Tatum c. May 1946
|Birth name||Arthur Tatum Jr.|
|Born||October 13, 1909|
Toledo, Ohio, U.S.
|Died||November 5, 1956 (aged 47)|
Los Angeles, California
|Labels||Brunswick, Decca, Capitol, Clef, Verve|
Tatum is considered one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time. 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."
- 1 Early life
- 2 Later life and career
- 3 Personality and habits
- 4 Repertoire
- 5 Style
- 6 Technique
- 7 After hours
- 8 Influence
- 9 Praise by musicians
- 10 Critical standing
- 11 Honors
- 12 Discography
- 13 Notes
- 14 References
- 15 Further reading
- 16 External links
Tatum's mother, Mildred Hoskins, was born in Martinsville, Virginia, around 1890, and in Toledo was a domestic worker. His father, Arthur Tatum Sr., was born in Statesville, North Carolina, and had steady employment as "a mechanic of some sort". In 1909, they made their way from North Carolina to begin a new life in Toledo, Ohio. The couple had four children; Art was the oldest to live, and was born in Toledo on October 13, 1909. He was followed by Arline nine years later and by Karl after another two years. Karl went to college and became a social worker. The Tatum family was regarded as conventional and church-going.
From infancy, Tatum had impaired vision. Several explanations for this have been posited, most involving cataracts.[note 1] He had eye operations, which meant that at the age of eleven he could see things that were close to him, and perhaps could distinguish colors. Any benefits from these procedures were reversed, however, when he was assaulted, probably in his early twenties. As a result, he was completely blind in his left eye and had very limited vision in his right. Despite this, there are multiple accounts of him enjoying playing cards and pool.
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. He also began playing the piano from a young age, playing by ear and aided by an excellent memory and sense of pitch. Other musicians reported that he had perfect pitch. He learned tunes from the radio, records, and by copying piano roll recordings. 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. 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. He was probably there for less than a year before transferring to the Toledo School of Music. He had formal piano lessons with Overton G. Rainey at either the Jefferson School or the Toledo School of Music. Rainey, who was also visually impaired, probably taught the classical tradition, as he did not improvise and discouraged his students from playing jazz. Based on this history, it is reasonable to assume that Tatum was largely self-taught as a pianist. By the time he was a teenager, Tatum was asked to play at various social events.
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. Another likely influence was pianist Lee Sims, who did not play jazz, but did use chord voicings and an orchestral approach (i.e. encompassing a full sound instead of highlighting one or more timbres) that appeared in Tatum's playing.
Later life and career
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. During 1928–29, his radio program was re-broadcast nationwide.
After regular club dates, Tatum would decamp to after-hours clubs to hang out with other musicians; he enjoyed listening to other pianists and preferred to play last, after all the others had played. He frequently played for hours on end into the dawn. From near the start of the pianist's career, "his accomplishment [...] 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." 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.
In 1932, vocalist Adelaide Hall was touring the United States with two pianists. After arriving in Toledo, she heard Tatum play, and recruited him. 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. 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. 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.
Tatum's only known child, Orlando, was born when Tatum was twenty-four. The mother was Marnette Jackson, a waitress in Toledo. It is likely that neither had a major role in raising their son, who pursued a military career and died in the 1980s. Tatum and Jackson were not married.
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. Standard contest pieces included Johnson's "Harlem Strut" and "Carolina Shout" and Waller's "Handful of Keys". Tatum played his arrangements of "Tea for Two" and "Tiger Rag". 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."
Tatum's first solo piano job in New York was at the Onyx Club. He played a mix of ragtime, one-step, and standard pieces, plus stride and snatches of classical music. He recorded his first four released solo sides, for Brunswick Records, in March 1933: "St. Louis Blues", "Sophisticated Lady", "Tea for Two", and "Tiger Rag". The last of these was a minor hit, impressing the public with its startling tempo of approximately 376 (quarter note) beats per minute, and with right-hand eighth notes adding to the technical feat. In August of the following year, he had his first solo recording session for Decca Records.
During the hard economic times of 1934 and 1935, Tatum mostly played in clubs in Cleveland, but also recorded in New York four times in 1934 and once in the following year. He also appeared on national radio, including for the Fleischman Hour broadcast hosted by Rudy Vallee in 1935. In August of the same year, he married Ruby Arnold, who was from Cleveland. 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. At some point that year, Tatum also accompanied a teenaged Jon Hendricks at the Waiters' and Bellmens' Club in Toledo.
