I don’t know how to start a diary about Art Tatum other than by just saying his name. He was a virtuoso of inspired musical imagination. I’ve heard stories that concert pianists would go to watch him play on 52nd street and the like and would shake their heads in disbelief at what the man could do. And he was nearly totally blind.
The recommendations that youtube sends me are pathetic. I usually wish I could just turn them off. I guess it’s not always that bad. Many weeks, youtube insists that I want to watch Hubert Laws videos. I wouldn’t mind doing that, but it’s not a priority nor have I listened to any jazz flute that would prompt such a suggestion. It’s worse when they seem to think I want to watch a libertarian’s video on why Detroit should go thirsty when all I’ve done is watch a few Young Turks and Secular Talk videos.
But all week youtube has been insisting that I want to watch/listen to Art Tatum videos. When the universe presents you with Art Tatum, you listen.
Welcome to my weekly descent into higher levels of musicality here on the Daily Kos Intertube. If this is your first time finding me, I publish a diary about Jazz music (and I guess its related and influential genres) every Sunday evening around 10pm EST…well, mostly.
This week I’m posting about the great and legendary pianist, Arthur "Art" Tatum, Jr. , October 13, 1909 – November 5, 1956.
Tatum is one of the most influential pianists in Jazz. He is one of the first great pianists in jazz. His technical ability is quite breath taking and I find it hard to believe anyone alive can still play stride piano as well anymore. Mostly he played Solo piano.
1933 tea for two
Apparently this arrangement of Tea for Two was first played by Tatum at a cutting session, a piano competition. Tatum was up against Fats Waller and James P. Johnson. The two were floored. The following is the same thing, but played via some sort of midi file. The video is showing the transcription of the performance so you can read along. The audio is played via the computer.
The legend of the cutting session continues that Tatum then performed an improvised arrangement of The Tiger Rag
Just for comparison, here’s the consummate showman and entertainer playing the tune that made his name…..Liberace in 1940 doing the same tune.
Liberace really does deserve more credit for his skill as a performer and pianist. The man was far too talented and successful to be the butt of so many jokes. But in sheer pianistic skill, Tatum just blows Liberace out of the water. In the aforementioned cutting session, James P. Johnson was left with nothing to play but his prearranged stride version of Chopin's Revolutionary Etude.
In 1933 Tatum recorded for Brunswick records before moving to Decca from 1934-1941
Tatum was born in Toledo Ohio. He suffered from Cataracts in both eyes and nearly 100% blind. He learned to play by copying music from the radio and from piano rolls (the things that made player pianos play).
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"
The life story of Tatum isn’t that complex or involved. There also isn’t a lot written about Tatum’s life. He spent the 30’s playing clubs and making recordings.
1934 on Victrola Beautiful love
This next one is from the same 1934 session…slightly better fidelity since it isn’t recorded off of someone’s antique Victrola
Art played throughout the Midwest—Ohio, Chicago, and in New York and in LA and even did some in Europe during this period.
This clip is a collection of stride tunes almost all from the decca period (34-41)
Warning…most pianist listening to this will need to confront the truth that they don’t play as well as they think they do, myself included.
Here is a live radio broadcast of Art from 1940 playing Begin the Beguine
Art’s repertoire is essentially The Great American songbook. I think one of the great things we should have had but didn’t is an album of Art playing all Duke Ellington tunes. How I wish there was an album “Tatum Plays Monk”….but it doesn’t exist.
In 1941 Tatum made some recordings with vocalist Big Joe Turner
Wee Baby Blues
Rock Me Mama
Remember that in WWII, the nation made collective sacrifices to support the war effort. Among those actions was limited recordings made by everyone. There are no Art Tatum recordings from 1942 or 1943 that I know of. Perhaps there are some radio broadcasts that have since been made into releases, but no studio recordings were made. But Art also was not on board with the BeBop movement, even though Charlie Parker was deeply influenced by Art Tatum.
Here is Art with the Dorsey Brothers from 1947
In 1949 and again in 1952, he recorded for Capital Records
Live in LA, 1949.Tatum Pole Boogie
In 1952, he recorded with a trio with Everett Blarksdale on Guitar and Slam Stewart on Bass
Out of nowhere
Just one those things
Melody in F, Opus 3, No. 1
Goin’ Home—recorded live in LA on his birthday, October 13 1952
Starting in 1953, Art began recording with the various record labels producer Norman Gratz was associated with. Most of these recordings are now on the Pablo and Verve labels. Art recorded a series of solo and group performances during this time.
Solo masterpieces recordings. All of the albums on youtube. Just brilliant recordings, with better fidelity than some of the earlier ones. 1953-1955
Blues in C with Benny Carter on Alto sax and Louis Belson on Drums
Halleluiah with lionel Hampton and buddy rich 1954, I THINK
Volume one of the 6 cd set of the group recordings made between 1954 and 1956
1955 recordings on verve
Mighty like a rose
In 1956, he records with the great Tenor player, Ben Webster
All the things you are
Art died in 1956 due to uremia as a result of kidney failure. He is buried in Los Angeles.
My one and only love
Recorded September 11, 1956
Art was inducted to the Down Beat Hall of Fame in 1964. He received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award in 1989.
Art’s music was just astonishing. You can hear Art in the playing of just about every Jazz pianist worth her or his salt. Bud Powell, Oscar Peterson, and Phineas Newborn Jr continue his legacy in a later generation. Harold Mabern once told me a story about Mulgrew Miller buying himself some multi album (multi CD?) collection of Tatum and then calling Harold on the phone to say “Mr Mabern! Art was the greatest ever.” Most pianist around my age or younger will say names like McCoy, Herbie, Keith and Chick and maybe Bill Evans as their greatest influences…but everyone digs Art Tatum.
Over the Rainbow
Thanks for listening everyone. Please support your local Jazz musicians and all local live music. Catch y’all next week. Rock on with your bad selves.