When singer-songwriter Crystal Bowersox became a household name in Toledo this year, she did so after just a few months on the stage of American Idol, and now it appear she's on a fast track to fame and familiarity. But for some, fame comes slowly. Toledo native and Jazz Legend Art Tatum would seem to be a poster child for unrecognized genius, at least it was that way for many years in his own hometown, even though his musical talents were recognized and honored my musicians around the world. Fame can be fickle. Tatum was born into a working class family on City park Avenue on October 13th of1909. During childhood he dealt with cataracts and eventually blindness in one eye, and while vision may have been a challenge, his hearing was perfect. Pitch perfect and Tatum turned to music. Brett Collins at the Art Tatum African American Resource Center at the Kent Branch of the Toledo Public Library says, "he was schooled at home at first and he eventually went to Columbus where he studied violin and guitar before he switched to piano. And the young Tatum didn't just play the piano. He owned it. Whether playing the classics or playing jazz where he could improvise very fast jazz riffs. Collins, says that's how he developed his style. He was both classic and jazzy and he could mix everything up and his left hand was the equal of his right, meaning he was fast, very fast. Despite these natural talents, Tatum continued to play in the Toledo area for many years. Playing whereever he could. In night clubs and speak easies and even with future jazz great and Toledo native Jon Hendricks. Tatum eventually landed a job as a regular musician and his own show on WSPD radio. In 1932, at the age of 23, his big break came. Adelaide Hall, a popular jazz vocalist, heard Tatum and offered him a job and took him to New York where he would be her back-up accompianist. But once in New York, Tatum ;iked to play after hours clubs, gaining ever greater exposure to a much wider audience. The long hour and hard work paid dividends. Soon his talents were impressing many people in the music business and the demand for his massive talent grew quickly. Tatum spent the rest of his life working with the greats of the jazz world and, at the same time developing an indelible reputation as one of the greatest jazz piano soloists in history. Fats Waller once said of Tatum when introducing him, "I play the piano, but tonight, God is in the house." While Tatum was able to bask in the light of musical sunshine for about two decades, the habit of heavy beer drinking finally took its toll on his body. By the mid 1950's, his health was suffering from kidney disease and in November of 1956, the song of his life was cut short at the age of 46.
Now 54 years later, a growing legion of fans in his hometown of Toledo continue to educate others about this phenomenal talent. The annual jazz festival in Toledo is named in his honor and a new memorial, in the shape of a black and white keyboard stands tall in front of the new Huntington Center in downtown Toledo. Little by little, there appears to a growing realization and awareness of this native son and his substantial role in American music history. A grace note to his life's work. This weekend at the Toledo Public Library, the library and the Art Tatum African American resource center, will host a special night to honor and remeber Tatum. It is called Art 101, and co-ordinator, Brett Collins, says it promises to be a night of great entertainment with music and a course in what he calls"Tatumology".
Tickets are $30 per person and $50 per couple. Please contact Faith Hairston at 419.259.5283 or Brett Collins at 419.259.5392.
This event is sponsored by the Art Tatum African American Resource Center and Advisory Board at Kent Branch Library