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July 12, 2013 – Toledo Blade
Jazz on the Maumee sings ‘Happy Birthday’



Jazz master Marsalis brings tour to Toledo


Imagine a sumptuous buffet of musical styles and genres all laid out in an exquisite banquet prepared by a world-class jazz chef.

Start with a tango and hard-core swing, talking trombone over an African drum. Juxtapose a 10-bar blues against a 16-bar minor tonality and sidle over to something that has an Egyptian quality with a jazz-funk groove. Try an old soft-shoe dance rhythm, an extended opera aria, and dramatic key changes.

And reach all the way back to the Bard for inspiration, interspersing the music with readings from Shakespeare.

This is Delfeayo Marsalis’ take on the Duke Ellington masterpiece “Such Sweet Thunder,” reflecting the trombonist’s desire to incorporate a broad palette of musical genres and production elements he can into a cohesive whole.

“My concept of music is to always include as many styles — as many eras — of jazz as possible. You always want to have that modern element, but you want to have something that has that old school reference to it,” he said in a telephone interview.

“I want to be reverent and irreverent at the same time. I always thought the job of the younger generation is to utilize what the older generations have done, but in a respectful way.”

Marsalis is bringing his 33-city tour of “Sweet Thunder” to Toledo Feb. 14 in a performance presented by the Art Tatum Jazz Heritage Society at the Toledo Museum of Art Peristyle. An album of the same name was released in late January.

Ellington presented “Such Sweet Thunder” in 1957 as a musical tribute to the work of William Shakespeare. Like Miles Davis’ “Sketches of Spain” or John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” the work is considered a seminal moment in jazz history.

Marsalis, 45, remembers hearing the album as a youth and its conceptual elements are in his creative wheelhouse, making it a natural project for him to tackle. Marsalis has expanded considerably on Ellington’s original work, adding musical elements to some of the arrangements, an elaborate backdrop on the stage, and spoken interludes for actor Kenneth Brown to read excerpts of Shakespeare’s writing.

“Production has always been very important to me — more [about] staging than just showing up at a gig and playing the gig,” he said.

“I always prefer to give the audience more of a presentation and this particular venture lends itself to all of the arts. We have the visual arts, we have the drama, and of course we have music and we have the set design and everything, and we’re going to include dancing at some point.”

Marsalis is, of course, a member of the renowned New Orleans jazz family that has produced his father Ellis (piano), older brothers Wynton (trumpet) and Branford (saxophone), and younger brother Jason (drums). Like his siblings, Delfeayo is thoughtful, generous both as a musician and person, and more than a little bull-headed.

The general take on his career from critics is that his four releases over 18 years — starting with the acclaimed thematic work “Pontius Pilate’s Decision” in 1992 — have been uniformly excellent, but why so little output? He’s been involved in producing plenty of other artists, including his brothers, but why not make more Delfeayo music, especially given his facility on the trombone?

Marsalis said the “short answer” is that early on in his career he signed with the RCA Novus label, which lead to a long-running dispute. The label wanted to pick some of the musicians to use on his recordings and Marsalis objected, which led to a stalemate during which he went about seven years only doing production work.

“I can look back now and say, ‘Boy, that wasn’t the move.’ But at the time it was so upsetting to me that I made that stand and one thing led to the next,” he said.

Marsalis said he also enjoyed producing artists like Terrence Blanchard, Marcus Roberts, Kenny Kirkland, and Jeff “Tain” Watts and is proud of the contributions he made behind the scenes on albums by his brothers.

“It’s hard for people to understand the full impact I’ve had, especially with my brothers and on their recordings and the whole presentation of the CD is more up my alley. It’s what I do — a certain kind of art work, certain kind of packaging, having the liner notes a certain kind of way. That’s really what I do.”

For now, though, he’s concentrating on his own music, pushing the production efforts aside to focus on the current tour.

He’s also involved in education efforts to expose children to jazz and will be doing a couple of presentations with schoolchildren when he’s in Toledo. He said it’s important to show youths that jazz has a place on their iPods and while it might not have the visceral punch of pop, rock, or hip-hop, it can give them long-term listening pleasure.

