Art Tatum

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Art Tatum
Art Tatum, ca. May 1946 (William P. Gottlieb 08311).jpg
Tatum c. May 1946
Background information
Birth name Arthur Tatum Jr.
Born (1909-10-13)October 13, 1909
Toledo, Ohio, U.S.
Died November 5, 1956(1956-11-05) (aged 47)
Los Angeles, California
Genres Jazz, stride
Occupation(s) Musician
Instruments Piano
Years active 1927–1956
Labels Brunswick, Decca, Stinson, Verve, Folkways

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

Tatum is considered one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time.[1][2] His performances were hailed for their technical proficiency and creativity, which set a new standard for jazz piano virtuosity. 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."[3]

Early life[edit]

Tatum's mother, Mildred Hoskins, was born in Martinsville, Virginia,[4] around 1890, and in Toledo was a domestic worker.[5] His father, Arthur Tatum Sr., was born in Statesville, North Carolina,[4] and had steady employment as "a mechanic of some sort".[6] In 1909, they made their way from North Carolina to begin a new life in Toledo, Ohio.[7] The couple had four children; Art was the oldest to live, and was born in Toledo on October 13, 1909.[8] He was followed by Arline nine years later and by Karl after another two years.[9] Karl went to college and became a social worker.[5] "By almost all available reports the Tatums were a solid and church-going family, with strong conventional values."[10]

From infancy, Tatum had impaired vision.[11] Several explanations for this have been posited, most involving cataracts.[11] He had eye operations, which meant that "when he was eleven he was at least able to see things held close in front of him, and possibly to distinguish colors."[12] Any benefits from these procedures were reversed, however, when he was assaulted, probably in his early twenties.[13] As a result, he was completely blind in his left eye and had very limited vision in his right.[14]

Accounts vary on whether Tatum's parents played any musical instruments, but it is likely that he was exposed at an early age to church music, including through the Grace Presbyterian Church that his parents attended.[15] He also began playing the piano from a young age, playing by ear and aided by an excellent memory and sense of pitch.[16] He learned tunes from the radio, records, and by copying piano roll recordings.[17] In an interview as an adult, Tatum rejected the story that his playing style had developed because he had found ways to reproduce piano roll recordings made by two pianists.[18] He developed a very 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. Although piano was the most obvious application of his mental and physical skills, he also had an encyclopedic memory for Major League Baseball statistics.

Tatum first attended Jefferson School in Toledo, then moved to the School for the Blind in Columbus, Ohio late in 1924.[19] He was probably there for less than a year before transferring to the Toledo School of Music.[20] He had formal piano lessons with Overton G. Rainey at either the Jefferson School or the Toledo School of Music.[21] Rainey, who was also visually impaired, probably taught the classical tradition, as he did not improvise and discouraged his students from playing jazz.[22] By the time Tatum was a teenager, he was asked to play at various social events.[23]

Tatum drew inspiration from the pianists James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, who exemplified the stride piano style, and from the more modern Earl Hines, six years Tatum's senior. Tatum identified Waller as his biggest influence, while pianist Teddy Wilson and saxophonist Eddie Barefield suggested that one of his favorite jazz pianists was Hines.[24]

Later life and career[edit]


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.[25][26] During 1928–29, his radio program was re-broadcast nationwide.[27]

Lester summarized Tatum's abilities and effect on others even from near the start of the pianist's career: "his accomplishment, even at an early age, was of a different order from what most people, from what even musicians, had ever heard. It made musicians reconsider their definitions of excellence, of what was possible."[28] As word of Tatum spread, national performers passing through Toledo, including Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Joe Turner, and Fletcher Henderson dropped in to hear him play.

Tatum at the Vogue Room in New York City between 1946 and 1948

In 1932, vocalist Adelaide Hall was touring the United States with two pianists.[29] After arriving in Toledo, she heard Tatum play, and recruited him.[30] This provided him with the opportunity to go to New York, which many other musicians had encouraged him to do, as it was the centre of the jazz world at that time.[31] On August 5 that year, Hall and her band recorded two sides ("I'll Never Be the Same" and "Strange as It Seems"); these were Tatum's first recordings.[32] Two more sides with Hall followed five days later, as did a solo piano test-pressing of "Tea for Two" that was not released for several decades.[33]

Tatum's only known child, Orlando, was born when Tatum was twenty-four.[34] The mother was Marnette Jackson, a waitress in Toledo.[35] It is likely that neither had a major role in raising Orlando, who pursued a military career and died in the 1980s.[35] Tatum and Jackson were not married.[36]

After his arrival in New York, Tatum participated in a cutting contest at Morgan's bar in Harlem, with the established stride piano masters – Johnson, Waller, and Willie "The Lion" Smith.[37] Standard contest pieces included Johnson's "Harlem Strut" and "Carolina Shout" and Waller's "Handful of Keys".[38] Tatum played his arrangements of "Tea for Two" and "Tiger Rag".[39] Reminiscing about Tatum's debut, Johnson said, "When Tatum played 'Tea for Two' that night I guess that was the first time I ever heard it really played."[40][page needed][41]

