Sunday, February 8, 2009


Arthur Tatum Jr. (October 13, 1909 – November 5, 1956) was an American jazz pianist and virtuoso.

With an exuberant style that combined dazzling technique and sophisticated use of harmony, Art Tatum is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time. Critic Scott Yanow wrote "Tatum's quick reflexes and boundless imagination kept his improvisations filled with fresh (and sometimes futuristic) ideas that put him way ahead of his contemporaries ... Art Tatum's recordings still have the ability to scare modern pianists." 


Early life

Tatum was born in Toledo, Ohio. His father, Arthur Tatum, Sr., was a guitarist and an elder at Grace Presbyterian Church, where his mother played piano. He had two siblings, Karl and Arlene. From infancy he suffered from cataracts of disputed cause which left him blind in one eye and with only very limited vision in the other. A number of surgeries improved his eye condition to a degree but these efforts were reversed when he was assaulted in 1930 at age 20.

A child prodigy with perfect pitch, Tatum learned to play by ear, picking out church hymns by the age of three, learning tunes from the radio and copying piano-roll recordings his mother owned. He developed an incredibly fast playing style, without losing accuracy. As a child he was also very sensitive to the piano's intonation and insisted it be tuned often.

In 1925, Tatum moved to the Columbus School for the Blind, where he studied music and learned braille. Subsequently he studied piano with Overton G. Rainey at either the Jefferson School or the Toledo School of Music. Rainey, who was black and visually impaired, likely taught Tatum in the classical tradition, as Rainey did not improvise and discouraged his students from playing jazz. In 1927, Tatum began playing on Toledo radio station WSPD as 'Arthur Tatum, Toledo's Blind Pianist', during interludes in Ellen Kay's shopping chat program and soon had his own program. By the age of 19, Tatum was playing with singer Jon Hendricks, also an Ohioan, at the local Waiters' and Bellmens' Club. As word of Tatum spread, national performers, including Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Joe Turner and Fletcher Henderson, passing through Toledo would make it a point to drop in to hear the piano phenom.

Tatum drew inspiration from his contemporaries James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, who exemplified the stride piano style, and from the more 'modern' Earl Hines, six years Tatum's senior. A major event in Tatum's meteoric rise to success was his appearance at a cutting contest in 1933 in New York City that included Waller, Johnson and Willie "The Lion" Smith. Standard contest pieces included Johnson's "Harlem Strut" and "Carolina Shout" and Fats Waller's "Handful of Keys." Tatum triumphed with his arrangements of "Tea for Two" and "Tiger Rag", in a performance that was considered to be the last word in stride piano. Tatum's debut was historic because he outplayed the elite competition and heralded the demise of the stride era. He was not challenged further until stride specialist Donald Lambert initiated a half-serious rivalry with him.

Tatum worked in New York at the Onyx Club for a few months and recorded his first four solo sides on the Brunswick label in March, 1933. He returned to Ohio and played around the midwest in the mid-1930s and in 1937 returned to New York where he appeared at clubs and played on national radio programs. The following year he toured England, playing for 3 months at Ciro's Club owned by bandleader Ambrose and in the late 1930s he played in Los Angeles and New York.


Tatum introduced a strong, swinging pulse to jazz piano, interspersed with spectacular cadenzas that swept across the entire keyboard. His interpretations of popular songs were grandiose in structure and intricate in detail. He sometimes improvised lines that presaged bebop and later jazz genres but generally he did not venture far from the original melodic lines of songs. Jazz soloing in the 1930s had not yet evolved into the free-ranging extended improvisations that flowered in the bebop era of the 1940s and 50's and beyond. But Tatum embellished those melodic lines with an array of signature devices and runs that appeared throughout his repertoire, sometimes too 'repetitiously' in the view of some. As he matured, Tatum became more adventurous in terms of abandoning the melodies and elongating those improvisations. Tatum did not embrace the bebop style, however, nor did he fraternize a great deal with its proponents.