“The impact is not tangible, so you have to expose them to it and let them know that you don’t expect the same reaction from, say, broccoli or peas as you do from ice cream and cake,” he said, laughing. “What the kids don’t understand is that what makes jazz cool is that it’s cool. We just want to expose them to it and let them know they can have fun with it.”

Delfeayo Marsalis will perform at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 14 in the Toledo Museum of Art Peristyle. Tickets are on sale at the Peristyle box office, priced at $25, $45, and $75. He will present “Sweet Thunder,” his interpretation of the Duke Ellington jazz suite “Such Sweet Thunder.”

He is being brought to Toledo by the Art Tatum Jazz Heritage Society and will do master classes for students at area high schools and universities on Feb. 13. He also will do a special performance on Feb. 14 for area elementary-school students.

Contact Rod Lockwood at:
or 419-724-6159.


Toledo tax auditor plays in time on downtime


Don Diller sits at the piano that was part of the ‘Pianos for Art’ project whenever he finds himself with downtime from his job as tax auditor for the City of Toledo. Whenever that time is, says Norman Box, a security guard, that period is known as ‘Happy Hour’ because ‘it breaks up the monotony of what you do.’


Don Diller’s official title is income tax auditor for the City of Toledo. But around One Government Center where he works, he’s better known as the “Piano Man.”

Whenever Mr. Diller gets a break from sifting through tax forms — be it lunchtime, a 15-minute breather, or while waiting for the bus home — he slips down to the lobby and takes a seat at a colorful, hand-painted piano next to the Lucas County commissioners’ meeting room. Amid the flurry of people going about their business, his fingers begin to dance across the keys.

The tunes range from classical pieces such as Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” to popular songs from musicals such as My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music. Occasionally he gets a request from one of the many people who stop to listen and, if he knows the song, he graciously complies.

“We call it Happy Hour,” said Norman Box, one of the security guards who works at the front desk and hears Mr. Diller’s music almost every day. “It breaks up the monotony of what you do. It’s very soothing.”

Mr. Diller, 67, has worked at the city’s downtown center for five years, but it was only last summer that he took on his voluntary role of in-house piano player. That was when The Art Tatum Jazz Heritage Society put the piano in city hall as part of a Pianos for Art project designed to inspire music making in public places. It was painted by local artists Jennifer and John Rockwood, who decorated the piano with pictures of instruments, musicians, and shades of green, orange, yellow, and blue.

Mr. Diller, who studied music as a child and still plays organ at his local church, remembers the first day he came down from his office on the 20th floor to see the piano sitting there.

“I wondered if it was for real,” the soft-spoken Mr. Diller recalled. “I asked the guard if I could play it, and he said ‘yes.'”

After sounding out the instrument and enjoying its tone and feel, Mr. Diller decided to go down and play it again the next day on his break. But when he reached the piano, he found it was locked. It turned out the building’s manager, Mike Sullivan, had fastened the lid to stop untrained visitors banging on the keys. After a discussion in which Mr. Diller agreed not to play during the city’s and county’s meeting times, Mr. Diller was given the key.

“It’s almost like a key to the city,” Mr. Diller beamed, as he showed off the little piece of metal.

Since then, Mr. Diller’s piano playing has become a regular fixture at One Government Center. He was even honored at a meeting of the Lucas County Board of Commissioners in November, where he was presented with a poem by Lucas County Poet Laureate Joel Lipman. The poem is an ode to Mr. Diller’s impact on daily life in the downtown building.

“Don, you turn an afternoon’s instant

“Momentarily to song and give us back

“Eloquent notes and fundamental chords,” a verse of the poem reads.

Kay Elliott of the Jazz Heritage Society said Mr. Diller’s regular playing makes the piano at One Government Center one of the most successful of all of those placed by the art project. She said 14 pianos were set up in various parts of the city, including in the University of Toledo’s Student Union, the Huntington Center, and the Toledo Botanical Gardens. Some have been played more than others, she said.

“Art Tatum would be thrilled,” Ms. Elliot enthused on hearing about Mr. Diller. “That was what the plan was for the piano and to think that somebody is actually doing it is just thrilling.”

Almost anyone who works at One Government Center agrees Mr. Diller adds something special to the environment there.