Tatum's first solo piano job in New York was at the Onyx Club.[42] He played a mix of ragtime, one-step, and standard pieces, plus stride and snatches of classical music.[42] He recorded his first four solo sides, for Brunswick Records, in March 1933: "St. Louis Blues", "Sophisticated Lady", "Tea for Two", and "Tiger Rag".[43] During the hard economic times of 1934 and 1935, Tatum mostly played in clubs in Colorado, but also recorded in New York four times in 1934 and once in the following year.[44] He also appeared on national radio, including for the Fleischman Hour broadcast hosted by Rudy Vallee in 1935.[44] In August of the same year, he married Ruby Arnold, who was from Cleveland.[45] He began a residence at the Three Deuces in Chicago the following month, initially as a soloist and then in a quartet of alto saxophone, guitar and drums.[46] At some point that year, Tatum also accompanied a teenaged Jon Hendricks at the Waiters' and Bellmens' Club in Toldeo.[47]

At the end of his first Three Deuces stint, Tatum travelled by train to California.[48] He soon adopted the same pattern that he had followed from early in his career: paid performances followed by after-hours playing with and in competition with other musicians.[49] He also played for Hollywood parties and appeared on Bing Crosby's radio program.[50] Tatum's lifestyle probably contributed to his diabetes.[51] His biographer highlighted the conflict that the pianist would have faced if he wanted to address the diabetes problem: "making those concessions – drastically less beer, a controlled diet, more rest – would have taken away exactly the things that mattered most to him, and would have removed him from the night-life that he seemed to love more than almost anything (afternoon baseball or football games would probably come next)."[52]

He recorded in Los Angeles for the first time early in 1937 – four tracks as the sextet named Art Tatum and His Swingsters,[53] for Decca Records.[54] Continuing to travel by long-distance train, Tatum settled into a pattern of "frequent appearances at well-known jazz clubs in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, usually on a double bill with a jazz combo, and between these he would fill in with jobs at lesser-known, often obscure clubs where one would hardly expect to hear a performer of such stature."[55] Thus, in 1937 he left Los Angeles for another residence at the Three Deuces in Chicago, and then went on to the Famous Door club in New York.[55] He recorded for Brunswick again near the end of that year.[56]


In March 1938, Tatum and his wife embarked on the Queen Mary for England.[57] He performed there for three months, and enjoyed the quiet listeners who, unlike some American audiences, did not talk over his playing.[57] Four of his very limited number of compositions were also published in England.[58] He then returned to the Three Deuces.[58] The overseas trip appeared to have boosted his reputation, particularly with the white public, and he was able to have club residences in New York over the following five years, sometimes with stipulations that no food or drink would be served while he was playing.[59]

Tatum (right) at Downbeat Club, New York City, c. 1947

Tatum recorded 16 tracks in August 1938, but they were not released for at least a decade.[60] A similar thing happened the following year: of the 18 sides he recorded, only two were issued as 78s.[61] A possible explanation is that big band music and vocalists were popular, so very few jazz pianists made solo recordings, and there was a very limited market for them.[62] He was, though, able to make an adequate living from his club performances.[62] One recording from early in 1941, however, was commercially successful, with sales of perhaps 500,000.[62] This was "Wee Baby Blues", performed by a sextet and with the addition of Big Joe Turner on vocals.[62] Most of that year was spent in the eastern United States; in contrast, he was back in California for much of 1942.[63]

"In 1943 the combination of a happy accident and Tatum's difficulty in finding enough work led to the formation of the Art Tatum Trio".[64] The other musicians were guitarist Tiny Grimes and bassist Slam Stewart.[64] "The Trio was probably Tatum's best commercial success to this point in his career, and it was soon a bigger drawing card on 52nd Street than anyone but perhaps Billie Holiday."[65] They appeared briefly on film, in an episode of The March of Time.[65] As a solo pianist up to that point, critics had praised him, but the paying public had given him little attention; with the trio, he enjoyed more success with the public, but critics expressed disappointment.[66] However, in 1944, Tatum was awarded Esquire magazine's prize for pianists in its critics' poll.[67] He never won a DownBeat readers' poll.[67]

All of Tatum's studio recordings in 1944 were with the trio, and radio appearances continued.[68] He recorded with the Barney Bigard Sextet and cut nine solo tracks the following year.[69] He abandoned the trio, and did not record with one again until 1952.[69] "In fact, from 1945 until 1952 he made very few studio recordings at all."[69] Although Tatum remained an admired figure, his popularity faded in the mid- to late 1940s with the advent of bebop[70] – a movement that Tatum did not embrace.

