Art Tatum

Art Tatum

Infobox musical artist
Name = Art Tatum

Img_capt =
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Background = non_vocal_instrumentalist
Birth_name = Art Tatum
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Born = birth date|1909|10|13|mf=y
Died = death date and age|1956|11|5|1909|10|13|mf=y
Origin = Toledo, Ohio, U.S.
Instrument = Piano
Voice_type =
Genre = Jazz, Stride
Occupation = Jazz pianist
Years_active =
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Arthur Tatum Jr. (October 13, 1909November 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. [Doerschuk, "88 - The Giants of Jazz Piano", p. 58 ". . . by consensus, the greatest jazz pianist who ever lived."] 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." [ [ allmusic ((( Art Tatum > Overview ))) ] ]


Tatum was born in Toledo, Ohio. 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. Some surgery improved his eye condition to a degree but this effort was reversed when he was assaulted in 1930 at age 20.Lester, "Too Marvelous for Words: The Life and Genius of Art Tatum": James Lester: Oxford University Press 1994:ISB 0-19-508365-2] He played piano from his youth and played professionally [According to Jed Distler in his intro to 'Art Tatum' in the Jazz Masters series, "At eighteen Tatum became staff pianist on a Toledo radio station, WSPD ... & ... as 'Arthur Tatum, Toledo's Blind Pianist' he played background music for Ellen Kay's daily shopping chat program."] , especially round the Cleveland area, before moving to New York City in 1932.

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 from copying piano-roll recordings his mother owned. [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] 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. [Lester, "Too Marvelous for Words"]

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 [ 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 ] , 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 which was considered to be the last word in stride piano. [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".] Tatum's debut was historic because he outplayed the elite competition and heralded the demise of the stride era. Biographer James Lester notes that Tatum enjoyed listening to other pianists and preferred to play last when several pianists played. He was not challenged further until stride specialist Donald Lambert initiated a half-serious rivalry with him.

Tatum's technique was distinctive. 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." [Chick Corea thus described Tatum's impression on other piano players in the 1930's, in a jazz history presentation.] Using self-taught fingering, Tatum played scintillating runs at astounding velocity, with superb accuracy and timing, while his fingers appeared to hardly move. Tatum displayed supreme independence of the hands and improvised counterpoint with a command no other jazz pianist has achieved. 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,Lester, "Too Marvelous for Words", p. ?] 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." [Lester, "Too Marvelous for Words", p. 140] When his fastest tracks of "Tiger Rag" are slowed down, they still reveal a coherent, syncopated rhythm.

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 1930's had not yet evolved into the free-ranging extended improvisations that flowered in the bebop era of the 1940's 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 were well ahead of their time in the 1930's (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 could also play the blues with authority, but preferred the more complex chord progressions found in Broadway and popular standards, which provided grist for his harmonic digressions. He was not inclined toward understatement, introspection or expansive use of space. His approach was prolix and joyous, using stride, jazz, swing, boogie-woogie and classical elements, as the musical ideas flowed in rapid-fire fashion. 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 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. [As quoted in the liner notes to the reissue of Capitol CDP 7 92866 2.]

filename=Elegie (Art Tatum).ogg
description=21 second snippet of "Elegie," performed by Art Tatum in 1940, based on the music by Jules Massenet. Features an incredibly fast counterpoint to the main melody, including a couple of examples of his signature pentatonic arpeggios descending in the right hand.

The sounds that Tatum produced with the piano were also distinctive. It was said that he could make a bad piano sound good. Generally he played at mezzoforte volume, which may have been due to relatively primitive recording equipment and weak piano amplification in those days. He used 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 were an inseparable part of his overall sound. He played with boundless energy and occasionally his high speed, high precision renditions produced an almost mechanical effect not unlike the sound of a piano roll.

Tatum tended to record unaccompanied, partly because relatively few musicians could keep pace with his lightning-fast tempos and advanced harmonic vocabulary. In ensemble settings, it seemed as if he considered himself a force of nature that need not adapt or defer to other musicians. 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 1950's.

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 not a composer, his versions of popular numbers were so unique and 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 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. [Tatum recorded over 400 titles, according to Gunther Schuller, "The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930 - 1945".] He recorded for Decca (1934–41), Capitol (1949, 1952) and for the labels associated with Norman Granz (1953–56). For Granz, he recorded an extended series of solo albums and group recordings with, among others, Ben Webster, Jo Jones, Buddy DeFranco, Benny Carter, Harry Sweets Edison , Roy Eldridge and Lionel Hampton.

Art Tatum died 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 is interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California. He is survived by his wife Geraldine Tatum.

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 1945 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.


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." Fats Waller's son confirmed the statement. However, bassist Charles Mingus disputed the story in his autobiography, saying that the actual line was "Oh, God! Tatum is in the house."

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. [Told by Peterson himself on "Omnibus: Oscar Peterson and Andre Previn" - BBC, 1977; and "In the Key of Oscar" - NFB Documentary, 1992] 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." [Jazz Professional, 1962, http:// [] ] "Musically speaking, he was and is my musical God, and I feel honored to remain one of his humbly devoted disciples." [Journal, Oscar Peterson, March 7, 2004, [] ]

"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." [March 30, 1996 interview with Hank Jones, reprinted in liner notes to "Art Tatum, 20th Century Piano Genius", Verve reissue 1996]

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!" ["Kenny Barron, A Musical Autobiography", Victor Verney,] 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." [From the liner notes to Capitol CDP 7 92866 2]

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

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 Rubenstein, 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." [ [ Art Tatum, enotes] ]


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." [Tristan Jehan, "Creating Music by Listening", " [ Chapter 3: Music Listening] ," Massachusetts Institute of Technology, dissertation submitted September 2005.]


The Zenph Studios, a software company, has built technology that attempts to understand and re-create precisely how musicians play. [ Zenph Studio "The Making of Piano Starts Here" video footage [] ] 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. [ [ Toronto Jazz Festival - Festival Events ] ] Although a technological marvel, these "re-performances" have been met with decidedly mixed reviews.

Further reading

* 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


*"The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Volume Eight", Pablo, 1975.
* "Piano Starts Here - Live at The Shrine (Zenph Re-Performance)", Sony BMG Masterworks, 2008
* "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
* "Piano Starts Here", Columbia, 1987
* "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
* "Solos 1940", 1989, Decca/MCA
* "1944", Giants Of Jazz, 1998
* "Genius Of Keyboard 1954–56", Giants Of Jazz


External links

* [ Art Tatum at Duke University website]
* [ Jazzed in Cleveland - Part One]
* [ "Art Tatum: Piano Starts Here - Live at The Shrine" Zenph Studio Homepage]

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