RIP, Claude Black (1933-2013)

ImageJazz pianist Claude Black may not be well known in the Lehigh Valley. Claude Black was a highly respected jazz musician in Toledo, Ohio. I first met him as one of the “in-school artists” for the Toledo Muse Machine. From 1997-2001, I was lucky enough to be Claude’s driver/escort and MC for his many performances in middle and high schools of northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan. I even got to introduce Claude to a few young students and teachers who wanted to hear more of his music at Murphy’s – a fine jazz club in downtown Toledo.

I have always admired jazz musicians. As a classically trained bassoonist, I marvel at the ability of jazz and folk musicians who play more by ear. They way they turn a musical phrase, stretching a tune almost beyond it’s recognition, but still contain it’s structure within an agreed upon musical “rule” in order to keep something musically together. I love working at “hearing the tune” while the artist improvises around it. I love hearing the musical interplay between the musicians; the lock-step rhythm between the bass and drums, the way a soloist fits or doesn’t. It is fascinating.

There’s probably going to be a couple of long articles written about Claude in the next couple of days – he passed away last night at the age of 80. He’d been fighting cancer for while. A few links of articles I’ve found about Claude’s career tell some of the stories he shared with me those many road trips to schools at a time way too early in the morning for a jazz musician.

See, it’s just not right to wake a legend at 7am. Too often, I had to pick him up at his home the morning after a long set at Murphy’s. I’d have his coffee in the car just the way he licked it: two creams and four sugars. I’d also bring along an orange juice, knowing the vitamins would give him a little more sustenance for the young audiences. Since Claude was an African-American jazz musician, most of the schools wanted him to perform in February during Black History month. In addition to being insanely early, the poor man had to bear with the cold temperatures, too.

The first part of these trips were rough for him. But once he warmed up the crowd with a snappy number, he started to tell the students about touring the Dr. Martin Luther King in the 1960s. He talked of performing for segregated music halls; of how moving it was to hear the Reverend speak. He didn’t tell the kids of the stink bombs blowing up on stage, or of the terribly racist things he had to endure. He played standard tunes, he played his own tunes. He really didn’t talk that much in his school performances. He played.

Every school that heard him was polite. I’m not sure if any of the students that heard him understood the legend that was sharing the same air they were breathing. The teachers and the administrators I worked with did. When Claude finished his set; the principal would ask for one more round of applause before the assembly ended. Then, privately back stage, the principal, a few teachers and an occasional student would ask for an autograph. By this time, Claude’s energy was at the “performer’s high.”

In the car ride home, his stories about the “real scene” of his first job were quite shocking. Things he’d never tell a reporter, or his grandchildren. I think he shared them with me to see how far he could go with his flirting. I played along. Why not? I got some great stories out of him. Stories of being on the road with Aretha Franklin in the mid-60s, sharing the stage with Harry Belafonte, the jazz clubs in Toledo and Detroit. Never stories about other artists; only young one who needed to be taught a few lessons. He never yelled at young musicians who boasted of skills they had yet to develop. He just whooped their butts on the stage; like it’s supposed to happen. These stories are treasures of our time together.

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My favorite story of Claude is when we were first introduced. He said, “Hey, your name is White and you’re white. My name is Black, and I’m black. How about that?” Another interesting story is the one performance where he, Cliff Murphy on bass and one of his “sons?” on drums played back up for Jon Hendricks at one of the Toledo area high schools. This was a crowning moment for the University of Toledo; bringing Jon Hendricks back to Toledo to be a professor of jazz. Claude knew he wasn’t the star of the show – but he didn’t pout. He played. When it was his turn for a solo, he was pure class.

By the time I dropped him back to his home from every one of those school shows, he was ready for lunch and a nap. He usually had to rest up for another late night back at Murphy’s. He was also getting ready for his 2000 concert at the Toledo Peristyle. That concert was going to set all of his finances straight. He wasn’t going to have to sell anything too precious to help pay for his wife’s medical bills.

I’m listening the to CD of that concert as I write this post. I can’t share the CD on this post. But I can share a YouTube link from a 2008 performance. The video also features a few other Toledo Area musicians: Gene Parker (Tenor Sax) Jeff Halsey (Bass). Sadly, I don’t know the name of the drummer.

When I left the Muse Machine in 2001, I lost touch with Claude. When my kids were born, I stopped going to Murphy’s. After I moved to Bethlehem, I had heard he was battling prostate cancer, but that he was still playing with Cliff once in a while. I stayed in touch with him through friends who knew him better. I am honored to have worked with him in such a small way. In the grand scope of his career, these performances many have been insignificant. But to all the students, teachers and administrators who heard him in their school auditoriums, or cafe-toriums, on either surprisingly in-tune baby grand pianos, or rickety-a couple of key’s missing-uprights, I’m forever grateful for the chance to have heard him.

I’m thinking about playing his CD at the end of the MLK Opening Ceremonies at Lehigh University. Besides this post, it’s another way I can pay tribute to a man who shared so much others.

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