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Art Tatum.

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

1933 liza

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).

From Wikipedia

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


Aint misbehaving

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

Danny boy

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.

Originally posted to An Ear for Music on Sun Aug 17, 2014 at 07:01 PM PDT.

Also republished by Pink Clubhouse, DKOMA, and Community Spotlight.


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Comment Preferences

  •  there's this wonderful quote (11+ / 0-)

    i don't remember where i read it- but frank sinatra said that ray charles was the one genius in american music.

    someone told charles about this and he replied  "art tatum. THAT"S genius."

    •  Speaking of Ray Charles (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      ...In the first shot, don't you think Tatum bears a striking resemblance to Ray?  Of course there's the dark glasses connection, but the whole picture just stopped me cold.

      What the people want is very simple - they want an America as good as its promise. —Barbara Jordan

      by Bendra on Mon Aug 18, 2014 at 08:05:04 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Along with Oscar Peterson and Emil Gilels (7+ / 0-)

    Art Tatum is one of my favorite pianists to listen to. Great music. Although when the mood strikes, I like to listen to Monk, but I wouldn't classify Monk in the same kind of technical playing category.

    "In a controversy the instant we feel anger we have already ceased striving for the truth, and have begun striving for ourselves." - Buddha

    by tazz on Sun Aug 17, 2014 at 07:22:16 PM PDT

    •  Monk very different (10+ / 0-)

      Monk the pianist has a very very different technique from tatum. Both are somewhat unorthodox, but Monk is on a plane all his own. One would certainly argue that Tatum is the better pianist overall. I think you can hear some Tatum in Monk in how much would force runs of fast notes in odd a group of 7 over four in 16th note like fills. Tatum does shit like that in his own way....and Monk loved Tatum.

      I cant tell if its a West End musical or Marxism in action.

      by Evolution on Sun Aug 17, 2014 at 08:01:45 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Definitely agree much of the mathematical (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Eric Nelson, jazzmaniac, camlbacker

        transitions and Monk's modality was influenced by Art Tatum, and agree Monk was in a plane of his own, and sometime that plane flew past the twilight zone. I never like to consider greatest of anything although if I consider pure technique, I would consider Art Tatum to rival Horowitz on the keyboard, and that I would think would be the highest compliment you can bestow on any pianist.

        "In a controversy the instant we feel anger we have already ceased striving for the truth, and have begun striving for ourselves." - Buddha

        by tazz on Sun Aug 17, 2014 at 09:25:17 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  Monk, like Ellington, Morton, James P., Waller,... (0+ / 0-)

        Monk, like Ellington, Morton, James P., Waller, band leading pianists, plugged his own music. A few standards he mixed in almost as if they were essentially Monk tunes. Ellington adopted Strayhorn as his own, also definitive juke box hits, polkas, the national anthem. Monk rewrote standards as in Mississippi Bright, as did Ellington with Cottontail. Tatum was more like the popular bands, rendering a definitive Tatum version of a tune many others played, but he didn't feature his own compositions. Donald Lambert was similar. A flutist worth watching was Roland Kirk, also Frank Wess. Monk developed his distinct style, I think, when he left NY to tour with a gospel type tent show. Why there was a dancing frenzy element. Ellington also induced divine intervention, super -hook tradition that probably goes back well before ragtime.

  •  diary recced for music links (10+ / 0-)

