In a dark room sit clusters of circular wooden tables and chairs while a handful of vintage lamps radiate warm light. A red upholstered banquette runs along a dark wall, reminiscent of a century ago. But the focus of the room is a gleaming, black piano on a stage enveloped with red curtains, a platform designed to transport audiences to Toledo, Ohio’s golden era — and envision its next one.
“I wanted to take people on a journey … back to the 1920s,” Will Lucas, the owner of Lucille’s Jazz Lounge, said.
Lucille’s Jazz Lounge opened in December 2021 to provide a designated spot for jazz that many musicians and avid fans in Toledo have missed in the past decade. Lucille’s not only showcases up-and-coming musicians and regional legends, but also honors and preserves Toledo’s jazz tradition. Evidence of Lucille’s connection to the past may be found in its two pianos, which were originally housed in two of Toledo’s most well-loved jazz clubs of days gone by.
“Lucille’s has really brought together that old feeling of jazz, that feeling you used to get in a place like Rusty’s Jazz Cafe or a place like Murphy’s Place where jazz was really appreciated by the audience,” jazz historian Doug Swiatecki said. “There’s nothing like it in Toledo.”
Toledo has a deep jazz history, one that finds itself intertwined in a nationwide movement. Jazz had roots in New Orleans in the 19th century and subsequently spread to the Midwest during the Great Migration. During this time, many Black Americans settled in Toledo’s Junction neighborhood, which houses one of Toledo’s oldest historically African American communities, and Dorr Street, which was known for its predominantly Black-owned and Black-run businesses.
When the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB) released its first recording in 1917, New Orleans jazz exploded in popularity across the country — and Toledo was no exception.
Jazz thrived in Toledo because of the city’s central location and status as a port city. Musicians could travel by train from Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland and other cities to Toledo and share their sounds with local musicians in places like The Tenderloin, a district in downtown Toledo where ragtime and jazz music brought in crowds to bars and entertainment venues.
According to Ryan Bunch, Senior Director of Outreach and Advocacy at United Way of Greater Toledo, during the 1920s and 1930s, bootlegging, mafia and gang-related activities were rampant in Toledo, but the thriving nightlife also created opportunities for musicians to perform in venues like speakeasies. As Toledo’s industrial base grew and the population increased, there was a greater demand for dancing and live music.
“To Toledo, jazz was a huge part of our development here early on, and I think it’s linked to economics,” Swiatecki said. “The Roaring ‘20s was a period of tremendous, unbridled and unparalleled economic growth. And Toledo partook of that. We grew, and jazz grew along with it … I think it points to a certain vibrance and a certain energy that is part of the city.”
Out from Toledo came some of the most notable names in jazz history: renowned pianist Art Tatum, singer Jon Hendricks, bassist Clifford Murphy and others.
In addition to producing its own talent, Toledo was a destination for famous out-of-town jazz musicians. Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson performed at the storied Waiters and Bellman’s Club. Kin Wa Low attracted big names like Ella Fitzgerald and Bobby Darin. Count Basie and Stan Kenton entertained the audience at the Aku-Aku, which Swiatecki described as being “like Las Vegas in Toledo.”
According to Swiatecki, Toledo’s jazz scene started changing in the 1950s and 1960s with the increasing prevalence of TV and radio and the de-emphasis on live music at venues, restaurants and bars, as well as the rise of rock ‘n’ roll.
One of the few venues that made their way into Toledo’s coming decades was Rusty’s Jazz Cafe, which opened in 1963 and was a popular gathering spot for both famous and local musicians to perform and for aspiring musicians to listen and learn how to perform.
“Rusty loved not only jazz but the performers, and she created an environment where the jazz performers from anywhere, they just wanted to be at that club and hang out just to be there,” Swiatecki said. “That club had an ambiance and a certain cachet that’s, I don’t know, very, very hard to meet.”
Rusty’s was also formative in Lucas’ desire to open Lucille’s; he got his first taste of local jazz at 19 or 20-years-old, when a friend took him to the now-closed venue.
“Once I got bitten by the jazz bug, I was there four nights a week. And I missed that feeling too,” Lucas said. “In the spectrum of aesthetics, you might call it [Rusty’s] a hole in the wall, but it was a very beautiful spirit in there, you know, and it was very honoring of really good jazz.”
During the urban renewal project in Toledo in the 1970s, hundreds of homes, stores and other establishments on Dorr Street were demolished. By the 1990s, Toledo’s jazz scene was on life support.