At the end of his first Three Deuces stint, Tatum travelled by train to California. 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. He also played for Hollywood parties and appeared on Bing Crosby's radio program. Tatum's lifestyle probably contributed to his diabetes. 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)."
He recorded in Los Angeles for the first time early in 1937 – four tracks as the sextet named Art Tatum and His Swingsters, for Decca Records. Continuing to travel by long-distance train, Tatum settled into a pattern of performances at major jazz clubs in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York, interspersed with appearances at minor clubs where someone of his musical standing did not normally play. 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, where he opened for Louis Prima. Tatum recorded for Brunswick again near the end of that year.
In March 1938, Tatum and his wife embarked on the Queen Mary for England. He performed there for three months, and enjoyed the quiet listeners who, unlike some American audiences, did not talk over his playing. Four of his very limited number of compositions were also published in England. He then returned to the Three Deuces. 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.
Tatum recorded 16 tracks in August 1938, but they were not released for at least a decade. A similar thing happened the following year: of the 18 sides he recorded, only two were issued as 78s. 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. One of the releases, a version of "Tea for Two", was added to the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1986. One recording from early in 1941, however, was commercially successful, with sales of perhaps 500,000. This was "Wee Baby Blues", performed by a sextet and with the addition of Big Joe Turner on vocals. Informal performances of his playing in 1940 and 1941 were released after his death on the album God Is in the House, for which he was awarded the 1973 Grammy for Best Jazz Performance by a Soloist.
He was, though, able to make an adequate living from his club performances. Most of 1941 was spent in the eastern United States; in contrast, he was back in California for much of 1942. His forming the Art Tatum Trio in 1943 was attributable to a mix of fortune and being unable to get sufficient work as a solo pianist. The other musicians were guitarist Tiny Grimes and bassist Slam Stewart. The Trio was a commercial success on 52nd Street, attracting more customers than any other musician, with the possible exception of vocalist Billie Holiday. They appeared briefly on film, in an episode of The March of Time. As a solo pianist up to that point, critics had praised Tatum, but the paying public had given him little attention; with the trio, he enjoyed more success with the public, but critics expressed disappointment. However, in 1944, Tatum was awarded Esquire magazine's prize for pianists in its critics' poll. He never won a DownBeat readers' poll.
All of Tatum's studio recordings in 1944 were with the trio, and radio appearances continued. He recorded with the Barney Bigard Sextet and cut nine solo tracks the following year. He abandoned the trio, and did not record with one again until 1952. "In fact, from 1945 until 1952 he made very few studio recordings at all." Although Tatum remained an admired figure, his popularity faded in the mid- to late 1940s with the advent of bebop – a movement that Tatum did not embrace. Indeed, his style of playing was not one that could be adapted to the new music: "the orchestral approach to the keyboard [...] was too thick, too textured to work in the context of a bebop rhythm section."
Early in 1945, Billboard magazine reported that Tatum was being paid $1,150 a week as a soloist by the Downbeat club on 52nd Street to play four sets of twenty minutes each per night. This was described much later as an "unheard-of figure" for the time. The Billboard reviewer commented that "Tatum is given a broken-down instrument, some bad lights and nothing else", and observed that he was almost inaudible beyond the front seating because of the audience noise. He continued to appear in radio broadcasts; and in 1947 he again appeared on film, this time in The Fabulous Dorseys.
Tatum began to play in more formal jazz concert settings in the mid-1940s – appearing at concert halls in towns and universities all around the United States. These included appearances at Norman Granz-produced Jazz at the Philharmonic events. A 1949 concert recording at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles was released by Columbia Records. In the same year, he signed to Capitol Records and recorded 26 pieces for them. He also played for the first time at Club Alamo in Detroit, but stopped when a black friend was not served. The owner subsequently advertised that black customers were welcome, and Tatum went on to play there frequently in the following few years.
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. Tatum toured the United States in 1952, with Erroll Garner, Pete Johnson, and Meade "Lux" Lewis, for concerts billed as "Piano Parade".
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." 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. Granz reported that the recording tape ran out during one piece, but Tatum, instead of starting again from the beginning, asked to listen to a playback of just the final eight bars, then continued the performance from there on the new tape, keeping to the same tempo as on the first attempt. The solo pieces were released by Clef Records as The Genius of Art Tatum, and added to the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1978.
