celebrate who we are, why we are, and how we are, together.”

Without the youth, who came from all over the Toledo area to help paint the murals, the project would not have been completed, and important history could be lost to them, Ms. Smith said.

“My role is to give young people celebration, and a reason to stay in Toledo,” she said

Russell Chapman III, 15, is a sophomore at Jones and one of the students in Student Leaders in Action. He readily admits he didn’t know who Art Tatum was when he started helping.

“We learned that he was one of the biggest innovators of his time, and he lived right here in Toledo, awesome,” the youth said.

The murals are temporary — the goal is to remove them once the next step in the revitalization project begins. Ms. Smith said the goal is to secure the house for the winter months, and then start rehabbing it in the spring for future use as a museum, residence, or another function to be decided later.

“We hope to draw attention to the house in the hopes that some of those people who can help down the road take notice and bring resources,” Mr. Bunch said.

Mr. Tatum was born in Toledo on Oct. 13, 1909, and went on to become one of the most influential jazz pianists in history.

The legally blind musician received some classical training in piano at the Toledo School of Music, but was mostly self-taught. He played in nightclubs in Toledo at a young age before moving to New York City to perform there in the 1930s. He died on Nov. 5, 1956, at the age of 47.

In 2003, a historical marker was placed at the City Park residence to commemorate it as Mr. Tatum’s boyhood home.

Thursday’s unveiling program included interactive art projects by students, live jazz music by the Tyler Fowler Trio, and food and drink.

The Creative Placemaking program is a Strategic Plan for Arts and Culture, established through a partnership between the city of Toledo and the Arts Commission in 2015. The Arts Commission is currently working on economic recovery and revitalization in seven different neighborhoods in the city, Mr. Bunch said.

Contact Roberta Gedert at rgedert@theblade.com, 419-724-6075 or on Twitter @RoGedert.

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