Remembering Art Tatum

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A historical marker, placed in front of 1123 City Park Ave. in 2003, commemorates the location as the childhood home of legendary jazz pianist Art Tatum. Since Tatum’s passing in 1956, his reputation as a great piano player has endured among music connoisseurs.

The years since the placement of the marker have not been kind to the house. Peeling paint, boarded windows, overgrown shrubbery decry the sad reality that the building is just another abandoned home. Originally built in 1905, four years before Tatum’s birth, the current state of the structure saddens Lucille Johnson, Tatum’s niece and last living heir. Johnson, an 84-year-old Toledo resident, has owned the property since 2003, when she inherited it after the death of her mother.

“I don’t know what to do with it,” said Johnson, explaining that the house’s foundation is the most glaring issue. “I just don’t have the money to [fix] it. My husband died and I don’t have any children. It’s just me.”

unnamed-4Tatum’s childhood home

Money matters

As a retiree, Johnson’s fixed income only permits her to pay the property taxes and have a young man mow the lawn occasionally. She would love to see the home restored in honor of her uncle’s memory and legacy, but simply doesn’t have the means to pay for it herself. Community members have offered to help, but currently there are no firm plans for the project.

One area group that has expressed interest in the restoration, Johnson noted, wanted to purchase the property and convert it into a place where children could learn to play music. But financial considerations always seem to force ideas to stall not long after talks begin.
“There are things that can be done, but you have to have the authority to do it, and then raise the money to make it happen,” said Kay Elliott, Executive Director of the Art Tatum Jazz Heritage Society, a group focused on honoring Toledo’s rich jazz traditions.

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Playing together

To Brett Colllins, Librarian Specialist for The Art Tatum African American Resource Center at the Kent Branch Library, the structure’s future depends on collaboration.

“Everyone agrees that something should be done, but people need to come together to establish a plan,” said Collins. “In Toledo, we have the Art Tatum Scholarship Fund at the University of Toledo, the Art Tatum Society, the board for the Toledo-Lucas County Library’s Art Tatum Resource Center, different arts groups have expressed interested… but no fund for the house has been started, no end goal decided.”

Until a direction and a goal is determined, the house will stay as is: a bittersweet symbol of Tatum’s legacy.

“Over the years, I’ve had people who love Art Tatum request a chance to see the house,” said Collins. “Musicians come to visit, and when they see it they compare it to other cities, like James Brown monuments in Georgia or, closer to home, the (Paul Laurence) Dunbar House in Dayton. When someone’s name is attached to a house, its disrespectful to leave it in disrepair. Monuments are typically preserved nicely.”

Honoring Uncle Art

Tatum’s own musical legacy clearly means a great deal to Johnson, who has many fond memories of the man she warmly refers to as Uncle Art. “He came home quite often. He took me to California when I was maybe about 13 or 14. And I went and stayed with him for a while. He was nice enough, when Christmas came, he had them cover the yard with snow for me, for Christmas.”

Johnson said that she is open to the idea of selling the house to a new owner who would be committed to restoring and preserving the home. “I think it would be a good idea. Like I said, people have had some good ideas about making it a musical place, in my uncle’s name. And that sounds great to me.”

But even beyond the home at 1123 City Park Avenue, Elliott said she thinks Toledoans can honor Tatum’s memory by supporting and rejoicing in the music that bears his indelible stamp.

“The best way to celebrate him is to keep jazz alive. Period.”

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