Tatum was an innovator in reharmonizing melodies by changing the supporting chord progressions or by altering the root movements of a tune so as to more effectively apply familiar harmonies. Many of his harmonic concepts and larger chord voicings (e.g., 13th chords with various flat or sharp intervals) were well ahead of their time in the 1930s (except for their partial emergence in popular songs of the jazz age) and they would be explored by bebop-era musicians 20 years later. He worked some of the upper extensions of chords into his lines, a practice which was further developed by Bud Powell and Charlie Parker, which in turn was an influence on the development of 'modern jazz'. Tatum also pioneered the use of dissonance in jazz piano, as can be heard, for example, on his recording of "Aunt Hagar's Blues",[16] which uses extensive dissonance to achieve a bluesy effect. In addition to using major and minor seconds, dissonance was inherent in the complex chords that Tatum frequently used.

Tatum could also play the blues with authority, but preferred the more complex chord progressions found in Broadway and popular standards, which provided more suitable material for his natural talent. He was not inclined toward understatement or expansive use of space. His approach was prolix, pyrotechnic, dramatic and joyous. His protean style combined stride, jazz, swing, boogie-woogie and classical elements, while the musical ideas flowed in rapid-fire fashion. He was playful, spontaneous and loved to insert quotes from other songs into his improvisations. Tatum was rarely content to play in a simplified way, but always sought to impress with his astonishing technique and clever harmonizations. A handful of critics have complained that Tatum played too many notes or was too ornamental or was even 'unjazzlike'.

From the foundation of stride, Tatum made great leaps forward in technique and harmony and he honed a groundbreaking improvisational style that extended the limits of what was possible in jazz piano. His innovations were to greatly influence later jazz pianists, such as Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson, Billy Taylor, Bill Evans and Chick Corea. One of Tatum's innovations was his extensive use of the pentatonic scale, which may have inspired later pianists to further mine its possibilities as a device for soloing. Herbie Hancock described Tatum's unique tone as "majestic" and devoted some time to unlocking this sound and to noting Tatum's harmonic arsenal.

The sounds that Tatum produced with the piano were also distinctive. It was said that he could make a bad piano sound good. Generally playing at mezzoforte volume, he employed the entire keyboard from deep bass tones to sonorous mid-register chords to sparkling upper register runs. He used the sustain pedal sparingly so that each note was clearly articulated and chords were cleanly sounded. Tatum's harmonic invention produced tonal colors that identified his musical palette. He played with boundless energy and occasionally his speedy and precise delivery produced an almost mechanical effect not unlike the sound of a piano roll.


Tatum's technique was remarkable, marked by a calm physical demeanor and efficiency that eschewed theatrical body movement and facial expression. The effortless gliding of his hands over difficult passages puzzled most who witnessed the phenomenon. He especially mystified other pianists to whom Tatum appeared to be "playing the impossible." Even when playing scintillating runs at astounding velocity, it appeared that his fingers hardly moved. Using self-taught fingering, he executed the pyrotechnics with superb accuracy and timing. Tatum also displayed supreme independence of the hands and improvised counterpoint with a command unparalleled in jazz piano. He played chords with a relatively flat-fingered technique compared to the curvature taught in classical training. His technique was all the more remarkable considering that he drank prodigious amounts of alcohol when performing, yet his recordings are never sloppy. Jimmy Rowles said "Most of the stuff he played was clear over my head. There was too much going on — both hands were impossible to believe. You couldn't pick out what he was doing because his fingers were so smooth and soft, and the way he did it — it was like camouflage."[23] When his fastest tracks of "Tiger Rag" are slowed down, they still reveal a coherent, syncopated rhythm.