He continued to appear in radio broadcasts; and in 1947 he again appeared on film, this time in The Fabulous Dorseys.[71] Tatum began to play in more formal jazz concert settings in the mid-1940s – appearing at "university and community concert halls all across the country".[72] These included appearances at Norman Granz-produced Jazz at the Philharmonic events.[73] A 1949 concert recording at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles was released by Columbia Records.[74] In the same year, he signed to Capitol Records and recorded 26 pieces for them.[75]


Tatum's trio – this time with Stewart and Everett Barksdale – recorded in 1952; this was the pianist's only studio recordings between the Capitol session and late in 1953.[76]

Granz, who owned a record label, decided to record Tatum's solo playing in a way that was "unprecedented in the recording industry: invite him into the studio, start the tape, and let him play whatever he felt like playing. [...] At the time this was an astonishing enterprise, the most extensive recording that had been done of any jazz figure."[77] Over several sessions starting late in 1953, Tatum recorded 124 solo tracks, all but three of which were released, spread over a total of 14 LPs.[77] Granz also recorded him with a selection of other stars in 7 more recording sessions, which led to 59 tracks being released.[77] The critical reception was mixed and partly contradictory.[78] He was, variously, criticized for not playing real jazz, the choice of material, and that he was past his best, and praised for the enthralling intricacy and detail of his playing, and his technical perfection. [79] The releases renewed attention on the pianist, including for a newer generation; he won the DownBeat critics' poll for pianists three years in a row, from 1954.[80]

In the last two years of his life, Tatum regularly played at Baker's Keyboard Lounge in Detroit.[81] Earlier, Tatum had selected and purchased for Clarence Baker the Steinway piano at Baker's, finding it in a New York showroom and shipping it to Detroit.[82]

Tatum and Ruby divorced early in 1955.[83] They probably did not travel much together and she had become an alcoholic; the divorce was acrimonious.[84] He married again later that year – Geraldine Williamson, with whom he had probably already been living.[83] She had little interest in music, and did not normally attend his performances.[85]

Following a health warning, he stopped drinking in 1954 and lost weight.[86] He again toured for several weeks as a trio with Stewart and Barksdale, and still travelled the long distances between venues by train or bus, refusing to fly.[80] By 1956 his health had deteriorated: he had advanced uremia.[87] Nevertheless, in August of that year he played to the biggest audience of his career: 19,000 gathered at the Hollywood Bowl for another Granz-led event.[87] The promoter had plans for Tatum to have a solo concert tour.[87] The following month, he had the last of the Granz group recording sessions, with saxophonist Ben Webster, and then had at least two concerts in October.[88] He was too unwell to continue touring, so returned to his home in Los Angeles.[89] Musicians visited him on November 4, and the pianists played for him as he lay in bed.[90]

Tatum died the following day, at Queen of Angels Medical Center in Los Angeles, from complications of uremia. His was buried at Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles,[91] but was moved by his wife, Geraldine, to the Great Mausoleum of the Glendale Forest Lawn Cemetery in 1991[92] so she could be buried next to him. His headstone was left at Rosedale to commemorate where he was first laid to rest.[93] She died on May 4, 2010, in Los Angeles, and was interred beside him at Forest Lawn Cemetery.[94]

Personality and habits[edit]

Tatum was independent-minded and generous with his time and money.[95] People who met Tatum consistently "describe him as totally lacking in arrogance or ostentation".[96] He typically gave very little information about himself in interviews.[97] While playing in clubs, Tatum often drank enormous quantities of alcohol, mostly beer, but this did not negatively affect his playing.[98] One friend from the years after World War II estimated that Tatum routinely drank two quarts (1.9 l) of whiskey and a case of beer over the course of 24 hours.[99] Although marijuana use was common among musicians during his lifetime, Tatum was not linked to drug use.[100]


Screen capture of Tatum from the film The Fabulous Dorseys (1947)

"Tatum integrated the practices and characteristic gestures of the stride and swing keyboard traditions, at the same time transforming them through his virtuosity. Simple decorative techniques became complex harmonic sweeps of colour; traditional repetitive patterns became areas of unpredictable and ever-changing shifts of rhythm."[101]

Tatum had a different way of improvising from what is typical in modern jazz: "Unlike most players, his aim was not to construct new lines over a given progression [harmony], but to play or suggest the melody of the tune chorus after chorus, erecting a massive structure of countermelodies, fluid voicings, substitute chords, and sometimes whole substitute progressions beneath it."[102]

Prior to the 1940s, Tatum's "style was directly related to the form of the typical popular song, which was usually two bars of active melody followed by two relatively stationary bars, and it was those second two-bar phrases that Tatum used for his stunning runs. In the '40s, however, Tatum began to expand the runs beyond those open two bars, to lengths of eight or more bars, and sometimes crossing over the natural eight-bar segments of the song. It was as if he were trying to turn the runs so often condemned as merely decorative into melodic or linear improvisation, which had never been one of his strong points."[103]

Tatum built on stride and classical piano influences to develop a novel and unique piano style. He introduced a strong, swinging pulse to jazz piano, highlighted with cadenzas that swept across the entire keyboard. His interpretations of popular songs were exuberant, sophisticated, and intricate. Jazz soloing in the 1930s had not yet evolved into the free-ranging extended improvisations that flowered in the bebop era of the 1940s, 1950s, and beyond. But, jazz musicians were beginning to incorporate improvisation while playing over the chord changes of tunes, and Tatum was a leader in that movement. He sometimes improvised lines that presaged bebop and later jazz genres, although generally not venturing far from the original melodic line. Tatum embellished melodic lines, however, with an array of signature devices and runs that appeared throughout his repertoire. As he matured, Tatum became more adventurous in abandoning the written melody and expanding his improvisations.