    lee liberace invited laughter as part of his act, flirtingly outrageous. he was proficient but not in the improvisation realm.
    tatum liked to play the blues, after hours, and sing, and sometimes have a drink. Waller idolized him, the held each other in friendly regard, and sat in at each other's gigs sometimes. waller would refer to Art as God, like,
    ladies and gentlemen, God is in the house.
    Peterson, earlier on, also tried to hit big playing blues. he went thru several personas. eventually, he got comfortable in the tatum mode, but more modern jazz than Art's almost omnipresent classical attack.
    tatum had a great memory, which afforded him occasional strategy when his eyesight disadvantaged him.
    playing cards, he could find a bright vantage and memorize every card as he arranged them and then played.
    he played a gig on a piano with 6 sticking keys once.
    he memorized their positions and lifted them back up after every run and the audience never knew of the difficulty.
    les paul moved to guitar immediately after seeing tatum in a club.
    monk was more the composer than  virtuoso, but a great pathfinder, crucial to the genre.
    the clubs and pressure and late hours and travel and struggle for money, the ability to play as talent might choose without alienating the paying customers wore everybody down.
    some went nuts. overdosed. drank to death. or just faded after a period of glow.
    now, we've had a few generations of clueless and possibly tone deaf indifference to jazz, it's history, the wit, the magic, and the legends who performed and wrote it's songs and stories.
    I always thought tatum was a bit melancholy, lonely, in some sorts of pain. wish I could have done something about that.

    for the love of humanity please protect the light in all that may glow and try not to make anyone else's path more cruel than it would be on its own.

    by renzo capetti on Sun Aug 17, 2014 at 09:25:02 PM PDT

  •  Tatum's Day (8+ / 0-)

    Story I heard was that Tatum would play his gig and then go to after-hours joints to listen and play, almost always last, until dawn, night after night.  He couldn't get enough of listening to or playing music.

  •  Monster: minute 2:08 on the "Rock me Mama" & (8+ / 0-)

    ..@ minute 42:24 (exactly 42:24) on the Solo Masterpiece Album (even better clarity), it's these ascending discoveries that Art Tatum does that are magic.

     It took me hours to figure out how he did this;

    While arpeggiating the chord (right hand) upwards he then tails/repeats the second to lowest but first note played by the right hand, with his left hand, making what Tatum does so miraculous, an ascending riff that also sounds like it is descending.

    Amazing artistry of and discovery of how to trompe l’oeil accept it's the ear he masterfully tricks.

      But minute 0:58 on Cherokee (actually in a lot of the songs) is why Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum and Errol Garner can stride so well, beyond raw skills  - that is - An easy major third over an octave or even a fourth over (with the 7th or the 5th in between  when they feel like it) with the left hand, just walking it up and down while the right hand can play the 7th-3rd-5th of the chord or the other jazz chords 3rd-7th-9th formation  or any combination & or melody and riffs.

    That wonderful major 3rd octave not just the easier ones like C to E; F to A; F# to B flat; G to B

    Yes every pianist wanting to play jazz should listen to all the masters, I call them the jazz monsters :)

    Thx Evolution - very cool

  •  I once played at his hangout in Toledo (6+ / 0-)

    Rusty's Jazz Cafe.
    Nice diary, thanks.

    A rising tide sinks all boats that are anchored to the bottom.

    by Zwoof on Sun Aug 17, 2014 at 10:30:29 PM PDT

  •  Almost as fun as listening to Tatum play (6+ / 0-)

    is hearing the reactions he inspired in people.  From Wikipedia:

    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.
    I also seem to recall Jerry Garcia said when he first heard Tatum he considered giving up music entirely, since he knew he could never hope to even come close to his skill.

    Hey GOP! You'll get my Obamacare when you pry it from my cold, dead hands. And thanks to Obamacare, that just may be awhile.

    by jazzmaniac on Sun Aug 17, 2014 at 10:31:44 PM PDT

  •  Pity poor Oscar Peterson (3+ / 0-)

    Thanks for the Art Tatum retrospective.  My favorite Tatum tune is "After Your Gone". He starts it off as a mid-tempo swing.  After a couple of choruses, he then plays it fast.  After a couple more choruses, then goes into hyperdrive, his stride becomes an impossible gallop.

    Oscar Peterson is rightfully thought of as one of the best American jazz pianists.  A true jazz giant.

    Yet he had the misfortune of appearing on the jazz scene after Art Tatum: an impossible act to follow.  In the early part of his career, jazz critics commonly compared him to Art Tatum - a comparison that could never favor Peterson.