After Hours

After regular club dates, Tatum would decamp to after-hours clubs to hang out with other musicians who would play for each other. Biographer James Lester notes that Tatum enjoyed listening to other pianists and preferred to play last when several pianists played. He frequently played for hours on end into the dawn, to the detriment of his marriages. Tatum was said to be more spontaneous and creative in those free-form nocturnal sessions than in his scheduled performances. Evidence of this can be found in the recording entitled "20th Century Piano Genius" which consists of 40 tunes recorded at private parties at the home of Hollywood music director Ray Heindorf in 1950 and 1955. According to the review by Marc Greilsamer, "All of the trademark Tatum elements are here: the grand melodic flourishes, the harmonic magic tricks, the flirtations with various tempos and musical styles. But what also emerges is Tatum's effervescence, his joy, and his humor. He seems to celebrate and mock these timeless melodies all at once."

Group Work

Tatum tended to work and to record unaccompanied, partly because relatively few musicians could keep pace with his lightning-fast tempos and advanced harmonic vocabulary. As though a force of nature, he did not readily adapt or defer to other musicians in ensemble settings. Early in his career he was required to restrain himself when he worked as accompanist for vocalist Adelaide Hall in 1932-33. Perhaps because Tatum believed there was a limited audience for solo piano, he formed a trio in 1943 with guitarist Tiny Grimes and bassist Slam Stewart, whose perfect pitch enabled him to follow Tatum's excursions. He later recorded with other musicians, including a notable session with the 1944 Esquire Jazz All-Stars, which included Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and other jazz greats, at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. He also recorded memorable group sessions for Norman Granz in the early 1950s.


Tatum's repertoire consisted mainly of music from the Great American Songbook -- Tin Pan Alley, Broadway and other popular music of the 20's, 30's and 40's. He played his own arrangements of a few classical piano pieces as well. Although Tatum was not a composer, his versions of popular numbers were so original as to border on composition.


Transcriptions of Tatum are popular and are often practiced assiduously. But perhaps because his playing was so difficult to copy, only a handful of musicians — such as Oscar Peterson, Johnny Costa, Johnny Guarnieri, Francois Rilhac, Adam Makowicz, Luther G. Williams and Steven Mayer — have attempted to seriously emulate or challenge Tatum. Phineas Newborn's playing, such as his recording of "Willow Weep For Me", is closely modeled on Tatum.


Tatum recorded commercially from 1932 until near his death. Although recording opportunities were somewhat intermittent for most of his career due to his solo style, he left copious recordings.[28] He recorded for Decca (1934–41), Capitol (1949, 1952) and for the labels associated with Norman Granz (1953–56). Tatum demonstrated remarkable memory when he recorded 69 solo tracks for Norman Granz in two days, all but three of the tracks in one take. He also he recorded a series of group recordings for Granz with, among others, Ben Webster, Jo Jones, Buddy DeFranco, Benny Carter, Harry Sweets Edison , Roy Eldridge and Lionel Hampton.


Although only a small amount of film showing Tatum playing exists today, several minutes of professionally-shot archival footage can be found in Martin Scorsese's documentary The Blues. Tatum appeared in the 1947 movie The Fabulous Dorseys, first playing a solo and then accompanying Dorsey's band in an impromptu song.

Tatum appeared on Steve Allen's Tonight Show in the early 1950s, and on other television shows from this era. Unfortunately, all of the kinescopes of the Allen shows, which were stored in a warehouse along with other now defunct shows, were thrown into a local rubbish dump to make room for new studios. However, the soundtracks were recorded off-air by Tatum enthusiasts at the time, and many are included in Storyville Records extensive series of rare Tatum recordings.


Art Tatum died at Queen of Angels Medical Center in Los Angeles, California from the complications of uremia (as a result of kidney failure), having been a heavy drinker since his teen years. He was originally interred at Angelus Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles, but was moved to the Great Mausoleum of Glendale's Forest Lawn Cemetery in 1991. He was survived by his wife, Geraldine Tatum.

Legacy and tributes

Tatum posthumously received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989.

Numerous stories exist about other musicians' respect for Tatum. Perhaps the most famous is the story that Tatum walked into a club where Fats Waller was playing, Waller stepped away from the piano bench to make way for Tatum, announcing, "I only play the piano, but tonight God is in the house."[29] Fats Waller's son confirmed the statement.