Tatum's sound was attributable to both his harmonic inventiveness and technical prowess. 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 a decade 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",[104] 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. Pianist Jay McShann, not known for showering compliments on his rivals, said "Art could really play the blues. To me, he was the world's greatest blues player, and I think few people realized that."[105] Tatum's repertoire, however, was predominantly Broadway and popular standards, whose chord progressions and variety better suited his talents.

His protean style was elaborate, pyrotechnic, dramatic, and joyous, combining stride, jazz, swing, boogie-woogie, and classical elements, while the musical ideas flowed in rapid-fire fashion. In The Reluctant Art, saxophonist Benny Green wrote that Tatum was the only jazz musician to "attempt to conceive a style based upon all styles, to master the mannerisms of all schools, and then synthesize those into something personal.[106] He was playful, spontaneous, and often inserted quotes from other songs into his improvisations.[107] He was not inclined toward understatement or expansive use of space. He seldom played in a simplified way, preferring interpretations that displayed his great technique and clever harmonizations. Keith Jarrett criticized Tatum for playing too many notes,[108] was too ornamental and "unjazzlike".[citation needed] 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.[109]

From the foundation of stride, Tatum made leaps forward in technique and harmony. His improvisational style extended what was possible on jazz piano. He influenced jazz pianists such as Powell, Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson, Billy Taylor, Bill Evans, Tete Montoliu, and Chick Corea. One of his innovations was his extensive use of the pentatonic scale, which may have inspired pianists to mine its possibilities as a device for soloing. Herbie Hancock described Tatum's tone as "majestic" and devoted time to unlocking this sound.[110] Yet much of Tatum's keyboard vocabulary remains unassimilated by today's crop of players.[111]

The sounds that Tatum produced with the piano were also distinctive. Among the musicians who said that Tatum could make a bad piano sound good were Billy Taylor[109] and Gerald Wiggins.[112] Generally playing at mezzoforte volume, Tatum 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, chords were cleanly sounded and the melodic line would not be blurred.[113][better source needed] He played with boundless energy and occasionally his speedy and precise delivery produced an almost mechanical effect, compared by jazz critic Ted Gioia to "a player piano on steroids."[111]


Critic Gunther Schuller declared, "On one point there is universal agreement: Tatum's awesome technique."[114] That technique was marked by a calm physical demeanor and efficiency. Tatum did not indulge in theatrical physical or facial expression. The effortless gliding of his hands over difficult passages baffled most who witnessed the phenomenon. When playing scintillating runs rapidly, his fingers appeared barely to move. Hank Jones said he had a style that seemed effortless.[115]

Using self-taught fingering, including an array of two-fingered runs, he executed the pyrotechnics with meticulous accuracy and timing. Tatum also displayed phenomenal independence of the hands and ambidexterity, which was particularly evident while improvising counterpoint.[citation needed]

Drummer Bill Douglass, who played with Tatum, reported that the pianist could stretch to tenths and would "do runs with these two fingers up here and then the other two fingers of the same hand playing something else down there. Two fingers on the black keys, and then the other two fingers would be playing something else on the white keys. He could do that in either hand".[116]

Jazz historian and commentator Ira Gitler declared that Tatum's "left hand was the equal of his right."[117] Of note was Tatum's double-time stride playing, where his left hand alternated between playing bass notes (or tenth intervals) and mid-range chords at high speeds well over 300 beats-per-minute - a device he used in showcase recordings like "I Wish I Were Twins", "The Shout", and "Elegy".[citation needed]

Tatum played chords with a relatively flat-fingered technique compared to the curvature taught in classical training. 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."[118]

After hours[edit]

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.[119] Tatum was said to be more spontaneous and creative in those free-form nocturnal sessions than in his scheduled performances.[119] Evidence of this can be found in the set 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[edit]

Tatum tended to work and to record unaccompanied, partly because relatively few musicians could keep pace with his fast tempos and advanced harmonic vocabulary. Other musicians expressed amazed bewilderment at performing with Tatum. Drummer Jo Jones, who recorded a 1956 trio session with Tatum and bassist Red Callender, is quoted as quipping, "I didn't even play on that session [...] all I did was listen. I mean, what could I add? [...] I felt like setting my damn drums on fire."[120] Clarinetist Buddy DeFranco said that playing with Tatum was "like chasing a train."[117] Tatum said of himself, "A band hampers me."[121]

Tatum 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.


