“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.” Fats Waller, Jazz Pianist, and Art Tatum’s informal mentor.
Name: Art Tatum
Birth Date: October 1909 – November 1956
Job Functions: Jazz Pianist
Fields: Music & Entertainment
Known For: Creating a distinct sound in jazz
Art Tatum was born in the early twentieth century (there is some discrepancy about the year he was born, some sources say 1909 and others say 1910), and despite being blind in one eye and partially blind in the other, he invented a path for himself and is considered by many, including other musicians, to be the greatest jazz pianist who ever lived. In fact, Fats Waller another renowned jazz pianist once declared when Tatum entered a club in which he was playing, “Ladies and gentlemen, I play piano. But God is in the house tonight.”
Tatum’s parents were musically inclined. His father Art, Senior was a factory worker/mechanic and amateur piano player, and his mother Mildred was an amateur pianist and violinist. Tatum had the unique ability from he was a young child, to listen to tunes he had heard and play them on the family’s well-maintained piano. When he was three years old, it is reported that he played on the family piano a hymn that he had heard at his mother’s choir practice.
Though Tatum played the piano for many years, the first instrument he received training for was the violin. When he was 13, he started to take piano lessons. Tatum learned to read Braille and studied other subjects at Toledo’s Jefferson School through eighth grade. In 1924, 15-year-old Tatum attended The School for the Blind in Columbus where he studied violin, guitar and piano. It’s assumed that he also studied Braille music reading.
Young Tatum performed whenever the opportunity arose – school and neighbourhood functions, and “Prohibition speakeasies and clubs.” He constantly listened to and played music. At 16, Tatum made his first appearance before a large audience on an amateur contest program at Toledo radio station WSPD. As a result of his performance and skills, Tatum was given his own 15-minute morning program which he did for two years. NBC was so impressed with Tatum’s morning broadcast that they aired it on NBC’s Blue Network. During Tatum’s daily radio program he sometimes played duets with Teddy Wilson.
He loved to experiment and invent new sounds. For instance, Wilson recounted that Tatum used “flatted fifths and all the added tones, and improvising these wonderful progressions in the middle of a tune….No other pianist had, even remotely, that conception of playing.” (The melodic flatted fifth (flat 5) is formed by playing two notes that are six steps apart on the piano. This interval is very dissonant sounding. http://www.songtrellis.com/concepts/interval)
Tatum’s formal education ended in 1927 and he set out to invent a path for himself by embarking on a professional music career in jazz, which offered him both creative and lucrative opportunities. To grow as a musician, Tatum built on his classical training by listening to pianists and other players, as well as participating in marathon playing sessions in after-hour clubs. He worked to perfect his art and to garner a wider audience. He was admired by classical pianists such as Sergei Rachmaninoff and Leopold Godowski.
In 1932, jazz singer Adelaide Hall heard Tatum perform and brought him to New York as her second accompanist. He made most of the opportunity – that same year he made his first record as her accompanist and the next year he made his first solo record. Tatum would stay with Hall for two years and during that time she gave him increasingly more demanding roles.
In New York, Tatum spent the time needed to discover after-hours clubs, and sought out the very best players. Tatum had a very competitive and combative nature, always wanting to show off his superior talent. He would wait until all the players had performed and shown their best, then he would simply outplay them. He would play what they played then added to it with inventive and creative variations.
According to Tatum’s biographer James Lester, “The reigning kings of jazz piano, Fats Waller, Willie “the Lion” Smith and James P. Johnson, “invited” Tatum to a session the following night [the night after his first appearance with Adelaide Hall]. By all accounts, the Toledo youngster ascended to the pinnacle that evening, never to be dethroned. As writer Robert Doerschuk reported mentor Waller’s words: “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.””
After he left Hall, for several years, Tatum played in many different venues such as New York’s famous Onyx Club, Chicago’s Three Deuces, 52nd Street’s Famous Door in New York, Los Angeles’ Paramount, the Trocadero and Club Alabam. And he also played in the better restaurants in New York such as Cafe Society, and Kelly’s Stable. Tatum routinely travelled between New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. He went where the work was, and also appeared on the Bing Crosby radio show; and on Steve Allen’s Tonight Show in the early 1950s.
Blues in B Flat (1954) by Art Tatum
If you cannot view the YouTube video please click here.
In 1943, Tatum formed a trio with guitarist Tiny Grimes and bassist Slam Stewart. For several years, intermittently, they performed together, toured and recorded music. The group also changed over the years with different personnel and Tatum was the only constant. Also, during this period, there was not much work because of the rising popularity of bebop (Bebop or bop is a style of jazz characterized by fast tempo, instrumental virtuosity and improvisation based on the combination of harmonic structure and melody, Wikipedia), which was developed in the early and mid-1940s.
In 1953, Tatum signed a deal with recording executive Norman Granz, Clef/Verve label. For two days, Granz sequestered Tatum in a studio with a really good piano, and in that short time span he produced 70 solo tunes, most on the first take. From 1954 – 1956, the number of recording reached 121. Additionally, Granz arranged some group sessions that produced another 80 tunes by quartets. These quartets featured talent like “reedman Benny Carter, vibist Lionel Hampton, clarinetist Buddy DeFranco, tenor saxist Ben Webster, trumpeter Roy Eldridge, and drummers Buddy Rich and Louis Bellson.”
Even though Tatum was very competitive and combative in nature, he still carved out time to mentor younger players. Others viewed him as an invisible mentor and studied his work from a distance and listened to his music. Tatum was a virtuoso and kept growing musically to the end. He died on November 4, 1956 from uremia, kidney failure. Like many performers, Tatum had become a heavy drinker. On September 30, 2004, Art Tatum was inducted into the Lincoln Center’s Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame.
Jitterbug Waltz (1955) by Art Tatum
If you cannot view this YouTube video please click here.
Some of the Musicians Who Respected/Appreciated Art Tatum’s Musical Influence
- Leopold Godowski
- Sergei Rachmaninoff
- Fats Waller
- Jimmy Rowles
- Dave Brubeck
- Red Norvo
- Marian McPartland
- Oscar Peterson
- Dick Hyman
- Lenny Tristano
- Bud Powell
Lessons from Art Tatum
- Went where the work was.
- Built on the work of others to create his distinctive sound.
- Took the time to mentor more junior people in your industry.
- Practice makes perfect
For More Information on Art Tatum
Art Tatum stuns his contemporaries in New York, The Guardian
The Best Of Art Tatum (Amazon affiliate link)
20th Century Piano Genius (Amazon affiliate link)
Too Marvelous for Words: The Life and Genius of Art Tatum (Amazon affiliate link)
Encyclopedia of World Biography
Contemporary Black Biography
Dictionary of American Biography
Biography of Art Tatum (http://www.duke.edu/~njh3/biography.html)
YouTube Credit: Blues in B Flat (1954) by Art Tatum bluesinorbit
YouTube Credit: Jitterbug Waltz (1955) by Art Tatum bluesinorbit