Charlie Parker (who helped develop bebop) was highly influenced by Tatum. When newly arrived in New York, Parker briefly worked as a dishwasher in a Manhattan restaurant where Tatum was performing and often listened to the legendary pianist. Parker once said “I wish I could play like Tatum’s right hand!”

When Oscar Peterson was still a young boy, his father played him a recording of Art Tatum performing "Tiger Rag". Once the young Peterson was finally persuaded that it was performed by a single person, Peterson was so intimidated that he did not touch the piano for weeks. Interviewing Oscar Peterson in 1962, Les Tompkins asked "Is there one musician you regard as the greatest?" Peterson replied "I’m an Art Tatum–ite. If you speak of pianists, the most complete pianist that we have known and possibly will know, from what I’ve heard to date, is Art Tatum." "Musically speaking, he was and is my musical God, and I feel honored to remain one of his humbly devoted disciples."

"Here's something new .... " pianist Hank Jones remembers thinking when he first heard Art Tatum on radio in 1935, " .... they have devised this trick to make people believe that one man is playing the piano, when I know at least three people are playing."

The jazz pianist and educator Kenny Barron commented that "I have every record [Tatum] ever made — and I try never to listen to them … If I did, I'd throw up my hands and give up!" Jean Cocteau dubbed Tatum "a crazed Chopin." Count Basie called him the eighth wonder of the world. Dave Brubeck observed, "I don't think there's any more chance of another Tatum turning up than another Mozart."

Dizzy Gillespie said "First you speak of Art Tatum, then take a long deep breath, and you speak of the other pianists."

The elegant pianist Teddy Wilson observed, "Maybe this will explain Art Tatum. If you put a piano in a room, just a bare piano. Then you get all the finest jazz pianists in the world and let them play in the presence of Art Tatum. Then let Art Tatum play ... everyone there will sound like an amateur."

Other luminaries of the day including Vladimir Horowitz, Arthur Rubinstein, Leopold Godowsky - and George Gershwin marveled at Tatum's genius.

Jazz critic Leonard Feather has called Tatum "the greatest soloist in jazz history, regardless of instrument."

Classical pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff said "he has better technique than any other living pianist, and maybe the greatest ever."

In 1993, an MIT student invented a term that is now in common usage in the field of computational musicology: The Tatum. It means "the smallest perceptual time unit in music."

The Toledo Jazz Society presents an annual event dedicated to Tatum entitled the Art Tatum Jazz Heritage Festival.

The Zenph Studios, a software company, has built technology that attempts to understand and re-create precisely how musicians play. It gave a "re-performance" of the “Piano Starts Here” album played "just as Art Tatum himself heard it", Toronto Jazz Festival, June 23, 2008. Although a technological marvel, these "re-performances" have been met with decidedly mixed reviews.