Granz also recorded Tatum with a selection of other stars in 7 more recording sessions, which led to 59 tracks being released. The critical reception was mixed and partly contradictory. 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. 
Nevertheless, 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. In 1954, he appeared on television in The Spike Jones Show; his solo performance of "Yesterdays" is one of the rare surviving video recordings of his playing. There are few visual recordings of Tatum: black American musicians were not often filmed during his lifetime.
In 1955 and 1956, Tatum also played at Baker's Keyboard Lounge in Detroit. 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.
Tatum and Ruby divorced early in 1955. They probably did not travel much together and she had become an alcoholic; the divorce was acrimonious. He married again later that year – Geraldine Williamson, with whom he had probably already been living. She had little interest in music, and did not normally attend his performances.
Following a health warning, he stopped drinking in 1954 and lost weight. 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. In mid-1956 his trio performed at the Stratford Shakespearean Festival in Canada. By that year, his health had deteriorated: he had advanced uremia. 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. The promoter had plans for Tatum to have a solo concert tour. 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. He was too unwell to continue touring, so returned to his home in Los Angeles. Musicians visited him on November 4, and the pianists played for him as he lay in bed.
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 but was moved by his wife, Geraldine, to the Great Mausoleum of the Glendale Forest Lawn Cemetery in 1991 so she could be buried next to him. His headstone was left at Rosedale to commemorate where he was first laid to rest. She died on May 4, 2010, in Los Angeles, and was interred beside him at Forest Lawn Cemetery. Tatum was inducted into the DownBeat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1964 and was given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989.
Personality and habits
Tatum was independent-minded and generous with his time and money. People who met Tatum consistently "describe him as totally lacking in arrogance or ostentation". He typically gave very little information about himself in interviews. While playing in clubs, Tatum often drank enormous quantities of alcohol, mostly beer, but this did not negatively affect his playing. 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. Although marijuana use was common among musicians during his lifetime, Tatum was not linked to drug use.
Tatum's repertoire mainly consisted of music from the Great American Songbook, Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and popular music of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. He played his arrangements of a few classical piano pieces, including Dvorak's Humoresque and Massenet's "Élégie".
He added pieces to his repertoire over time. By the late 1940s, most of the new pieces were medium-tempo ballads but also included compositions that presented him with harmonic challenges, such as the simplicity of "Caravan" and complexity of "Have You Met Miss Jones?" He did not add to classical piano pieces he had used earlier.
Tatum also recorded around a dozen blues during his career.
He wrote a small number of compositions.[note 2]
"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." Tatum's "rhythmic-melodic ideas were introduced with unpredictable and ever-changing combinations of notes per beat even in the most rapid passages...He could apply different variation techniques simultaneously, and used subtle rhythmic intensification and relaxation to give clear identity and shape to his phrases."
Tatum had a different way of improvising from what is typical in modern jazz. He did not try to create new melodic lines over a harmonic progression; instead, he implied or played the original melody or fragments of it, while superimposing countermelodies and new phrases to create new structures based around variation.
"Tatum's harmonic imagination was so challenging that a performance could include fluid altered voicings, unexpected passing chords and substitutions, [and] left-hand counter-melodies". He also used "fluid voicings, substitute chords, and sometimes whole substitute progressions beneath it."
"Jazz harmonic vocabulary in the early 1930s was basically triadic with flat-sevenths and an occasional ninth for effect"; Tatum went beyond this, influenced by the harmonies of Debussy and Ravel. He made jazz musicians more aware of harmonic possibilities by changing the chords that he used with great frequency; this helped lay the foundations for the emergence of bebop in the 1940s. 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".
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." He also began to use a harder, more aggressive attack. Schuller argues that Tatum was still developing towards the end of his life – he had greater rhythmic flexibility when playing at a given tempo, more behind the beat swing, more diverse forms of expression, and he employed far fewer quotations than earlier in his career.
Musicologist Lewis Porter identifies three aspects of Tatum's playing that a casual listener might miss: the dissonance in his chords; his advanced use of substitute chord progressions; and his occasional use of bitonality (playing in two keys at the same time). There are examples on record of the last of these going back to 1934, making Tatum the farthest harmonically out of jazz musicians until Lennie Tristano. Tatum frequently used dissonant major and minor seconds.