Tina Kirk, an administrative assistant for the county, said she now spends her lunchtimes in the lobby instead of the cafeteria so she can listen to Mr. Diller’s playing. She also listens to him after work.

“It’s relaxing after a stressful day,” she said. “It just sort of mellows you out.”

City tax collector John Bibish is another fan of Mr. Diller’s music.

“Whenever he plays, I’m here,” Mr. Bibish said. “I think it’s an incredible talent. He’s contributing a lot more [to the city] than just auditing skills.”

Lucas County Administrator Peter Ujvagi said Mr. Diller’s playing became a welcome respite during a time of tense budget negotiations at the end of last year. He called the music “a gentle surprise” in otherwise cold and busy surroundings.

“You’d come down here and, you’d never know when it might occur, but there he would be sitting at the piano and it soothed your soul,” Mr. Ujvagi said. “There were a number of times when I just stopped and I sat down and just listened.”

For Mr. Diller too, playing the piano is an outlet. He said he used to resist practicing the piano as a child, but now he welcomes every chance he gets to sit down and play music.

“It’s my sanity sometimes. It gives me a nice break from the stress that comes with work,” he said. “Also I think I’m more productive with my work because I can get stuff off my mind and go back fresh.”

He’s glad to lift the spirits of the people around him too.

“People come in here with a definite attitude and having the soft, gentle music changes that,” he said. “I think music contributes a lot to how things are going every day.”

Contact Claudia Boyd-Barrett at: cbarrett@theblade.com or 419-724-6272.


The Blade

Article published November 15, 2009

Toledo Magazine: Play It, Toledo

The community is invited to try out pianos in public places, painted through jazz society project


From start to finish, it is quite possibly the ultimate performance art project:

Pianos — not the fancy, grand variety, but pianos that were meant to be played a lot — are donated to an arts organization, placed in a public place to be painted, and then left there for anyone from the most accomplished musician to a curious child to come along and play.

The Art Tatum Jazz Heritage Society created the Pianos for Art project this year to honor its namesake’s 100th birthday and claim a little artistic synergy similar to the It’s Reigning Frogs public art campaign in 2001 that featured giant, brightly painted frogs around Toledo.

But this effort came with a twist, noted Kay Elliott of the jazz society, who related the reaction of one of the organization’s helpers when the frog comparison was made.

‘‘Someone said, ‘Wow, this is just like the frogs,’ and he said, ‘You couldn’t play a frog.’ ”

There are now 10 colorful pianos dotted around the city at places such as Toledo Botanical Garden, the Toledo Museum of Art, the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, the Lucas County Arena, and One Government Center. All of them were painted by people of the community, except the one at the Toledo Zoo, which is the creation of Renee the Elephant, who painted it holding a brush in her trunk.

The idea for the project was piggybacked off a similar effort in London, where pianos were placed throughout the city for people to play.

Ms. Elliott said the Jazz Society was looking for a splashy way to kick off its new vision — including no longer being called the Jazz Society — while honoring the centennial of the birth of the great pianist and Toledo native, Art Tatum.

‘‘This is our first event, and we wanted to include the city and we wanted it to be pianorelated,” she said.

The pianos were provided by people around the area eager to get rid of the old instruments; All of the movers and artists donated their time to the project.

Also donating his time was a piano tuner who got all the instruments ready to play.

At the end of the year the pianos will be auctioned to raise money for the Jazz Society and, Ms. Elliott hopes, plenty of people will have had a chance to tickle the ivories and channel a little bit of Tatum’s creative energy.

‘‘It’s interactive in every possible way and it brings smiles,” she said. ‘‘It just gives you hope.”

To see all the of the locations of the Pianos for Art, go the Art Tatum Jazz Heritage Society Web site.


The Blade

February 6, 2011
Jazz master Marsalis brings tour to Toledo

January 28, 2011
Toledo tax auditor plays in time on downtime

November 15, 2009
Toledo Magazine: Play it, Toledo

October 12, 2009
On the Town: Toledo and Tatum too

October 11, 2009
A genius on 88 keys: Toledo continues its celebration of jazz piano great Art Tatum

September 9, 2009
Toledo Jazz Society explores variations on a classic theme