Tatum’s Town: Honoring Toledo as a stomping ground for jazz

. November 22, 2017.
Before becoming an author and a 
historian, Bob Dietsche was just a young kid in Toledo falling in love with jazz.
Before becoming an author and a historian, Bob Dietsche was just a young kid in Toledo falling in love with jazz.

Jazz historian and fanatic Bob Dietsche grew up in Toledo to the rhythms and blues of jazz. Now residing in Portland, Oregon, he dedicated his passion for jazz to capturing the life and history of the genre in Tatum’s Town, which came out this past April. The book contains a collection of stories that tackle forgotten musicians, clubs of all different varieties, and a soul familiar to any lover of jazz, Toledo.

When the love began

Dietsche recalls spending much of his youth at Seligman’s Record Bar (formerly at 1234 Sylvania Ave., now closed), collecting all the jazz albums he could gather, and his grandmother being the first to expose him to the genre.

“My grandmother took me to Disney’s Make Mine Music and the last part of the film featured jazz with animated cats jitterbugging to Benny Goodman,” says Dietsche. “I was only 8 and I could feel the juices.”

Uncovering the history

Covering the period from 1915 to 1985, Tatum’s Town provides a rich lesson on the beginnings of jazz in Toledo. Vital to every musician is a swinging place to play and throughout the book, we learn all about the clubs, from the three-story mansion Chateau de la France, tucked away in the woods off Dorr Street, to the longest-running club, Rusty’s, where all the greats played. If there was one club he could go back to today, Dietsche says that it would be The Jail.

The Jail on Jefferson Avenue was the most bizarre. He writes, “Waitresses in convict stripes and pillbox hats brought the succulent fried chicken and cheese bread, on cardboard plates. No silverware was allowed.”

Another rowdy spot was Chicken Charlie’s on Lafayette Street where fights would break out regularly. Despite that, it was one of Art Tatum’s favorite places to play. One iconic jazz venue that Dietsche visited in his youth was Centennial Terrace, which still packs the house. “The first time I went to Centennial was a dream. The big outdoor ballroom was beautiful and I think Woody Herman played that night.”

Recalling the Forgotten

If you ask the jazz lovers of Toledo today about some of the greats, they’d probably mention Claude Black, the other half of the infamous Murphy’s night club duo. Others would note Helen O’Connell and Mary Ann Russo for their powerhouse vocals, or El Myers or Floyd “Candy” Johnson. Dietsche writes about all of them and many more.

The most underappreciated was the fantastic, yet tragic, Arv Garrison. “I started with Arv Garrison as the focus of the book rather than Art Tatum. His story is new and sad.” After spending two days interviewing Garrison’s wife, Dietsche’s narrative sounds more like that of a close friend than a researcher.

Known for his guitar playing, Garrison was often compared to Django Reinhardt. Born and raised in the Glass City, Garrison made a name for himself after teaching his wife Vivian Garry to play the bass. With the help of a piano player, they formed the Vivian Garry Trio and performed all over from NYC’s famous 52nd Street to the buzzing jazz scene in Los Angeles.

He had all the makings to be a true star, even recording with Charlie Parker. But due to epilepsy, his wife abandoning him, and his tragic drowning in Centennial Quarry, Garrison never got the notoriety he deserved. Hardly mentioned previously, his story and many others are memorialized in this collection.

Tatum’s legacy

Dietsche begins the book with a cast of characters to help keep the names of all the musicians straight. But no one can forget Art Tatum. Playing his favorite tune, “Tiger Rag,” on an old church piano, his legacy began when he was only 15. Every artist that crossed paths with him knew he was untouchable, as they were mesmerized, watching him play effortlessly with independent hands.

In Tatum’s Town, Dietsche follows Tatum’s life and how he laid the foundation of jazz in the Glass City by making Toledo the place to play for many upcoming jazz artists.

Tatum’s Town is available to buythrough most online retailers.

  • Francis_Urquhart

    Very cool! Will definitely buy it. Look forward to reading more about Claude Black. His life alone is worth a book by itself.