His protean style combined stride, jazz, swing, boogie-woogie, and classical elements. 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. He was playful, spontaneous, and often inserted quotes from other songs (typically, not from jazz compositions) into his improvisations.
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, was too ornamental and "unjazzlike". 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. Tatum often did not modify his playing when in a band: a general criticism of him in a group setting was that he "was too assertive to be a good accompanist; he seemed to compete with the soloist he allegedly was accompanying." Clarinetist Buddy DeFranco said that playing with Tatum was "like chasing a train." Tatum said of himself, "A band hampers me."
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 and Gerald Wiggins. 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.[better source needed]
For critic Martin Williams, there was also the matter "of Tatum's sly, redeeming, pianistic humor. Time and again, when we fear he is reaching the limits of romantic bombast, a quirky phrase, an exaggerated ornament will remind us that Tatum may be having us on. He is also inviting us to share the joke and heartily kidding himself as well as the concert hall traditions to which he alludes."
Balliett commented: "Tatum's style was notable for its touch, its speed and accuracy, and its harmonic and rhythmic imagination. No pianist has ever hit notes more beautifully. Each one — no matter how fast the tempo — was light and complete and resonant, like the letters on a finely printed page. Vast lower-register chords were unblurred, and his highest notes were polished silver. . . . His speed and precision were almost shocking. Flawless sixteenth-note runs poured up and down the keyboard, each note perfectly accented, and the chords and figures in the left hand sometimes sounded two-handed. Such virtuosity can he an end in itself, and Tatum was delighted to let it be in his up-tempo flag-wavers, when he spectacularly became a high-wire artist, a scaler of Everests. Tatum's bedrock sense of rhythm enabled him to play out-of-tempo interludes or whole choruses that doubled the impact of the implied beat, and his harmonic sense — his strange, multiplied chords, still largely unmatched by his followers, his laying on of two and three and four melodic levels at once — was orchestral and even symphonic."
Tatum's technique was marked by a calm physical demeanor and efficiency. He did not indulge in theatrical physical or facial expression. The apparently effortless gliding of his hands, even during virtuosic passages, stunned his contemporaries. Fellow pianist Hank Jones said he had a style that seemed effortless. Pianist Chick Corea commented on his touch: "Art Tatum is the only pianist I know of before Bill [Evans] that also had that feather-light touch – even though he probably spent his early years playing on really bad instruments." Tatum could maintain these qualities of touch and tone even at the most rapid tempos, when almost all other pianists would be incapable of playing the notes at all.
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. He also used his thumbs and little fingers to add melody lines while playing something else with his other fingers.
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". In fact, he could also reach elevenths, and could play a succession of chords such as the illustrated examples at rapid tempos.[note 3]
Jazz historian and commentator Ira Gitler declared that Tatum's "left hand was the equal of his right." He used 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, in showcase recordings such as "I Wish I Were Twins", "The Shout", and "Elegy". He sometimes inverted the normal left-hand stride technique: playing the chord first, then the single note higher up the keyboard.
Tatum used a relatively flat-fingered technique compared to the curvature taught in classical training; a 1935 observer wrote that, when playing, "Tatum's hand is almost perfectly horizontal, and his fingers seem to actuate around a horizontal line drawn from wrist to finger tip." Composer/pianist Mary Lou Williams said, "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." He had a strong sense of time.
Tatum was said to be more spontaneous and creative in free-form nocturnal sessions than in his scheduled performances. Whereas in a professional setting he would often give audiences what they wanted – performances of songs that were similar to his recorded versions – but decline to play encores, in after hours sessions with friends he would play the blues, improvise for long periods on the same sequence of chords, and move even more away from the melody of a composition. Tatum also sometimes sang the blues in such settings, accompanying himself on piano. Schuller describes "a night-weary, sleepy, slurry voice, of lost love and sexual innuendos which would have shocked (and repelled) those 'fans' who admired Tatum for his musical discipline and 'classical' [piano] propriety."
Critical opinion differs widely when assessing Tatum's influence. Readers may "learn that he was heavily influential, but you will also read the opposite – that his style was so personal and technical that he had little actual influence."
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. Herbie Hancock described Tatum's tone as "majestic" and devoted time to unlocking this sound.
