Portraits of Tatum: Remembering the Toledo-born jazz legend

. February 12, 2019.
Art Tatum at the piano.
Art Tatum at the piano.

Legends often share a spotlight with the towns where they grew up. But Art Tatum’s best kept secret during his rise to titanic status in the world of jazz piano was his hometown. Dr. Imelda Hunt, author of The History of Art Tatum, 1909 – 1932, and founder/director of New Works Writers Series, is a scholar of jazz. She started her work on The History of Art Tatum by exploring jazz at the turn of the twentieth century. Only after beginning research on the time period did she realize that famed pianist Art Tatum was born and raised in the same city where she spent her own childhood — Toledo, Ohio.

After making the discovery, her mission became clear: to add much needed early life context to Tatum’s story and to demonstrate how he “impacted [Toledo] and transcended it” to become a national icon.

The Toledo Museum of Art’s Manager of Programs and Audience Engagement, Scott Boberg, highlighted Art Tatum’s crucial connection to Toledo and the TMA, emphasizing that Tatum was born and raised “blocks away from the museum.” So, it’s fitting that the TMA and Dr. Hunt’s New Works Writers Series collaborate to present Portraits of Tatum: Staged Readings/Selected Stories of a Toledo Jazz Legend in the museum’s GlasSalon on Thursday, February 21.

Dr. Imelda Hunt

Dr. Imelda Hunt

Staged readings of early life

Bolstered by the GlasSalon’s windows onto the city where Tatum spent his early life, Toledo area artists Curtis Smith, Brianna Byrd, Tisha Carroll, Myrna Allen Austin, Kenneth Taylor, Megan Yasu Davis, and Stanley Knox (DJ Money Knox)— veterans of and newcomers to New Works — will present staged readings of moments from Art Tatum’s life.

Included, as well, will be music performed or inspired by Tatum, carefully selected to match the story told through the readings. Dr. Hunt illustrated this crucial interplay by pointing to the performance’s final number which features a vocalist — Myrna Allen-Austin — as an homage to Arlene Tatum, Art’s younger sister and a key figure and guardian in his life.

Telling Tatum’s Story

When asked what made her decide to present her book through dramatic and musical performance, Dr. Hunt explained, “I never get tired of looking for different ways to tell a story or to engage the audience… New Works is about looking, as an artist, at something in a different way.” Dr. Hunt, who will host a book signing after the performance, seized the opportunity to introduce an audience to Tatum’s story in this unique context.

The partnership between New Works and the TMA continues to be fruitful because of the performing arts group’s emphasis on multi-sensory experiences; Boberg describes the TMA’s similar commitment to multi-disciplinary art as “key to the museum’s identity and mission.” Both Boberg and Dr. Hunt stressed that Portraits of Tatum is also a much deserved celebration of Toledo’s rich and oft-overlooked jazz history. Boberg highlighted, in particular, that jazz has long held a crucial place in the museum’s artistic life, although the TMA is often more celebrated for its work with classical musicians. In commemorating the early life and musical genius of Art Tatum, New Works Writers Series and the Toledo Museum of Art brings a legend’s story back to the city of his childhood, sharing a source of great pride in this place we all call home.

7pm | Thursday, February 21
Toledo Museum of Art, GlasSalon, 2445 Monroe St.
419-255-8000 | toledomuseum.org | Free