Toledo’s last major jazz club, Murphy’s Place, opened in 1991 as a high class jazz club similar to Rusty’s Jazz Cafe in that famous musicians showed up and young musicians could come in to sing or play. The club was known for bassist Murphy and pianist Claude Black, who played together for decades.
In recent years, jazz nights have remained perennial at different venues in Toledo, such as Dégagé Jazz Café, which closed in 2017, and The Village Idiot, which holds jazz nights on Sundays. The now-defunct Toledo Jazz Society also held the Toledo Jazz Festival, later renamed the Art Tatum Jazz Heritage Festival, at International Park in downtown Toledo every year from 2000 to 2008.
As Toledo’s revitalization efforts continue, new endeavors like Lucille’s are bringing the historic jazz scene back to life.
“I would say Toledo as a city had begun a resurgence in the early part of the 21st century, in the early 2000s. I would say more investment was being focused in downtown Toledo or more on renovation, more on growth,” Swiatecki said. “You’re having a resurgence of opportunity in Toledo and not only economic, but you know, jazz. And so that’s where a club like Lucille’s just comes up, in an environment that’s kind of fostering growth and opportunity.”
Located inside TolHouse, a private social club on Summit Street in Toledo’s Vistula District, Lucille’s Jazz Lounge was born from Lucas’ wish to create a space where people could enjoy live jazz regularly.
While Lucille’s is open to the public, it differs from Toledo’s former jazz clubs in that people must purchase tickets for upcoming performances online before heading over to see a show. Lucille’s is only open during performances, which differs from Rusty’s, which was open seven days a week, and Murphy’s, which was open six days a week.
Despite the differences, Lucille’s was hotly anticipated by Toledo’s jazz fans who have gone a decade without having a designated jazz spot.
The jazz venue opened with sold-out performances by trumpet player Ben Wolkins and his quartet on Dec. 29, 2021 and regional singer Ramona Collins the next day.
“The opening weekend was mind-blowing in terms of jazz,” Swiatecki said. “And those two days … you couldn’t have heard better jazz anywhere in the world.”
Other local and regional performers such as vocalist Kim Buehler, vocalist Olivia Van Goor, the Blues Man Bobby G. and the Toledo Jazz Orchestra have enthralled the audience at the jazz club.
“You are there to listen to the music and you know, as a performer, that is such a luxury to have that space because you feed off of the energy of the audience. They become part of the band,” Buehler said. “[T]the first night I played was just a magical moment. It’s one that I’ll remember forever.”
Through opening Lucille’s, Lucas hopes that “more generations get the experience I have and that they get exposed to this beautiful music and that the musicians who play this beautiful music get a place to nurture their craft and display it.”
Lucille’s is also part of a growing, changing jazz community in Toledo — one that hopes to preserve the best of the past but also expand to be more inclusive.
“Even within the jazz community, my experience was two. There are very different, entrenched mindsets. There is a traditional notion of what jazz ought to be … And with other folks, there’s a more expansive view of what it is and what it might be,” Larry Meyer, a local attorney and musician, said.
In recent years and during the pandemic, members of Toledo’s jazz community have taken matters into their own hands by holding jam sessions, hosting jazz nights at local music venues and continuing to mentor and provide opportunities for the younger generation of musicians.
Drummer Keith Bernhard opens his home every month for the “Second Sunday Jazz Jam,” Brad Billmaier, a drummer, has been hosting Jazz Night every other Monday at Ottawa Tavern, and another drummer Scott Kretzer has been hosting Jazz Night every Wednesday at The Brick Bar, which is located in the same building where Murphy’s Place was.
Along with jazz nights, more jazz events and festivals have popped up in and near Toledo this year. Among the numerous festivals in 2022 were the Open Arms Group Jazz Festival at Walbridge Park and the inaugural Glass City Jazz Fest, an all-day jazz concert at the Glass City Metropark.
Jason Quick, a local guitarist who once played at both Rusty’s and Murphy’s, hopes that with the increasing activity in Toledo jazz, there will be more community support and appreciation for the music.
“I want people around here to appreciate the music like they own it, you know, like they might feel proud of their football team winning a game or like a hometown pride feeling,” Quick said.
Lucille’s opened during a time where people are working to bring back and grow Toledo’s jazz scene. And Buehler sees it as just the beginning.
“I think it’s a sign of good things to come, you know, — the rebirth of the jazz community,” she said.