Transcriptions of Tatum are popular and are often practiced assiduously. The virtuoso solo aspects of Tatum's style were taken on by pianists such as Oscar Peterson, Martial Solal, Adam Makowicz, and Simon Nabatov. Although Bud Powell was of the bebop movement, his prolific and exciting style showed Tatum's influence. "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." 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. "Perhaps the most important idea Parker learned from Tatum was that any note could be made to fit in a chord if suitably resolved." Dizzy Gillespie was also affected by Tatum's speed, harmony, and daring solos. Saxophonist Coleman Hawkins's "arpeggio-based style and his growing vocabulary of chords, of passing chords and the relationships of chords, were confirmed and encouraged by his response to Art Tatum." Vocalist Tony Bennett also incorporated aspects of Tatum into his singing. "I'd listen to his records almost daily and try to phrase like him. [...] I just take his phrasing and sing it that way."
Praise by musicians
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."
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. Peterson also stated that Tatum was "the most complete pianist that we have known and possibly will know." "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."
Among classical musicians who expressed their admiration for Tatum's playing were George Gershwin, Leopold Godowsky, Vladimir Horowitz, David Oistrakh, and Sergei Rachmaninoff. In 1985, Jerry Garcia said of Tatum, "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."
There is little published information available about Tatum's life. One full-length biography has been published, Too Marvelous for Words (1994), by James Lester. This may be attributable to Tatum's life and music not fitting into any established framework for jazz musicians: "jazz historiography seems to have resigned itself to a bemused ambivalence in regard to Tatum and to have postponed resolving the issue by consigning him to the special kind of marginality reserved for talented non sequiturs. As a consequence, not only is Tatum underrepresented in jazz criticism but his presence in jazz historiography seems largely to prompt no particular effort in historians beyond descriptive writing designed to summarize his pianistic approach."
"In some respects, he stands out as one of the most controversial figures in the history of the music, with supporters and detractors much at odds." "Some applaud Tatum as supremely inventive, while others say that he was boringly repetitive, and that he barely improvised." Gary Giddins suggested that Tatum's standing has not been elevated to the very highest level of jazz stars among the public "because he rejected a standard approach to linear improvisation, preferring juxtapositions that demand attention, [and so] becalms many listeners into hapless indifference."
The adjective "Tatum-esque" has come to be used by writers who wish to compare a pianist's playing with that of Tatum.
In 1993, an MIT student in the field of computational musicology coined the term "tatum", which was named in recognition of the pianist's speed. It has been defined as "the smallest time interval between successive notes in a rhythmic phrase", and "the fastest pulse present in a piece of music".
In 2003, a historical marker was placed outside Tatum's childhood home at 1123 City Park Avenue in Toledo, but by 2017 the unoccupied property was in a state of disrepair. At the Lucas County Arena of Toledo, a 27-feet-high sculpture, the "Art Tatum Celebration Column", was unveiled in 2009.
Tatum recorded commercially from 1932 until near his death. He recorded nearly 400 titles, if airchecks and informal issued recordings are included. 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, c. 1945)
- Art Tatum Piano Solos (Asch, 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)
- More of the Greatest Piano Hits of All Time, (Verve, 1955)
- Still More of the Greatest Piano Hits of Them All (Verve, 1955)
- The Lionel Hampton Art Tatum Buddy Rich Trio (Clef, 1956)
- The Art Tatum–Ben Webster Quartet (Verve, 1956, reissued as The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Volume Eight, Pablo, 1975)
- Piano Starts Here (Columbia, 1968)
- Capitol Jazz Classics – Volume 3 Solo Piano (Capitol, 1972)
- God is in the House (Onyx, 1973, reissued by High Note, 1998)
- The Complete Capitol Recordings, Vol. 1 (Capitol, 1989)
- The Complete Capitol Recordings, Vol. 2 (Capitol, 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)
- The Complete Pablo Group Masterpieces (Pablo, 1990)
- The Complete Pablo Solo Masterpieces (Pablo, 1991)
- 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)
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- The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 7 (Pablo, 1992)
- The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 8 (Pablo, 1992)
- Complete Capitol Recordings (Blue Note, 1997)
- Tatum's eyesight is discussed in detail in the book Jazz and Death: Medical Profiles of Jazz Greats.
- 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".
- In an informal recording from 1952, he can be heard playing A♭ and D♭, "demonstrates it, fills it out, and responds that it's 'Not too bad when you fill it out'."
- 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.
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Art Tatum's recordings still have the ability to scare modern pianists.
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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.'
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