Piano Starts Here - Live at The Shrine (Zenph Re-Performance), Sony BMG Masterworks, 2008
1944, Giants Of Jazz, 1998
Complete Capitol Recordings, Blue Note, 1997
Memories Of You (3 CD Set) Black Lion, 1997
On The Sunny Side Topaz Jazz, 1997
Vol. 16-Masterpieces, Jazz Archives Masterpieces, 1996
20th Century Piano Genius (20th Century/Verve, 1996
Standard Sessions (2 CD Set), Music & Arts, 1996 & 2002/Storyville 1999
Body & Soul,Jazz Hour (Netherlands), 1996
Solos (1937) and Classic Piano, Forlane, 1996
1932–44 (3 CD Box Set), Jazz Chronological Classics, 1995
The Rococo Piano of Art Tatum, Pearl Flapper, 1995
I Know That You Know, Jazz Club Records, 1995
Piano Solo Private Sessions October 1952, New York, Musidisc (France), 1995
The Art of Tatum, ASV Living Era, 1995
Trio Days, Le Jazz, 1995
1933–44, Best of Jazz (France), 1995
1940–44, Jazz Chronological Classics, 1995
Fine Art & Dandy, Drive Archive, 1994
The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 2, Pablo, 1994
Marvelous Art, Star Line Records, 1994
House Party, Star Line Records, 1994
Masters of Jazz, Vol. 8, Storyville (Denmark), 1994
California Melodies, Memphis Archives, 1994
1934–40, Jazz Chronological Classics, 1994
I Got Rhythm: Art Tatum, Vol. 3 (1935–44), Decca Records, 1993
The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Vol. 5, Pablo, 1993
The Best of Art Tatum, Pablo, 1992
Standards, Black Lion, 1992
The V-Discs, Black Lion, 1992
The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 1, Pablo, 1992
The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 3, Pablo, 1992
The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 4, Pablo, 1992
The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 5, Pablo, 1992
The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 6, Pablo, 1992
The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 7, Pablo, 1992
The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 8, Pablo, 1992
Classic Early Solos (1934–37), Decca Records, 1991
The Complete Pablo Solo Masterpieces, Pablo, 1991
The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Vol. 6, Pablo, 1990
The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Vol. 7, Pablo, 1990
The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Vol. 4, Pablo, 1990
The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Vol. 2, Pablo, 1990
The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Vol. 3, Pablo, 1990
The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Vol. 1, Pablo, 1990
Art Tatum at His Piano, Vol. 1, Crescendo, 1990
The Complete Pablo Group Masterpieces, Pablo, 1990
The Complete Capitol Recordings, Vol. 1, Capitol, 1989
The Complete Capitol Recordings, Vol. 2, Capitol, 1989
Solos 1940, Decca/MCA, 1989
Piano Starts Here, Columbia, 1987
The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Volume Eight, Pablo, 1975
Masterpieces, Leonard Feather Series MCA2-4019, MCA, 1973
The Art Tatum-Ben Webster Quartet, Verve, 1956
The Essential Art Tatum, Verve, 1956
Still More of the Greatest Piano Hits of Them All, Verve, 1955
More of the Greatest Piano Hits of All Time, Verve, 1955
Makin' Whoopee, Verve, 1954
The Greatest Piano Hits of Them All, Verve, 1954
Genius Of Keyboard 1954–56, Giants Of Jazz
Footnotes to Jazz, Vol. 2: Jazz Rehearsal, II- Art Tatum Trio, Folkways Records, 1952