Tatum's repertoire mainly consisted of music from the Great American SongbookTin Pan Alley, Broadway and other popular music of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. He played his own arrangements of a few classical piano pieces as well, most famously Dvorak's Humoresque No. 7 and Massenet's "Élégie".[122] Tatum composed a handful of original compositions.[note 1]

Awards and honors[edit]

In 1964, Art Tatum was posthumously inducted into the DownBeat Jazz Hall of Fame.[123] He was awarded the 1973 Grammy for Best Jazz Performance by a Soloist,[124] for informal performances that had been recorded in 1940 and 1941 and released as God Is in the House.[125] He received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989.[126]

In 2003, a historical marker was placed outside his childhood home at 1123, City Park Avenue in Toledo, but by 2017 the unoccupied property was in a state of disrepair.[127]

At the Lucas County Arena of Toledo, a 27-feet-high sculpture, the "Art Tatum Celebration Column", was unveiled in 2009.[128]

In 1993, J. A. Bilmes, 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" and is a tribute to Tatum's pianistic velocity.[129][130]

Emulators and influence[edit]

Transcriptions of Tatum are popular and are often practiced assiduously.[131] But perhaps because his playing was so difficult to copy, only a small number of musicians – such as Oscar Peterson, Johnny Costa, Johnny Guarnieri, Adam Makowicz, Dick Hyman, and, outside of the usual roster of jazz pianists, André Previn and, more recently, Yuja Wang – have attempted to emulate or challenge Tatum. Although Bud Powell was of the bebop movement, his prolific and exciting style showed Tatum influence.[132]

"His influence on later jazz pianists was enormous: even musicians of radically different outlook, such as Bud Powell, Lennie Tristano and Herbie Hancock, learnt key Tatum performances by rote, though few could compass his technical range or re-create his inimitable, plush tone. Other musicians, among them Charlie Parker, were inspired by Tatum's technical accomplishments to bring a similar virtuosity to their own instruments."[101] When newly arrived in New York, Parker worked for three months as a dishwasher in a Harlem restaurant where Tatum was performing and often listened to the pianist.[133] "Perhaps the most important idea Parker learned from Tatum was that any note could be made to fit in a chord if suitably resolved."[134]

Praise by musicians[edit]

When Tatum walked into a club where Fats Waller was playing, Waller stepped away from the piano to make way for him, announcing, "I only play the piano, but tonight God is in the house."[109] Waller's son confirmed the statement.[note 2]

When Oscar Peterson was a boy, his father played him a recording of Tatum performing "Tiger Rag". After the young Peterson was persuaded that it was performed by a single person, he was so intimidated that he did not touch the piano for weeks.[136] Peterson also stated, "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."[137] "Musically speaking, he was and is my musical God, and I feel honored to remain one of his humbly devoted disciples."[138]

"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."[139]

Jazz pianist Kenny Barron commented, "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!"[140] 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."[141] Dizzy Gillespie said, "First you speak of Art Tatum, then take a long deep breath, and you speak of the other pianists."[142]

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."[142] Vladimir Horowitz, Arthur Rubinstein, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Leopold Godowsky, David Oistrakh, and George Gershwin are said to have marveled at Tatum's genius.[119] Jazz critic Leonard Feather called Tatum "the greatest soloist in jazz history, regardless of instrument."[142] In 1985, Jerry Garcia was asked if he was inspired by any non-guitarists. He said "Oh, yeah, sure. Art Tatum is my all-time favorite. Yeah, he's my all-time favorite. He's the guy I put on when I want to feel really small. When I want to feel really insignificant. He's a good guy to play for any musician, you know. He'll make them want to go home and burn their instruments. Art Tatum is absolutely the most incredible musician – what can you say?" [143]

Biography published[edit]

There is little published information available about Tatum's life. Only one full-length biography has been published, Too Marvelous for Words (1994), by James Lester.[144] Lester interviewed many of Tatum's contemporaries for the book and drew from many articles published about him.


Tatum recorded commercially from 1932 until near his death. He recorded over 400 titles, according to Gunther Schuller.[145] He recorded for Brunswick (1933), Decca (1934–41), Capitol (1949, 1952) and for the labels associated with Norman Granz (1953–56).

