Art Tatum: “Yesterdays”
Arthur “Art” Tatum, Jr. (/ˈteɪtəm/, October 13, 1909 – November 5, 1956) was an American jazz pianist. Tatum is widely acknowledged as a virtuoso and one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time, and was a major influence on later generations of jazz pianists. He was hailed for the technical proficiency of his performances, 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.”
Life and Career
For a musician of such stature, there is little published information available about Tatum’s life. Only one full-length biography has been published, Too Marvelous for Words, by James Lester. Lester interviewed many of Tatum’s contemporaries for the book and drew from many articles published about him.
Tatum was born in Toledo, Ohio. His father, Arthur Tatum, Sr., was a guitarist and an elder at Grace Presbyterian Church, where his mother, Mildred Hoskins, played piano. He had two siblings, Karl and Arlene. From infancy he suffered from cataracts (of disputed cause) which left him blind in one eye and with only very limited vision in the other. A number of surgical procedures improved his eye condition to a degree but some of the benefits were reversed when he was assaulted in 1930.
A child with perfect pitch, Tatum learned to play by ear, picking out church hymns by the age of three, learning tunes from the radio and copying piano roll recordings his mother owned. In a Voice of America interview, he denied the widespread rumor that he learned to play by copying piano roll recordings made by two pianists. 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. While playing piano was the most obvious application of his mental and physical skills, he also had an encyclopedic memory for Major League Baseball statistics.
Art Tatum on Thelonious Monk
In 1925, Tatum moved to the Columbus School for the Blind, where he studied music and learned braille. He subsequently studied piano with Overton G. Rainey at either the Jefferson School or the Toledo School of Music. Rainey, who was also visually impaired, probably taught Tatum in the classical tradition, as Rainey did not improvise and discouraged his students from playing jazz. In 1927, Tatum began playing on Toledo radio station WSPD as ‘Arthur Tatum, Toledo’s Blind Pianist’, during interludes in Ellen Kay’s shopping chat program and soon had his own program. By the age of 19, Tatum was playing at the local Waiters’ and Bellmens’ Club. As word of Tatum spread, national performers passing through Toledo, including Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Joe Turner and Fletcher Henderson, would make it a point to drop in to hear the piano phenomenon.
In 1931, vocalist Adelaide Hall commenced a world tour that lasted almost two years. During the tour, Adelaide discovered Tatum in Toledo and employed him as one of her stage pianists. In 1932, Hall returned to New York with Tatum and introduced him to Harlem on stage at the Lafayette Theatre. In August 1932, Adelaide Hall made four recordings using Tatum as one of her pianists including the songs “Strange As It Seems” and “You Gave Me Everything But Love.”
Art Tatum, The Tatum-Hampton-Rich Trio, USA
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 main influence, but according to pianist Teddy Wilson and saxophonist Eddie Barefield, “Art Tatum’s favorite jazz piano player was Earl Hines. He 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.” A major event in his meteoric rise to success was his appearance at a cutting contest in 1933 at Morgan’s bar 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 Waller’s “Handful of Keys”. Tatum performed his arrangements of “Tea for Two” and “Tiger Rag,” in a performance that was considered to be the last word in stride piano. 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.” Tatum’s debut was historic because he outplayed the elite competition and heralded the demise of the stride era. He was not challenged further until stride specialist Donald Lambert initiated a half-serious rivalry with him.
Tatum worked first around Toledo and Cleveland and then later in New York at the Onyx Club for a few months. He recorded his first four solo sides on the Brunswick label in March 1933. Tatum returned to Ohio and played around the American midwest – Toledo, Cleveland, Detroit, Saint Louis and Chicago – in the mid-1930’s and played on the Fleischman Hour radio program hosted by Rudy Vallee in 1935. He also played stints at the Three Deuces in Chicago and in Los Angeles played at The Trocadero, the Paramount and the Club Alabam. In 1937, he returned to New York, where he appeared at clubs and played on national radio programs. The following year he embarked on the Queen Mary for England where he toured, playing for three months at Ciro’s Club owned by bandleader Ambrose. In the late 1930’s, he returned to play and record in Los Angeles and New York.
1940’s and 1950’s
In 1941, Tatum recorded two sessions for Decca Records with singer Big Joe Turner, the first of which included “Wee Wee Baby Blues”, which attained national popularity. Two years later Tatum won Esquire Magazine’s first jazz popularity poll. Perhaps believing there was a limited audience for solo piano, he was inspired by Nat King Cole’s successful jazz trio to form his own trio in 1943 with guitarist Tiny Grimes and bassist Slam Stewart, whose perfect pitch enabled him to follow Tatum’s excursions. Tatum recorded exclusively with the trio for almost two years. Grimes abandoned the group, however Tatum continually returned to this format. He also carried on his solo work. Although Tatum was admired by many jazz musicians, his popularity faded in the mid to late 1940’s with the advent of bebop – a movement which Tatum did not embrace.
In the last two years of his life, Tatum regularly played at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge in Detroit, including his final public performance in April 1956. Earlier, Tatum had personally selected and purchased for Clarence Baker the Steinway piano at Baker’s, finding it in a New York showroom, and shipping it to Detroit.
Erroll Garner and Art Tatum at Birdland, 1952. Photo by Marcel Fleiss Tatum’s April 2, 1949 live recording at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles
Art Tatum died on November 5, 1956 at Queen of Angels Medical Center in Los Angeles, from the complications of uremia (as a result of kidney failure). He was originally interred at Angelus Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles, but was moved by his wife, Geraldine Tatum, to the Great Mausoleum of Glendale’s Forest Lawn Cemetery in 1991, so she could ultimately be buried next to him, although his headstone was left at Rosedale to commemorate where he was first laid to rest. Geraldine died on May 4, 2010 in Los Angeles, and was interred beside Art at Forest Lawn Cemetery.
Tatum built upon 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 1930’s had not yet evolved into the free-ranging extended improvisations that flowered in the bebop era of the 1940’s, 1950’s 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 1930’s (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,” 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.
The Art of Jazz In 1920 the evening crowd strolling along Toledo’s Madison Street
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.” 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. Benny Green wrote in his collected work of essays, The Reluctant Art, that “Tatum has been the only jazz musician to date who has made an 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 into his improvisations.
Tatum 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. When jazz pianist Stanley Cowell was growing up in Toledo, his father prevailed upon Tatum to play piano at the Cowell home. Stanley described the scene as, “Tatum played so brilliantly and so much … that I thought the piano was gonna break. My mother left the room … so I said ‘What’s wrong, Mama?’ And she said ‘Oh, that man plays too much piano.'” A handful of critics, notably Keith Jarrett, have complained that Tatum played too many notes or was too ornamental or was even ‘unjazzlike’. Jazz critic Gary Giddins opined, “That is the essence of Tatum. If you don’t like his ornament, you should be listening to someone else. That’s where his genius is.”
From the foundation of stride, Tatum made great leaps forward in technique and harmony and he honed a groundbreaking improvisational style that extended the limits of what was possible in jazz piano. His innovations were to greatly influence later jazz pianists, such as Powell, Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson, Billy Taylor, Bill Evans, Tete Montoliu 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. Yet much of Tatum’s keyboard vocabulary remains unassimilated by today’s crop of players.
The sounds that Tatum produced with the piano were also distinctive. Billy Taylor has said that he could make a bad piano sound good. Generally playing at mezzoforte volume, he employed the entire keyboard from deep bass tones to sonorous mid-register chords to sparkling upper register runs. He used the sustain pedal sparingly so that each note was clearly articulated, chords were cleanly sounded and the melodic line would not be blurred. 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.”