Robert Doerschuk, 88 - The Giants of Jazz Piano, p. 58 ". . . by consensus, the greatest jazz pianist who ever lived."
allmusic ((( Art Tatum > Overview )))
David Yonke, Time-Tested Tatum,
Ron Davis, Ars Gratia Tatum,
Lester, Too Marvelous for Words: The Life and Genius of Art Tatum: James Lester: Oxford University Press 1994:ISB 0-19-508365-2
In a Voice of America interview, Tatum denied the widespread rumor that he learned to play by copying piano roll recordings made by two pianists. Lester, Too Marvelous for Words, p. 44
Lester, Too Marvelous for Words
Lester, Too Marvelous for Words, p. 37-38
Robert Dupuis, Art Tatum Biography,; see also Jed Distler's introduction 'Art Tatum' in the Jazz Masters series
Jazz Profiles from NPR
Tatum identified Waller as his main influence, but according to pianist Teddy Wilson and saxophonist Eddie Barefield, "Art Tatum's favorite jazz piano player was Earl Hines. He [Tatum] used to buy all of Earl's records and would improvise on them. He'd play the record but he'd improvise over what Earl was doing ..... 'course, when you heard Art play you didn't hear nothing of anybody but Art. But he got his ideas from Earl's style of playing - but Earl never knew that". Lester: Too Marvelous for Words: p 57/58
James P. Johnson, reminiscing about Tatum's debut afterward, simply said, 'When Tatum played Tea For Two that night I guess that was the first time I ever heard it really played.' Ed Kirkeby, Ain't Misbehavin: The Story of Fats Waller. Fats Waller recalled the showdown: "That Tatum, he was just too good.... He had too much technique. When that man turns on the powerhouse, don't no one play him down. He sounds like a brass band." Robert Doerschuk, 88 - The Giants of Jazz Piano, p. 58.
Ron Davis, Ars Gratia Tatum,
Jazz Profiles from NPR
'Much to his dismay, Tatum's American club audiences were often noisy, whereas those in England behaved like concert listeners, a reception the pianist tried to cultivate wherever he went':
Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. Four, Pablo, recorded December 29, 1953
Pianist Jay McShann, not known for showering compliments on his rivals, is on record as saying, "Art could really play the blues. To me, he was the world's greatest blues player, and I think few people realized that." As quoted in Lynn Bayley's liner notes to Knockin' Myself Out, remastered Tatum recordings on Pristine Audio
Jazz critic Gary Giddins opined "That is the essence of Tatum. If you don't like his ornament, you should be listening to someone else. That's where his genius is." Art Tatum: A Talent Never To Be Duplicated,
As quoted in the liner notes to the reissue of Capitol CDP 7 92866 2.
Chick Corea thus described Tatum's impression on other piano players in the 1930's, in a jazz history presentation.
Composer/pianist Mary Lou Williams told Whitney Balliett, "Tatum taught me how to hit my notes, how to control them without using pedals. And he showed me how to keep my fingers flat on the keys to get that clean tone." Robert Dupuis, Art Tatum Biography,
Lester, Too Marvelous for Words, p. ?
Lester, Too Marvelous for Words, p. 140
Lester, Too Marvelous for Words, p. ?
Lester, Too Marvelous for Words, p. ?
See Editorial Review for Art Tatum: 20th Century Piano Genius on
See, e.g., Riccardo Scivales (1998) The Right Hand According to Tatum
Tatum recorded over 400 titles, according to Gunther Schuller, The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930 - 1945.
John Burnett. "Art Tatum: A Talent Never to Be Duplicated". NPR. "The great stride pianist Fats Waller famously announced one night when Tatum walked into the club where Waller was playing, 'I only play the piano, but tonight God is in the house.'"
Bassist Charles Mingus disputed the story in his autobiography, saying that the actual line was "Oh, God! Tatum is in the house." Mingus may have had an ulterior motive in making that comment, however. According to vibraphonist Red Norvo, in whose group Mingus played bass around 1950, Mingus tried out for Tatum's trio but did not have the ear to follow Tatum's "difficult atonal things". Lester, Too Marvelous for Words, p. 148, 168
Told by Peterson himself on "Omnibus: Oscar Peterson and Andre Previn" - BBC, 1977; and "In the Key of Oscar" - NFB Documentary, 1992
Jazz Professional, 1962, http://[]
Journal, Oscar Peterson, March 7, 2004, [1]
March 30, 1996 interview with Hank Jones, reprinted in liner notes to Art Tatum, 20th Century Piano Genius, Verve reissue 1996
Kenny Barron, A Musical Autobiography, Victor Verney,
From the liner notes to Capitol CDP 7 92866 2
a b Art Tatum, enotes [2]
Lester, Too Marvelous for Words, p. ?
Art Tatum, enotes
Tristan Jehan, Creating Music by Listening, "Chapter 3: Music Listening," Massachusetts Institute of Technology, dissertation submitted September 2005.
Zenph Studio The Making of Piano Starts Here video footage [3]
Toronto Jazz Festival - Festival Events


Jed Distler (1981/1986) Art Tatum: Jazz Masters Series: intro and notes to Tatum Piano Transcriptions: Amsco Publications: ISBN 0.8256.4085.7
James Lester (1994) Too Marvelous for Words: The Life and Genius of Art Tatum, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-509640-1
Gunther Schuller (1989) The Swing Era - The Development of Jazz 1930-1945, "Art Tatum" p 476-502, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-507140-5
Riccardo Scivales (1998) The Right Hand According to Tatum, Ekay Music, Inc. ISBN-10: 0943748852