  • Art Tatum Piano Impressions, ARA, Boris Morros Music Company A-1, c.1945
  • Art Tatum Piano Solos, Asch 356, c.1945
  • Art Tatum, Capitol, 1950
  • Footnotes to Jazz, Vol. 2: Jazz Rehearsal, II Folkways, 1952
  • The Genius of Art Tatum, Clef 1953-4
  • Makin' Whoopee, Verve, 1954
  • The Greatest Piano Hits of Them All, Verve, 1954
  • Genius of Keyboard 1954–56, Giants of Jazz
  • Still More of the Greatest Piano Hits of Them All, Verve, 1955
  • The Lionel Hampton Art Tatum Buddy Rich Trio Clef, 1956
  • More of the Greatest Piano Hits of All Time, Verve, 1955
  • The Art Tatum–Ben Webster Quartet, Verve, 1956, reissued as The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Volume Eight, Pablo, 1975
  • The Essential Art Tatum, Verve, 1956
  • Piano Starts Here, Columbia, 1968
  • Capitol Jazz Classics – Volume 3 Solo Piano, Capitol, 1972
  • Masterpieces, Leonard Feather Series MCA, 1973
  • God is in the House, Onyx, 1973 [re-released on High Note, 1998]
  • The Complete Capitol Recordings, Vol. 1, Capitol, 1989
  • The Complete Capitol Recordings, Vol. 2, Capitol, 1989
  • Solos 1940, Decca/MCA, 1989
  • 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
  • Classic Early Solos (1934–37), Decca, 1991
  • The Complete Pablo Solo Masterpieces, Pablo, 1991
  • 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. 2, 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
  • I Got Rhythm: Art Tatum, Vol. 3 (1935–44), Decca, 1993
  • Fine Art & Dandy, Drive Archive, 1994
  • The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 2, Pablo, 1994
  • Marvelous Art, Star Line, 1994
  • House Party, Star Line, 1994
  • Masters of Jazz, Vol. 8, Storyville, 1994
  • California Melodies, Memphis Archives, 1994
  • 1934–40, Jazz Chronological Classics, 1994
  • 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, 1995
  • Piano Solo Private Sessions October 1952, New York, Musidisc, 1995
  • The Art of Tatum, ASV Living Era, 1995
  • Trio Days, Le Jazz, 1995
  • 1933–44, Best of Jazz, 1995
  • 1940–44, Jazz Chronological Classics, 1995
  • Vol. 16-Masterpieces, Jazz Archives Masterpieces, 1996
  • 20th Century Piano Genius 20th Century/Verve, 1996
  • Body & Soul, Jazz Hour, 1996
  • Solos (1937) and Classic Piano, Forlane, 1996
  • Complete Capitol Recordings, Blue Note, 1997
  • Memories of You (3-CD Set) Black Lion, 1997
  • On the Sunny Side Topaz Jazz, 1997
  • 1944, Giants of Jazz, 1998
  • Standard Sessions (2-CD Set), Music & Arts, 1996 & 2002/Storyville 1999
  • Piano Starts Here – Live at The Shrine (Zenph Re-Performance), Sony BMG Masterworks, 2008


  1. ^ Tatum wrote "Shout" and co-authored "Wee Wee Baby, You Sure Look Good to Me". His recording of "Shout" was included in the soundtrack of the film The Great Debaters. He also wrote four pieces published in London; "Jade", "Sapphire", "Amethyst", and "Turquoise".
  2. ^ 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".[135]


