Jazz is often called America’s only true original art form, rooted in the slavery era of the Deep South. But after migrating north, the music has been embraced by generations of Toledoans, and now several young musicians have emerged who appear determined to carry on the city’s longstanding jazz tradition despite some economic challenges.
To understand why, look past the business spreadsheets and focus on the passion, heart, and commitment many of today’s veteran jazz musicians have for grooming tomorrow’s performers.
Sure Toledo, like other cities, has had iconic jazz clubs of yesteryear close. But there continues to be a promising future based around the intangibles of a relationship that often starts with a simple pat on the back and evolves into generous amounts of time given by established musicians to sit down, pass along their knowledge, and, in many cases, have the budding talent play with them at gigs.
Jazz works in Toledo because there isn’t the ego found in some mainstream genres. The city has had and continues to have jazz musicians of a national caliber, going back to the early 1900s when Toledo’s own Art Tatum — who died in 1956 — did things on a piano that generations of musicians still find stunning. Talk to any high-profile jazz pianist stopping off for a show in Toledo — New Orleans legend Ellis Marsalis is just one of many — and they’ll break into a dissertation about Tatum’s impact.
Over the years, there was trumpeter Jimmy Cook. Singers such as Jon Hendricks — who emerged as the father of the improvisational form of jazz singing known as vocalese — have likewise made a difference by taking the time to care.
Those vital but often overlooked intangibles became evident in a recent conversation with Devin Krueger, a 23-year-old Toledo guitarist whose life was literally changed by the Toledo jazz community’s unselfishness.
When he began taking classes at the Toledo School for the Arts in sixth grade, Krueger thought he wanted to go into visual art and design. He said he soon found himself getting “sucked into the music program” there.
“Music captivated me because, unlike other things I had tried, it gave me the biggest voice,” he said.
Krueger said he soon fell in love with jazz because of how it “pushes for individualistic experimentation and expression.” It also dawned on him what a great opportunity lay in front of him, being able to learn from some top-shelf musicians in Toledo’s jazz community.
“The deeper I went down that road, the more I was put in contact with the best players,” Krueger said. “They would push me to do things I didn’t know I could do. As far as the jazz and blues scene in Toledo goes, there is definitely a fervent community in those genres that is really trying to pass the torch.”
Krueger said the late pianist Claude Black, who died in 2013, taught him a little about improvisation. Krueger was only a teenager then, but he remembers being mentored by Black and his longtime sidekick at Murphy’s Place, bassist Clifford Murphy. Black and Murphy have affectionately been called “Clifford and Claude University” by some area musicians for the sage advice they imparted at Murphy’s old tavern, the University of Toledo, and other sites around town.
“They did a good job of knowing the spaces when it was time to play. I learned to listen to others around you while you’re playing and let it be a [musical] conversation. That’s an important thing about jazz, learning how to listen,” Krueger said. “Claude knew how to poke at someone to get the most out of them.”
The beat goes on
Drummer Michael Reed, 21, who often plays in singer Ramona Collins’ band, cites her and Sean Dobbins, a Detroit-area drummer who’s part of the Toledo-Detroit jazz connection, among his influences.
Reed was too young to have experienced Murphy’s Place or Toledo’s most iconic jazz club, Rusty’s, which once was America’s third-oldest nightly jazz venue. But he recalls sitting in with Murphy one day as a UT freshman.
“He’s always been very encouraging,” said Reed, who’s entering his senior year at UT.
Now leader of his own jazz group, the Reedify Trio, Reed is making plans for his first album. He and the other two members of his trio, bassist Johannes “J.” Ronquillo and 19-year-old pianist Kenton Davey, plan to bring in a saxophonist for the recording sessions.
Reed said he first dabbled in jazz as a fifth-grader in the drum line at Lake Erie Academy. He said he reconnected with it as a high school junior at TSA.
He said he enjoys jazz because it allows him “to be creative while playing with other musicians.”
Reed said he listens a lot to recordings by nationally known drummers such as Brian Blade and that he has learned a lot in person from Olman Piedra, UT associate professor of percussion and drum set, and Rob Desmond, a TSA music director. He also gleans inspiration for composing music, another passion of his, from recordings by jazz legends such as trumpeter Miles Davis, modern jazz keyboardist Chick Corea, and saxophonists John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter.
“It really started for me when I was growing up at church,” according to Reed, who now also plays bass guitar at Eastern Star Missionary Baptist Church. “I was about 5 years old when I started beating on pots and pans. It’s my gift from God.”
He said his goal is to “hopefully become an influence myself someday.”
For pianist Josh Silver, 25, another TSA product, encouragement came from a combination of school and church. He’s the keyboardist at New Bethel Church of God in Christ.
Like Reed, he often performs with Collins. Silver, who was born in Cincinnati, moved to the Toledo area at age 6 and has been playing around town since he was 13.
Now a communications major at Owens Community College with aspirations of moving into theater and acting, Silver sees music as more of a side career.
“There are definitely young guys coming up,” Silver said. “There are definitely guys blending the older styles with the younger styles.”
Carrying the tune
Singer Lauren Sevigh Smith was discovered by the Art Tatum Jazz Society when she was only 12.
Now 16 and entering her junior year at Sylvania Northview High School, Lauren released her debut CD on her birthday in February. She was a Merit winner in Jazz Voice at the 36th annual National YoungArts Foundation award competition.
One of her biggest musical mentors has been Gene Parker, another icon on the Toledo jazz scene who has taught at Ohio Northern University and led house bands at the former Degage Jazz Cafe and several other clubs in Toledo, Ann Arbor, and Detroit. Though perhaps best known for saxophone and piano, the multi-talented Parker also plays vibes, clarinet, flute, percussion, and bass and has performed with Dizzy Gillespie, Tony Bennett, Lou Rawls, Gladys Knight, Billy Eckstein, Mel Torme, Nancy Wilson, John Trudell, and Zoot Sims.
Smith has performed with him several times at the Holiday Inn French Quarter for Sunday jazz brunches and at other gigs around town.
“It’s definitely a really special experience,” she said of being taken under Parker’s wing. “I feel really lucky to have him as a mentor. He’s been so kind and welcoming to me. It’s definitely helped me grow as a musician.”
Smith said she enjoys jazz “because it’s more challenging musically” and is especially fond of recordings by singer Carmen McRae.
“Jazz is such a wide genre and can include so many different types of music,” she said. “There can be a lot more depth to songs from the past.”
Smith said she definitely plans a career in singing.
“It’s what I enjoy most out of anything. It helps me build confidence,” she said.
She cited Collins, Lori Lefevre Johnson, Jean Holden, and her Sylvania-area voice teacher, Barbara Kondalski, among those who have helped her.
“The jazz community in Toledo has been very supportive of me,” Smith said.
She and other young performers are optimistic about the future of jazz in Toledo, despite the closure of several jazz clubs.
“Jazz will not die here in Toledo,” Reed said.
Krueger agreed, citing a feeling he gets from the community’s vibe.
“I’m not sure if it’s going to be swing or big band. But I think in Toledo there will always be well-educated people who want to hear jazz. Whether people call it jazz or not is another thing,” he said.
There are a lot of great young musicians eager to “push it forward,” Krueger said.
“People just won’t be able to ignore it. It will raise the bar. I have really high hopes, especially thinking a generation away from today.”
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