    Peterson was driven to become a monster piano player, and indeed he did become a monster piano player.  But Peterson could never achieve the goal he sought for himself: to be better than Art Tatum.

    "The fool doth think he is wise: the wise man knows himself to be a fool" - W. Shakespeare

    by Hugh Jim Bissell on Mon Aug 18, 2014 at 07:44:18 AM PDT

  •  Transcriptions of Art Tatum solos are the most (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    enjoyable of all transcriptions to play - more than Monk, Gershwin, Bill Evans, or anyone else I've played.

    Lost Tom. Lost Charlie. Can't read (Paul Newman, 'The Left Handed Gun')

    by richardvjohnson on Mon Aug 18, 2014 at 08:23:03 AM PDT

  •  Art Tatum? Yes, please, thank you very much. (6+ / 0-)

    Last year I wrote a curriculum for my elementary students on the history of African American music. When we got to Jazz Art Tatum was my surprise. I knew he would capture their imaginations because he is so different and unique and his physical presence on film is so distinct.

    I started out by playing videos of Tatum with the sound turned off, just watching his hands and his face and body language. I asked students to try and imagine what he was playing, what it sounded like. After some back and forth and tangents (these kids are young) someone observed that his hands seemed to be moving really fast. Then I turned on the audio.

    Typically for little kids their first reaction was that it sounded like noise and not like music. That it sound like "my little brother when he bangs on the piano". But the more we listened and talked about his life and his music the more they heard and by the end of the unit Tatum was the favorite.

    They were particularly taken with his blindness and eyesight, and when we got to Ray Charles they had a lot of questions that led back to Tatum. Students got pretty good at music memory and nailing his individual songs when quizzed. That was exciting because it's such a difficult and different sound than anything else.

    Probably my favorite part of the Tatum series was explaining what a player piano was and how it worked and exposing them to player recordings back to back with Tatum recordings and letting them debate the merits of whether he did or didn't learn to play by mimicking player rolls. The consensus was that he did not, that he heard player rolls and decided on his own that he would improve on the sound. I though that was an interesting conclusion.

    Thanks for the diary. Art is one of my favorites for sure.

  •  I am just discovering jazz (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    PeterHug, Nisi Prius, wildcat6

    Thanks to Goodwill. One of the records I picked up was The Carter-Tatum-Bellson Trio on Clef records. That's Benny Carter on alto sax and Louis Bellson on drums. It's easy to think of Tatum as a solo act but he was amazingly generous and responsive in this trio.

    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.
    There may only be one or two pianists alive that come close to Tatum's brilliance.

    It is not the private interests of the individual that create lasting fellowship among men, but rather the goals of humanity. ~ The I Ching, 13th Hexagram

    by Blue Intrigue on Mon Aug 18, 2014 at 09:32:37 AM PDT

  •  I love this (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    jazzizbest, PeterHug

    my first treasured Tatum record was Piano Starts Here, whicjh it does, with tea for two and tiger rag.

    Still blown away when i listen.

    "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!" — Upton Sinclair

    by Greg Dworkin on Mon Aug 18, 2014 at 10:06:34 AM PDT

  •  He and Oscar are (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    jazz piano royalty. Just incredible

  •  God is in the room (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    daveminnj, Evolution, Nisi Prius, wildcat6

    Halleluiah is beyond comprehension. ...he and Lionell Hampton messing with each other. Truly astounding.

    Oscar Peterson said of Art Tatum:   "He wasted me."

    When a young Oscar Peterson first heard Art's solo recording of Tiger Rag, his response was, 'Hmmm. Those guys are pretty good.'

    One night Tony Bennett heard Tatum play at a Cleveland nightspot: 'It was Moe's Main Street, and he was playing Danny Boy.   It was St. Patrick's Day.   The whole audience was crying.   It was the most beautiful rendition that I could strong I named my son Danny.'

    Horowitz wept while listening to Tatum.