  1. ^ Doerschuk, Robert. 88 – The Giants of Jazz Piano. p. 58. 'by consensus, the greatest jazz pianist who ever lived.' When Leonard Feather was compiling his Encyclopedia of Jazz in the mid-1950s, he polled a number of musicians about the players they themselves most admired on their respective instruments. More than two-thirds of the pianists surveyed put Tatum at the top of the list. Gene Lees conducted a similar poll thirty years later, and again Tatum dominated the results.
  2. ^ Gioia, Ted. "The Dozens: Art Tatum at 100". Retrieved September 11, 2012.
  3. ^ Yanow, Scott (1998). Erlewine, Michael; Bogdanov, Vladimir; Woodstra, Chris; Yanow, Scott, eds. All Music Guide to Jazz (3 ed.). San Francisco: Miller Freeman Books. p. 1074. ISBN 0-87930-530-4. Art Tatum's recordings still have the ability to scare modern pianists.
  4. ^ a b Balliett 2005, p. 226.
  5. ^ a b Lester 1994, p. 18.
  6. ^ Lester 1994, p. 17.
  7. ^ Hunt 1995, p. 24.
  8. ^ Lester 1994, pp. 15–16.
  9. ^ Lester 1994, p. 16.
  10. ^ Lester 1994, p. 19.
  11. ^ a b Lester 1994, pp. 20–21.
  12. ^ Lester 1994, p. 22.
  13. ^ Lester 1994, pp. 22–24.
  14. ^ Balliett 2005, p. 225.
  15. ^ Lester 1994, pp. 19–20.
  16. ^ Lester 1994, pp. 34–37.
  17. ^ Lester 1994, pp. 44–46.
  18. ^ Lester 1994, p. 44.
  19. ^ Lester 1994, pp. 26–28.
  20. ^ Lester 1994, pp. 29–30.
  21. ^ Lester 1994, p. 37.
  22. ^ Lester 1994, pp. 37–39.
  23. ^ Lester 1994, pp. 42–45.
  24. ^ Lester 1994, p. 57.
  25. ^ Dupuis, Robert. "Art Tatum Biography".
  26. ^ Distler, Jed (1981). Art Tatum. Amsco Publications. ISBN 0-8256-4085-7.
  27. ^ Lester 1994, p. 52.
  28. ^ Lester 1994, p. 49.
  29. ^ Lester 1994, p. 68.
  30. ^ Lester 1994, pp. 68–71.
  31. ^ Lester 1994, pp. 67–68.
  32. ^ Lester 1994, pp. 72–73.
  33. ^ Lester 1994, p. 73.
  34. ^ Lester 1994, pp. 30, 81.
  35. ^ a b Lester 1994, pp. 81–83.
  36. ^ Lester 1994, p. 30.
  37. ^ Lester 1994, p. 75.
  38. ^ Lester 1994, pp. 75–76.
  39. ^ Lester 1994, p. 76.
  40. ^ Kirkeby, Ed. Ain't Misbehavin: The Story of Fats Waller.
  41. ^ Doerschuk, Robert. 88 – The Giants of Jazz Piano. p. 58. 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.'
  42. ^ a b Lester 1994, p. 77.
  43. ^ Lester 1994, p. 80.
  44. ^ a b Lester 1994, p. 83.
  45. ^ Lester 1994, p. 85, 99.
  46. ^ Lester 1994, p. 84.
  47. ^ Lester 1994, p. 87.
  48. ^ Lester 1994, p. 89.
  49. ^ Lester 1994, p. 91.
  50. ^ Lester 1994, pp. 91–92.
  51. ^ Lester 1994, p. 93.
  52. ^ Lester 1994, p. 94.
  53. ^ Lester 1994, p. 97.
  54. ^ Royal, Marshal (1998). "Marshal Royal". In Bryant, Clora; Collette, Buddy; Green, William; Isoardi, Steven; Kelson, Jack; Tapscott, Horace; Wilson, Gerald; Young, Marl. Central Avenue Sounds. University of California Press. pp. 22–50.
  55. ^ a b Lester 1994, p. 101.
  56. ^ Lester 1994, pp. 101–102.
  57. ^ a b Lester 1994, p. 102.
  58. ^ a b Lester 1994, p. 103.
  59. ^ Lester 1994, pp. 103–105.
  60. ^ Lester 1994, p. 107.
  61. ^ Lester 1994, p. 142.
  62. ^ a b c d Lester 1994, p. 143.
  63. ^ Lester 1994, p. 146.
  64. ^ a b Lester 1994, p. 147.
  65. ^ a b Lester 1994, p. 151.
  66. ^ Lester 1994, p. 152.
  67. ^ a b Lester 1994, p. 157.
  68. ^ Lester 1994, p. 158.
  69. ^ a b c Lester 1994, p. 163.
  70. ^ Lester 1994, p. 164.
  71. ^ Lester 1994, pp. 175–176.
  72. ^ Lester 1994, p. 182.
  73. ^ Lester 1994, p. 183.
  74. ^ Lester 1994, pp. 183–184.
  75. ^ Lester 1994, p. 184.
  76. ^ Lester 1994, pp. 203–204.
  77. ^ a b c Lester 1994, p. 205.
  78. ^ Lester 1994, p. 207.
  79. ^ Lester 1994, pp. 207–209.
  80. ^ a b Lester 1994, p. 213.
  81. ^ Bjorn, Lars; Gallert, Jim (2001). Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit, 1920-60. University of Michigan Press. pp. 117–. ISBN 0-472-06765-6. Retrieved 11 September 2018.
  82. ^ Stryker, Mark (31 January 2011). "New Owners Rescue Baker's Keyboard Lounge – and Fulfill a Dream". Detroit Free Press.
  83. ^ a b Lester 1994, p. 202.
  84. ^ Lester 1994, p. 99.
  85. ^ Lester 1994, p. 203.
  86. ^ Lester 1994, p. 215.
  87. ^ a b c Lester 1994, p. 216.
  88. ^ Lester 1994, pp. 216–217.
  89. ^ Lester 1994, p. 217.
  90. ^ Lester 1994, pp. 217–218.
  91. ^ Lester 1994, p. 219.
  92. ^ Art Tatum, present mausoleum at Find a Grave
  93. ^ Spencer, Frederick J. (2002). Jazz and Death: Medical Profiles of Jazz Greats. Jackson, MS: Univ. Press of Mississippi. p. 53. ISBN 978-1578064533.
  94. ^ Mrs. Geraldine Thelma "Gerri" Rounds Tatum at Find a Grave
  95. ^ Lester 1994, pp. 58, 64–65.
  96. ^ Lester 1994, p. 50.
  97. ^ Lester 1994, pp. 5–6.