Art Tatum was born Oct. 13, 1909 in Toledo, Ohio and despite being blind in one eye and only partially sighted in the other he became arguably the greatest jazz piano player who ever lived. He came from a musical family and when younger had some formal training at the Toledo School of Music, however he was largely self-taught. His teacher there recognized his talents and tried to steer him towards as a career as a classical concert pianist. Tatum was more interested in the music of Fats Waller, which would be a strong influence on his music. At 18 he was playing interludes at a local radio station and within a short period of time he had his own show. In 1932 he was heard by the singer Adelaide Hall who brought him to New York as her accompanist. One year later he made his first recordings, among which was "Tiger Rag". This song which features breakneck tempo and rippling left- andright-hand cascades and crashing bass notes had every pianist in the country amazed by his astonishing dexterity. While in New York he established his reputation in "cutting contests" with other top pianists, which he never lost. He spent the next few years playing in Cleveland, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles and even England in 1938. During this time he established himself as a major figure in jazz circles. In the early 1940s Tatum formed an extremely popular trio with bassist Slam Stewart and guitarist Tiny Grimes. He spent much of the next decade touring North America. In 1953 Tatum signed by producer Norman Granz and recorded extensively both as a soloist and in small groups with Benny Carter, soloist and in small groups with Benny Carter, Buddy De Franco, Roy Eldridge, Lionel Hampton, Ben Webster and others. His incredible talent allowed him to be extremely productive during this time. Ray Spencer in his biography, noted that Tatum was constantly "refining and honing down after each performance until an ideal version remained needing no further adjustments". This allowed him to achieve a remarkable work rate. For example, his solo sessions for Granz were mostly completed in two days. That is a total of 69 tracks and all but three of them needed only one take. Sadly, on Nov. 4, 1956 his prodigious output was cut short when he died of uremia, however his artistic influence has been strong and long-lasting.

The starting point of Art Tatum's style was Fats Waller's stride. As Tatum once said, "Fats, that's where I come out of and, man, that's quite a place to come from". From this beginning he went on to create and superbly original and creative style of playing piano. His left-handed figures where similar to stride but he was really known for the way that he explored harmonic complexities and unusual chord progressions. When improvising, Tatum would often insert totally new chord sequences (occasionally with a chord on each beat) into one or two measures. He also developed the habit of quoting from other melodies, something that became a standard practice among modern jazz musicians. What really set Tatum apart was his amazing technical abilities which combined with his willingness to explore the imagined limitations of the orthodox keyboard which produced astonishing rhythmic and harmonic complexities. It is claimed that he could identify the dominant note in a flushing toilet. Perhaps the greatest tribute to the excellence of Art Tatum lies in the opinions of his peers. His influenced many musicians including Bud Powell, Herbie Hancock, and even non-pianists such as Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. Many would say that he inspired the bebop revolution in jazz. When Oscar Peterson first heard him play he thought it was two people and he considered Tatum the best jazz instrumentalist of all time. Legend has it that classical pianist Vladimir Horowitz was so awed by Tatum's wizardry that it brought him to tears. Fittingly, his strongest support comes from one of his early influences, Fats Waller. One time in 1938 Tatum dropped in to hear Waller play at a club. By way of introduction Waller told the audience, "I just play the piano, but God is in the house tonight."  


Felicity Howlett, J. Bradford Robinson, "Arthur Tatum, Jr., The New Grove Encyclopedia of Jazz, 1995
Art Tatum, a guide to his recorded music / Arnold Laubich, Ray Spencer [Newark, N.J.] : Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University ; Metuchen, N.J. : Scarecrow Press, 1982.


Art Tatum: A Talent Never to Be Duplicated

By John Burnett

Weekend Edition Sunday, November 5, 2006 - Fifty years ago Sunday, the jazz musician Art Tatum died. He's been called one of the piano geniuses of all time, in any genre. Yet his legacy is often overlooked. 