    Rachmaninov, of Tatum: "He is the finest pianist in any genre. I understand what he is doing, but cannot do it myself."

    Sunday mornings are more beautiful without Meet the Press.

    by deben on Mon Aug 18, 2014 at 02:19:28 PM PDT

    •  I once heard a story that Tatum went to Horowitz (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      deben, wildcat6

      to get Horowitz's 'take' on a classical rendition of Tea for Two that Tatum had composed. Do you know if this is true?

      •  I read that Horowitz played it for Art (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Nisi Prius, wildcat6

        and then Art played it back. Horowitz was startled and asked for a copy of Art's score. Art reminded him that he was blind and said that, anyway, he never played it the same way twice.

        Classical piano virtuoso Rubinstein was an adoring fan too. He was in a Harlem club and asked the people with him to be quiet because, "I am listening to the greatest musician ever!" It was Art Tatum, of course.

        Sunday mornings are more beautiful without Meet the Press.

        by deben on Mon Aug 18, 2014 at 04:47:21 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  I posted my own Art Tatum diary here in 2009 (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Thanks for yours as well.

    "The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness." - John Kenneth Galbraith

    by wildcat6 on Mon Aug 18, 2014 at 08:41:29 PM PDT

    •  BTW (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      My favorite Tatum is "Please Be Kind" from the solo Pablo (verve) Masterpieces set, as well as "I'll Have to Change My Plans" form the Group Masterpieces.

      His solo version of "Little Man You've Had A Busy Day" is not to shabby either.

      "The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness." - John Kenneth Galbraith

      by wildcat6 on Mon Aug 18, 2014 at 08:43:07 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  never can have too much Tatum (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      nope, never.

      nice diary, sorry I missed it at the time

      I cant tell if its a West End musical or Marxism in action.

      by Evolution on Tue Aug 19, 2014 at 06:20:13 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Johnny Otis Basie/Tatum anecdote (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Johnny Otis told the story on his radio program that he and a group of people including Count Basie went to hear Tatum at a club in LA. (Basie, of course, is Tatum's polar opposite as a piano player -- someone who made his technical limitations into a droll understated style.)
    They were seated next to the stage, but Basie was deep in conversation, trying to make time with a young lady and apparently paying no attention to the music. This went on until Tatum uncorked a particularly dazzling run, and Basie glanced up and said, "Better watch that stuff."

    "Think of something to make the ridiculous look ridiculous." -- Molly Ivins

    by dumpster on Tue Aug 19, 2014 at 01:37:54 PM PDT

  •  Voted Cherokee.... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Very much enjoying the music tonight.


    "the Devil made me buy this dress!" Flip Wilson as Geraldine Jones

    by BlueJessamine on Tue Aug 19, 2014 at 07:26:18 PM PDT

  •  Thanks for this (and all) your music (0+ / 0-)

    diaries.  There's a famous story about Tatum which you've undoubtedly heard, but for the benefit of those who've not:

    Fats Waller was playing at an after hours Harlem club sometime in (probably) the 30s.  Tatum walked through the front door, and Waller stopped playing and announced: "Ladies and gentlemen, God just came in!"

    I have a double vinyl album of Tatum that I cherish.

    How children dance to the unlived lives of their parents. Rilke

    by ceebee7 on Wed Aug 20, 2014 at 02:15:09 AM PDT

  •  Collective sacrifice (0+ / 0-)

    The lack of recorded music in 1942 and 1943 wasn't just a case of the nation making a sacrifice for the war effort. There was a very long and bitter labor dispute between record companies and the musicians union over royalty payments. Here's a bit more:

    Wiki: Musicians strike

    The Bush Family: 0 for 4 in Wisconsin

    by Korkenzieher on Wed Aug 20, 2014 at 07:14:55 AM PDT

  •  What a great post! (0+ / 0-)

    I can't listen to all of your Tatum recommendations right now but will over the weekend. Thank you.

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