  98. ^ Lester 1994, pp. 62, 72, 77.
  99. ^ Lester 1994, p. 178.
  100. ^ Lester 1994, pp. 60–61.
  101. ^ a b Howlett, Felicity; Robinson, J. Bradford (2001). "Tatum, Art(hur)". Grove Music Online. Oxford University Press. Retrieved October 13, 2018 – via Grove Music Online.
  102. ^ Edey, Mait (August 1960). "Tatum, the Last Years". The Jazz Review. Vol. 3 no. 7. p. 4.
  103. ^ Lester 1994, pp. 153–154.
  104. ^ Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. Four, Pablo, recorded December 29, 1953
  105. ^ As quoted in Lynn Bayley's liner notes to Knockin' Myself Out, remastered Tatum recordings on Pristine Audio
  106. ^ Cohassey, John. "Art Tatum". Contemporary Black Biography. 28: 187–190.
  107. ^ Schuller 1989, p. 480.
  108. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on December 8, 2010. Retrieved December 26, 2010.
  109. ^ a b c Burnett, John. "Art Tatum: A Talent Never to Be Duplicated". NPR Music. NPR. Retrieved September 11, 2012.
  110. ^ As quoted in the liner notes to the reissue of Capitol CDP 7 92866 2
  111. ^ a b Gioia, Ted. "The Dozens: Art Tatum at 100". Archived from the original on June 10, 2016. Retrieved September 11, 2012.
  112. ^ Wiggins, Gerald (1998). "Gerald Wiggins". In Bryant, Clora; Collette, Buddy; Green, William; Isoardi, Steven; Kelson, Jack; Tapscott, Horace; Wilson, Gerald; Young, Marl. Central Avenue Sounds. University of California Press. pp. 324–341.
  113. ^ Sheils, James. "Bach and Jazz – Melodic Presentation". Field Lines. Archived from the original on July 23, 2018. Retrieved September 11, 2012.
  114. ^ Schuller 1989, p. 477.
  115. ^ Primack, Bret (1 January 1998). "Art Tatum: No Greater Art". JazzTimes. Retrieved 12 September 2018.
  116. ^ Douglass, William (1998). "William Douglass". In Bryant, Clora; Collette, Buddy; Green, William; Isoardi, Steven; Kelson, Jack; Tapscott, Horace; Wilson, Gerald; Young, Marl. Central Avenue Sounds. University of California Press. pp. 233–254.
  117. ^ a b "Latest News". Retrieved November 12, 2017.
  118. ^ "Fundamentals of Piano Practice: Playing with Flat Fingers". Retrieved November 12, 2017.
  119. ^ a b c Lester 1994, pp. 13, 93.
  120. ^ quoted in Chip Stern's 1995 liner notes for a CD reissue of Tatum's The Piano Starts Here (1968), Columbia Records, UPC 886972326221
  121. ^ "Solo Man". Time. December 5, 1949. p. 56.
  122. ^ Sessa, Claudio (2009). Le età del jazz. I contemporanei. Milano: Il Saggiatore. p. 69. ISBN 9788842813378.
  123. ^ "DownBeat Hall of Fame". Retrieved November 12, 2017.
  124. ^ "Winners – 16th Annual Grammy Awards (1973)". Retrieved October 13, 2018.
  125. ^ Yanow, Scott. "Art Tatum – God Is in the House". AllMusic. Retrieved October 13, 2018.
  126. ^ "Lifetime Achievement Award". Retrieved October 13, 2018.
  127. ^ "Remembering Art Tatum". ToledoCityPaper. Retrieved October 13, 2018.
  128. ^ "Art Tatum Memorial". The Art Commission of Toledo. September 11, 2009. Archived from the original on April 10, 2013. Retrieved April 23, 2013.
  129. ^ Jeffrey A. Bilmes (September 1993). "Timing is of the Essence: Perceptual and Computational Techniques for Representing, Learning, and Reproducing Expressive Timing in Percussive Rhythm" (PDF). MIT Masters Thesis. Retrieved 2013-07-31.
  130. ^ Jehan, Tristan (1995). Creating Music by Listening (PhD). Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  131. ^ See, e.g., Scivales, Riccardo (1998) The Right Hand According to Tatum, Ekay Music, Inc. ISBN 0-943748-85-2
  132. ^ Lester 1994, p. 172.
  133. ^ Giddins 2013, pp. 56–57.
  134. ^ Giddins 2013, p. 59.
  135. ^ Lester 1994, pp. 148, 168.
  136. ^ Told by Peterson himself on "Omnibus: Oscar Peterson and Andre Previn" – BBC, 1977; and "In the Key of Oscar" – NFB Documentary, 1992
  137. ^ Tomkins, Les (1962). "Oscar Peterson". Jazz Professional. Archived from the original on June 29, 2011. Retrieved August 14, 2011.
  138. ^ "Journal, Oscar Peterson, March 7, 2004". Archived from the original on April 17, 2008. Retrieved November 12, 2017.
  139. ^ March 30, 1996 interview with Hank Jones, reprinted in liner notes to Art Tatum, 20th Century Piano Genius, Verve reissue 1996
  140. ^ Verney, Victor. "Kenny Barron, A Musical Autobiography".
  141. ^ From the liner notes to Capitol CDP 7 92866 2
  142. ^ a b c "Who is Art Tatum, and how did he contribute to jazz? - eNotes". Retrieved November 12, 2017.
  143. ^ "Frets Magazine, July 1985". January 29, 2016.
  144. ^ Lester 1994.
  145. ^ Schuller 1989.


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]