It's hard to summon enough superlatives for Tatum's piano playing: his harmonic invention, his technical virtuosity, his rhythmic daring. The great stride pianist Fats Waller famously announced one night when Tatum walked into the club where Waller was playing, "I only play the piano, but tonight God is in the house." 

The musical prodigy was born in Toledo, Ohio, to a mechanic and a domestic who worked in white homes. Legally blind and largely self-taught, Tatum memorized entire piano rolls, and absorbed music from the radio and the Victrola. He emerged in the 1930s as a fully formed musician whose improvisational skill quickly became legend. 

There had never before been anyone like Art Tatum.

"Tatum's playing was unworldly, unreal, because his standard was so high," says Dick Hyman, a Florida-based pianist and composer who is considered a great performer of early piano jazz. 

"Tatum's harmonies to begin with were beyond what anybody was doing at the time... really beyond what anybody's done since," Hyman says.

The highly regarded jazz critic and author Gary Giddins listens to lots and lots of jazz. But he says he plays certain artists more often than others.

"Tatum is one of them," Giddins says. "He's endlessly fascinating. You know, people used to criticize Tatum and they would say things like, 'Well, it's too ornamental... there's too much decorative stuff.' That is the essence of Tatum. If you don't like his ornament, you should be listening to someone else. That's where his genius is."

People who heard Tatum on a record for the first time often thought they were listening to two piano players.

He became a phenomenon in New York. It wasn't unusual to look up and see the classical pianist Vladimir Horowitz or the composer George Gershwin sitting in the audience in awe.

He usually played solo, because it was so hard for accompanists to follow his dazzling, volcanic musical ideas. He tried to play everything he heard in his head.

Whitney Balliett, longtime New Yorker jazz critic, once observed: "Tatum's mind abhorred a vacuum."

The jazz pianist and educator, Dr. Billy Taylor — a protege of Tatum's — says his mentor could even make a bad piano sound good.

"He really heard so many things," Taylor says. "The piano was out of tune, he'd make it work so that even the note was out of tune, he'd use that."

Over the past year, Storyville Records, a Danish label, released nine CDs full of rare Tatum material. They're what one collector calls "the equivalent of discovering unpublished Shakespeare plays."

Many of these previously unreleased recordings came from the vault of a retired real estate executive named Arnold Laubich. He says he first heard Tatum as a teenager — more than 60 years ago — and never got over it. He is the world's preeminent collector of Art Tatum recordings.

The Storyville CDs are remarkable because they offer an audio glimpse into the invisible world of jazz — the after-hours parties where musicians unwound and tried out new songs and new ideas, or just had fun. 

"He played all night and into the day, and often 'til noon or later, from the night before," Laubich says. "And this is what he would do. He would go to these places. And sometimes he'd go from place to place and crowds would follow him. But the crowds were friends."

Art Tatum died on Nov. 5, 1956 at 47. Death came from complications associated with his prodigious drinking.

Laubich says a couple years ago he gave a lecture on Tatum to a class at City College in New York. No one in the class had heard of Tatum.

He has never joined the pantheon of jazz greats — Armstrong, Ellington, Parker, Davis. There's no Tatum songbook, because he rarely composed. In fact, it's said he was so original that he re-composed every song he ever played.

His piano playing was so advanced almost nobody can copy him.

And yet, his genius is remembered, in small, but significant ways. 

A few years ago, a young MIT grad student invented a term that's now in common usage in the field of computational musicology: The tatum.

It means "the smallest perceptual time unit in music."
Related NPR Stories

Oct. 18, 2006
Tatum on 'Shadow Classics'
Jun. 12, 2005
Basic Jazz Record Library: 'The Chronological Art Tatum: 1949'
Tatum on 'Jazz Profiles'
Art Tatum Performs 'I've Got the World on a String' on 'All Songs Considered'

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